Earlier this month, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) launched a consultation on ‘Biodiversity Offsetting in England’ to gather opinions about the role of biodiversity offsetting.
So what exactly is biodiversity offsetting and where might we see it going on? Offsetting aims to support ecosystems and to compensate for any damage or loss to the natural environment caused by development projects. The process involves measuring biodiversity in a controlled way so that wherever damage cannot be avoided, no net loss and preferably net gain to biodiversity occurs. This might mean that in the future, a new housing development or supermarket would take part in a biodiversity offsetting scheme. Such schemes could involve measures such as tree planting or habitat recreation.
Biodiversity offsetting might be a relatively new concept in the UK, but it has already been adopted by countries such as Australia, Germany and the United States – although there are conflicting reports about whether or not it has been successful. There are also some case studies a bit closer to home. For example, Network Rail’s £4.6b Thameslink Programme incorporated a variety of offsetting measures, including the planting of 1,500 trees to alleviate necessary vegetation clearance. We can also see offsetting in action at six locations in England which are taking part in the Government’s two-year pilot schemes –Devon, Doncaster, Essex, Greater Norwich, Nottinghamshire and Warwickshire, Coventry and Solihull. These pilots are important because they show how offsetting works in practice. The pilots aren’t yet complete so there is still very little to go on about whether biodiversity offsetting would be successful in England.
As the UK’s largest landowner with over 97,475 hectares of land designated as Sites or Areas of Special Scientific Interest and 76 nature reserves, the National Trust plays a unique and active part in protecting the natural environment. Offsetting, if implemented correctly, could help to repair the natural landscape and hopefully work towards not only guarding against a net loss of biodiversity but actively ensuring there is a net gain wherever possible. Potentially it could consider the wider impacts of development, and be ambitious in encouraging large-scale conservation activities.
However, there are big risks associated to biodiversity offsetting too, and fears have been raised that mitigation could result in planning permission being granted for developments regardless of environmental effects. This would encourage a culture where wildlife and natural environments are seen as disposable – an outcome we strongly oppose. It could also break the link between people and places that are special to them, and mean that communities have to travel further to access nature. Offsetting should be used as a last resort and never allow development to be justified in areas where habitats are impossible to replicate. There is an ongoing debate about whether a permissive approach (where developers can choose whether or not to offset) or a mandatory process would be better.
You can read the consultation here. What do you think about biodiversity offsetting and do you have any suggestions about the role it should play in future developments? We’d like to hear your views!