Until 7 November 2013, developers and constructors have an opportunity to comment on government proposals to trade environmental damage for conservation work elsewhere in England, to help economic growth. Jon Herbert reports.

The concept is much the same – but also very different – to carbon offsetting. This autumn, the Government is consulting on its evolving plans to allow developers who cause environmental damage to pay compensation that will be used to enhance the natural world at other locations in England.

The aim, says the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), is to encourage the economy to grow by making construction and planning easier, but to improve the environment at the same time. The country is very short of housing stock.

As Defra explains, “Our economy cannot afford expensive and inefficient planning processes that unnecessarily delay or block the housing and infrastructure our economy needs in order to grow.”

“Our environment cannot afford development that continues to eat away at nature. So we must maintain and improve our ecosystems, air, water and soils, as they underpin sustainable economic growth in the long term.”

The scheme has been both welcomed and vilified. The major difference between carbon and biodiversity is that carbon is a tradable commodity ― commodities by definition have no qualitative differentiation across a market and are totally fungible.

Biodiversity, by definition, is exactly the opposite. There are fears that it is not possible to replace a damaged ancient woodland or centuries-old hedgerow by simply planting new growth hundreds of miles away.

Yet the policy’s supporters say it is an opportunity to aggregate component parts of many smaller bits of damage to pay for significant wildlife schemes of real sustainable value.

The balance seems to be between fears that developers will slap cash on the table as a “licence to trash” versus the belief that great good can be done, for which there is currently no mechanism.

Fast-track diversity

Several factors are coming together. Part of the Government’s policy is to fast-track the development of key infrastructure projects that it feels were unduly delayed in the old planning regime.

The changes include the concept of big schemes being designated Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIP), where responsibility for the planning process falls to the newly formed Planning Inspectorate. The Localism Act 2011 also ensures a greater say on infrastructure development by local communities.

At the same time, there is growing public awareness of sustainability issues that include aspects of wildlife continuity in an increasingly stressed natural world.

There are precedents. The USA has had a wetland banking scheme in operation since the 1970s. Australia’s bio-bank programme set up in New South Wales a decade ago allows landowners to create credits that they can then sell to developers who expect to damage a site.

In the UK, pilot plots in Devon, Doncaster, Essex, Greater Norwich, Nottinghamshire, Warwickshire and Solihull were selected in 2012 for two-year voluntary trials to create offsets through the planning system with the hope of early progress.

However, finding the right detailed solution may be more difficult than the Government first thought. The complexity of issues arising from an initial examination by the Ecosystems Markets Task Force in April 2013 has delayed the programme and made the current consultation more convoluted.

The concern is that the death of fauna and flora cannot be traded on an open market.

Supply and demand

The Government’s task force recommended that biodiversity offsets would “revolutionise conservation in England by delivering restoration, creation and long-term management in excess of 300,000 hectares of habitat over 20 years”.

Environment Secretary Owen Paterson concurs, “There is no reason why wildlife and development cannot flourish side by side,” he says, adding, “Offsetting is an exciting opportunity to look at how we can improve the environment as well as growing the economy.”

His appeal to businesses and other stakeholders leading up to the consultations that will end on 7 November 2013 is that, “We want to hear from developers and wildlife groups alike on how we can simplify the existing planning process while enhancing our natural environment.”

Battle lines

Friends of the Earth has derided the proposal as a licence to “trash nature”, complaining that nature cannot be bulldozed in one place and recreated on a developer’s whim.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds feels offsetting should be a last resort, arguing that planning authorities will need the expertise to assess proposals correctly, otherwise things could go “horribly wrong for wildlife”.

However, the case has been put particularly strongly by The Woodland Trust. It points out that, in theory, the new policy could ask for biodiversity lost in Kent to be made good by compensating activities in Derbyshire. This ignores the local value of habitats.

The Trust’s Chief Executive, Sue Holden, has said, “It is critical that any habitats created to compensate for loss are placed within the local area that suffered the original impact. Unfortunately, this still appears open to debate.”

The Trust’s Head of Conservation, Austin Brady, takes things further, saying that the idea that ancient woodlands could be included in any compensation scheme was a “non-starter”. He is concerned that this could become a statutory part of the planning process.

The Campaign to Protect Rural England wonders how a developer could “replicate a metre of ancient hedgerow with three times the length of new planting, and say that is sufficient mitigation”. Many habitats, it points out, are irreplaceable and integral to the character of the landscape.

Supporters

Defra’s case is that, when development damage is unavoidable, “new, bigger or better nature sites will be created”. Measurable outcomes will need to show that compensation schemes are sustainable over time, it says. Defra also offers advice to developers wanting to create offset programmes themselves, or use third parties.

Following the task force’s report in spring 2013, the Environment Secretary of State held an offsetting summit to hear the views of developers, conservation bodies, planning professionals and economists. This confirmed the level of interest in the concept. It also concluded that success or failure will depend on the detail of the scheme adopted.

Views expressed at that summit, pilot evidence and experience overseas now form the basis of this autumn’s consultations.

Defra is also working with a range of organisations interested in diversity offsetting to improve understanding and developing an evidence base. The data gathered will be evaluated independently. These organisations include Atkins, Aggregates Industries, Balfour Beatty, Eco Bos and Code 7 Consulting, Golder Associates, Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council and the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, the Somerset Diversity Partnership and Worcestershire County Council.

More information is available from www.gov.uk/biodiversity-offsetting.

Pesticide ban accepted

Meanwhile, the Government says it accepts the EU ban on the use of some neonicotinoid pesticides linked to bee deaths, but it rejects the science behind the moratorium.

Nicotine is lethal to humans and toxic to insects. Neonicotinoid pesticides are nicotine-like chemicals that act on the nervous systems of insects, but pose a lower threat to mammals and the environment than older insecticides do.

These pesticides work in a novel “systemic” way. They are water soluble and, as such, they can be applied to the soil and are then taken up by the whole plant, which becomes a “poison factory”, releasing toxins from its roots, leaves, stems and pollen.

The Government says it is not convinced by laboratory results showing harmful effects to bees, citing an “increasing number of field-realistic studies have failed to find an effect of neonicotinoids on bees”. It has rejected the idea of a ban on neonicotinoid sales for garden and park use.

The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee says it is disappointed with the Government’s approach. The National Farmers Union, however, says the Government’s view is "balanced and sensible".

Last reviewed 14 October 2013