*Update!* The EAC report is out now.
Last week we gave evidence about potential plans for a biodiversity offsetting scheme in England to the House of Commons’ Environmental Audit Committee.
Government policy development is an interesting beast. The consultation paper that we are asking for your views on is a Green Paper; green papers are discussion documents where the Government has identified a potential policy but feels that there are a number of questions outstanding which need more detail. Sometimes this will develop into a White Paper for further consultation, or, if there was a good level of consensus on the views expressed in the consultation responses, the process could progress straight to legislative proposals.
Consultations are open to all to comment, but the House of Commons sets up Select Committees to address specific areas and these can call for an inquiry, request written evidence from interested parties, and hold formal evidence sessions. In the case of offsetting, the Environmental Audit Committee felt that they should investigate further:
‘the extent to which the policies and programmes of government departments and non-departmental public bodies contribute to environmental protection and sustainable development, and to audit their performance against sustainable development and environmental protection targets.’
The Trust was a witness and gave evidence in the first session of the day, which addressed some of the strategic-level issues of a scheme: why was it needed, was it possible to value or trade habitats, what were the limits on habitats or species etc. The second session looked at existing experience of offsetting within the voluntary pilots – which we are not involved with – the practical problems encountered, and the potential demand for a scheme. The final session was a cross examination of the Secretary of State, Owen Paterson, about how he foresaw the scheme operating.
The debate was informed and interesting, and I used some of the comments that our supporters have sent in to our campaign (Thank You!) to illustrate my answers. The overall issues raised by all as ongoing concerns were about:
- the location of an offset and how to define ‘local’;
- what should or should not be included in an offset terms of habitats and species; and
- whether the existing proposals for calculating loss and compensation adequately reflected the complexity of the natural world.
The Secretary of State was very upbeat, he felt that there was sufficient evidence of success around the world that a scheme could be implemented in England and expected to be looking for legislative opportunities to bring forward formal proposals in late spring next year. Other witnesses – including us – expressed considerably more caution! We definitely think more time needs to be spent on getting the details right – and this is where you can play a key part.
I will be discussing another key issue about any scheme in my next blog; management and compensation packages in an offsetting scheme – and watch out for another guest post this weekend!
Frances Winder, Conservation Policy Adviser