No-one can doubt that the UK is in the grip of a chronic housing shortage. But can the desperate need for new housing be met without loss to the environment? Remarkably, the government says it can.
Their silver bullet solution is biodiversity offsetting: a market mechanism that will allow developments to flourish while protecting the environment. In simple terms, if you destroy ancient woodlands, wildlife and vital habitats in one place, you have to pay to create it in another. Or, as environment Secretary Owen Paterson said recently in the clearest signal yet of the government’s determination to push ahead with this policy: “For every tree that falls a hundred should bloom elsewhere”.
Who could object?
The answer is activists and NGOs the length and breadth of Britain who see biodiversity offsetting as a license to trash national parks, ancient woods, village greens and the last bit of green space in your city. The government has made plain that it sees the policy as offering a “simpler, faster way through the planning system.” But by loosening planning laws, biodiversity offsetting becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. As development projects increase, so biodiversity decreases – and becomes more important.
If biodiversity offsetting is going to legitimise biodiversity destruction, you would at least hope that offsetting does what it says on the tin, and that developers actually replace what they ruined. So what’s the track record?
Though new to Europe, offsetting nature has been done for decades in Australia, the US and Canada. And their experience is predominantly one of failure. In Canada, for instance, in projects that offset fish habitat loss, researchers found that 63% of projects failed to achieve the stated target of no net loss. In another study looking at a broad range of restoration projects around the world, the research shows that less than a third of restoration offsets succeeded. This doesn’t mean that restoring brown field sites is a bad idea – on the contrary – but it should not be at the expense of destroying existing biodiversity.
Biodiversity is unique, mysterious, wild and dynamic. We actually know very little about most biodiversity. It’s estimated that anywhere between 10 million and 100 million species still await discovery. Biodiversity in a particular site differs from season to season, so capturing an accurate picture of the state of biodiversity can take years, far more than the 20 minutes the government’s Green Paper suggests an assessment will take.
Sometimes biodiversity can return, but it can take tens, hundreds or thousands of years to replace. Paterson himself admitted that ancient woodland took centuries to form. So what would he and the government have the birds, bugs and plants do in the meantime?
And what about local communities? Where should locals go for a walk once their local woodland has been destroyed? According to Paterson, driving for an hour is considered a “local offset.” That’s an exceptional day out for most.
Biodiversity offsetting smacks of middle class environmentalism and could drive an even bigger wedge between our precious, protected landscapes and our undervalued, quietly nurturing, everyday natural spaces. Our parks and local fields may not have exceptional and rare biodiversity but they are fundamental to our wellbeing. It’s easy to forget that for every offset site there is an area of green space being destroyed.
Forest NGO Fern visited an offset site in the south of France that was restoring rare habitat for two iconic bird species. To all intents and purposes, it was a rare example of successful restoration. The bird species had settled, admittedly an impressive sight to a bird spotter such as myself, but the restored site felt sterile and soulless, with no sense of place. It was as wild as a zoo, like a biodiversity amusement park, unconnected to the rest of the world.
Given the growing climate and biodiversity crisis, we should be working around nature, not the other way round. This doesn’t mean no development. Only a fool would deny that there is a housing crisis, but alleviating it doesn’t have to involve bulldozing ancient woods.
In 2011, the government was forced into a u-turn on its plan to privatise England’s forests. With concerted opposition, it can also be forced to reverse its similarly disastrous plans to enable the destruction of some of our most precious nature.
MPs advise caution over biodiversity offsetting
14 November 2013 (Planning Portal)
Government plans to introduce a system of ‘biodiversity offsetting’ for new building developments could enhance the way the planning system accounts for the damage done to valuable natural habitats, a committee of MPs have concluded.
But a report published by the Commons Environmental Audit Committee advises caution on implementing the practice until a series of pilot schemes has been assessed further and greater safeguards are proposed for ancient woodlands and Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs).
