The Government may not yet have issued a response to the consultation that they ran on a potential biodiversity offsetting scheme last year but today they have produced a response to the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) inquiry into offsetting. We gave evidence to the Inquiry and welcomed their cautious response to any offsetting scheme, so were interested to see how the Government would deal with the concerns that the Committee raised.
As part of our evidence, we reiterated our belief that irreplaceable habitats like ancient woodland can never be replicated or created elsewhere and therefore should not be considered within the scope of offsetting proposals. We also set out the key principles that we believed were essential for any scheme to be effective, including:
- All pilots should run their course before Government formulate a full response
- The mitigation hierarchy must be followed
- Any offsetting scheme should apply to all development including Highways and major infrastructure projects.
- Offsetting should be part of a nationally recognised scheme with scientifically based metrics that take account of the value of both species and habitats
- Any offsetting site should be as local to the original as possible
- Receptor sites and their management must be agreed for a minimum of 25 years but preferably in perpetuity.
The EAC interviewed a number of witnesses and received more written evidence. Their inquiry report is sceptical that the conditions as currently described would result in a successful scheme, indeed we were pleased to see that many of their conclusions raised the same concerns that we identified.
The Government has today responded to these recommendations, and whilst we are satisfied that a small number of our concerns have been addressed, inevitably this reads like a holding note until we see the full response to their Biodiversity Offsetting consultation.
Government has confirmed, in line with the EAC recommendation, that they will not make any policy decisions on biodiversity offsetting until it has considered an independent assessment of the offsetting pilots which are taking place in various areas at present. This was central to our written and oral evidence and we are pleased to see that good sense has prevailed so that Defra can take an evidence-based approach.
The EAC also recommended that offsetting would not be appropriate where loss is irreplaceable within a reasonable timeframe, such as in the case of ancient woodlands. We strongly support this, and as regular readers will be aware this is a core feature of our ‘Enough is Enough’ campaign. The Government response confirms that “offsetting would need to take place within the existing planning framework including the strict protections it contains for important natural assets such as irreplaceable habitats, Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), Natura 2000 sites and protected species”. However, this is also nuanced by the suggestion that “more bespoke assessment approaches would be required where development could affect a SSSI or Natura 2000 site only”, with no mention of ancient woodland. The green paper had a specific question about whether irreplaceable habitats should be excluded; this has not been answered. We would have liked to have seen specific mention of ancient woodland being omitted from offsetting, to rule this out much more clearly as an option, particularly given the controversy in January when the Environment Secretary suggested it was fair game.
A further good win for biodiversity is that the Government strongly accepts the EAC’s recommendation that “any biodiversity offsetting system must emphasise the continued primacy of the ‘mitigation hierarchy’, and the Government should make clear under such a system that the National Planning Policy Framework commitment to the hierarchy will not be weakened or bypassed”. However, a commitment to the mitigation hierarchy is not worth the paper it is written on if the planners do not understand the term.
The EAC also recommended, in line with our evidence, that offsetting schemes should take account of reduced public access to the biodiversity being lost with development. On this, the Government response was less useful – as they believe that the existing planning system allows for permission to be refused for a development on these grounds even if an offset was provided to compensate for unavoidable losses of biodiversity. As a result, the Government has not included these factors in the pilot metric. We are less confident that the system will provide this protection and will continue to push Government to reconsider its position on this.
So we still need to wait for the official Government response to the consultation to understand how they are going to improve the metrics to include species, connectivity and ecological functioning, whether any scheme would be voluntary or mandatory, how ‘local’ is ‘local’ and other questions that we identified in our consultation response. We expect the response in May.
Frances Winder, Conservation Policy Lead