Committee chair Joan Walley MP said: “Biodiversity offsetting could improve the way our planning system accounts for the damage developments do to wildlife, if it is done well.
“Many witnesses to our inquiry were concerned that the Government’s proposal would allow offsetting to be applied to ancient woodland and Sites of Special Scientific Interest. There is a danger that an overly simplistic offsetting system would not protect these long-established eco-systems.”
The MPs’ report argued that a mandatory, rather than voluntary, offsetting system would encourage a market to develop “which would in turn allow more environmentally and economically viable offset projects to be brought forward”.
Defra, Natural England and local councils are trialling six offsetting pilots begun in 2012. The National Planning Policy Framework, published in 2012, outlined a mitigation hierarchy, stating that if “significant harm to biodiversity resulting from a development proposal cannot be avoided, adequately mitigated, or, as a last resort, compensated for, then planning permission should be refused”.
by Roger Milne
Biodiversity Offsetting proposal too simplistic – Green Watchdog warns
Government plans to introduce a system of ‘biodiversity offsetting’ for new building developments could enhance the way the planning system accounts for the damage done to valuable natural habitats, but the proposals must be improved to properly protect Britain’s wildlife and woodlands.
- Report; Biodiversity Offsetting (HTML)
- Report: Biodiversity Offsetting (PDF)
- Inquiry: Biodiversity Offsetting
- Environmental Audit Committee
Joan Walley MP, Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee:
“Biodiversity offsetting could improve the way our planning system accounts for the damage developments do to wildlife, if it is done well. But Ministers must take great care to get offsetting right or they risk giving developers carte blanche to concrete over important habitats.”
“Many witnesses to the inquiry were concerned that the Government’s proposal would allow offsetting to be applied to ancient woodland and Sites of Special Scientific Interest. There is a danger that an overly simplistic offsetting system would not protect these long-established eco-systems.”
The Government’s Green Paper does not provide an evidence based analysis of how offsetting would deliver “biodiversity gain”, according to the MPs. The twenty minute assessment for calculating biodiversity losses at a site, that has been proposed by Ministers, is also overly simplistic. It should include particular species, local habitat significance, ecosystem services provided – such as pollination and flood prevention – and ‘ecosystem network’ connectivity to reflect the full complexity of habitats, according to the Environmental Audit Committee. For sites of special scientific interest, the weightings in the metric must fully reflect their value as national, as well as local, assets. Ancient woodlands should be even more rigorously protected.
Joan Walley MP added:
“The assessment process currently proposed by the Government appears to be little more than a twenty minute box-ticking exercise that is simply not adequate to assess a site’s year-round biodiversity. If a twenty minute assessment was carried out in a British wood in winter, for instance, it would be easy to overlook many of the migratory birds that may use it as habitat in summer.”
A mandatory, rather than voluntary, offsetting system would encourage a market to develop, which would in turn allow more environmentally and economically viable offset projects to be brought forward. The report concludes that poor uptake in the pilots suggests that a mandatory system is needed, but that the case for that has not yet been made and more analysis of the pilots is needed. The report also warns of a danger that an offsetting market could produce many offsets of a similar, lowest-cost, type rather than a mixed range of habitats. It recommends that the Government task Natural England with monitoring any offsetting scheme introduced to ensure a balance of habitat types are covered in the offsets, so that overall they are broadly similar to the habitats that are lost.
The report points out that as well the potential impact on wildlife and habitats, it is also important to consider the implications of biodiversity offsetting for people’s access to nature and well-being. Offsets have to be near enough to the development site that local people can still enjoy the types of habitat and wildlife being affected, the MPs argue. Any offsetting scheme should take account of reduced public access to the biodiversity being lost with development.
A decision on the Government’s offsetting proposals should not be made at this time, the MPs conclude. Offsetting pilots were set up in 2011 and these should be allowed to run their course and then be subjected to the independent evaluation previously promised by ministers. If that evaluation concludes that there are benefits in introducing an offsetting scheme, the Government should then bring forward revised proposals that reflect the concerns that we have raised in the report.
Joan Walley MP added:
“The Government’s offsetting pilots have not had a good take up. That suggests that these sorts of schemes need to be mandatory, but the Government should exercise some caution about this because the pilots need to be rigorously and independently assessed first to make sure all the lessons are properly taken on board. The Government will need to be sure that the poor take-up wasn’t a result of weaknesses in the offsetting scheme design.”
Government set out proposals for biodiversity offsetting in a Green Paper consultation, Biodiversity Offsetting in England, published in September 2013. The Green Paper envisages the development of ‘habitat banking’, where an offset provider would restore or recreate habitats in anticipation that they would be able to sell the offset units at a later date.
Biodiversity Offsetting in England also sets out a prospective means of calculating biodiversity gains and losses for such a system. The Government’s proposed metric would quantify the value of habitats — both those lost in the development and those gained through an offset — on the basis of three criteria:
- Distinctiveness – assessed as low, medium or high – “reflecting the rarity of the habitat concerned and the degree to which it supports species rarely found in other habitats
- Quality – rated as poor, moderate or good – based in the pilots on Natural England’s Higher Level Stewardship ‘farm environment plan’ manual
- Area, in hectares.
Defra, Natural England and local councils are also running six offsetting pilots begun in 2012.
The National Planning Policy Framework published in 2012 outlined a mitigation hierarchy, stating that if “significant harm to biodiversity resulting from a development proposal cannot be avoided, adequately mitigated, or, as a last resort, compensated for, then planning permission should be refused”.
The Lawton report warned in 2010 that “biodiversity offsetting must not become a ‘licence to destroy’ or damage existing habitat of recognised value. Offsets must only be used to compensate for genuinely unavoidable damage”.
Governnment’s page on Biodiversity Offsetting says:
Biodiversity offsets are conservation activities that are designed to give biodiversity benefits to compensate for losses – ensuring that when a development damages nature (and this damage cannot be avoided) new, bigger or better nature sites will be created. They are different from other types of ecological compensation as they need to show measurable outcomes that are sustained over time.
In September 2013 we published a consultation paper which sets out proposals for biodiversity offsetting and how it might be introduced in England.
1. Biodiversity offsets are conservation activities designed to deliver biodiversity
benefits in compensation for losses, in a measurable way. Biodiversity offsets are
distinguished from other forms of ecological compensation by the requirement for
measurable outcomes: the losses resulting from the impact of the development and the
gains achieved through an offset are measured in the same way.
2. As announced in the Natural Environment White Paper
, biodiversity offsetting is
being piloted in England for 2 years, from April 2012. Developers in pilot areas required to
provide compensation for biodiversity loss under planning policy can choose to do so
3. If developers choose to use offsetting, they will either need to provide the offset
themselves, or use an offset provider
Environmental Audit Committee warn that biodiversity offsetting plans are too simplistic and a “box-ticking exercise”
Monbiot on the threats of “biodiversity offsetting” as an excuse for ruining biodiversity habitats
Date added: December 8, 2012
George Monbiot writes about the dangerous new concept the government has seeded in the minds of developers and planners. The idea is called biodiversity offsetting, which involves trading places: allowing people to destroy wildlife and habitats if, in return, they pay someone to create new habitats elsewhere. In April, the UK government launched 6 pilot projects to test the idea, which would run for 2 years. Initially the government said these offsets should be used only to compensate for ‘genuinely unavoidable damage’ and they ‘must not become a licence to destroy. However once the principle is established and the market is functioning, that is likely to change. Now biodiversity offsetting is being mooted as the means by which destruction of sites of great biodiversity value can be justified. The building of an airport in the Thames estuary would be the sort of project that this offsetting might allow, if it is permitted to continue. Monbiot cites a current case in north Kent where habitat for nightingales would become housing. Finding suitable habitat, which the wildlife finds suitable, is not easy and the success of such projects is very dubious.