Biodiversity offsetting, in simple terms, is a market tool which enables the off-site creation, restoration or enhancement of habitats as compensation for habitat and species loss resulting from a development.
The principle stipulates that “if significant harm resulting from a development cannot be avoided (through locating on an alternative site with less harmful impacts), adequately mitigated or at last resort, compensated for, then planning permission should be refused”.
Detractors were concerned that biodiversity offsetting would be a “licence to trash”. Ecosystems are extremely complex mechanisms and it may be simplistic to think localised areas can be destroyed and adequately compensated for by providing an offset elsewhere. Add to that the fact that compensation habitats could be located hundreds of miles from the development site, or that free-trading systems could be allowed meaning that any type of habitat could be provided as an offset as long as it generates sufficient biodiversity units, and there may be genuine concerns.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the lack of comprehensive data on off-setting projects is one of the biggest challenges. Planning authorities rarely check that offsets really do take place as promised, and this potentially becomes more complex if off-setting is provided outside the approving authority boundary.
It is also worth considering the long-term social and broader environmental value that is to be gained from the sensitive development of a site. The integration of biodiversity and green space into a development helps to reduce the urban heat island effect, reducing our reliance on energy-intensive air-conditioning and with careful planning can also contribute to flood storage and improvements in water quality. The benefits of green space and wildlife on public health is well-documented, it is a key factor in reducing stress and depression which increases national productivity and reduces strains on our health care system. Finally, it is vital that our children understand the services that ecosystems provide, from medicine to food, from nutrient preservation to flood prevention. The best way to ensure that the new generation understand and appreciate the value of ecosystems and biodiversity is to enable and encourage the exploration of nature on the doorstep, regardless of where they live.
In essence, if biodiversity offsets are genuinely used as a last resort measure to ensure that unavoidable damage to habitats are adequately assessed and compensated through a transparent and consistent methodology which incorporates lessons learnt, it seems rather a good thing. On the other hand, if biodiversity offsets are used as a quick fix purely to speed up the planning process and allow over-stretched planning teams to take a more lenient approach to the application of the mitigation hierarchy then it is a serious area for concern.
In evidence to the House of Commons Environment Audit Committee on 23 October 2013 Environment Secretary Owen Paterson said: "I think that, in order to get people’s support, it has to be reasonably local and within reasonably easy reach. If people are going to lose an environmental asset and they want to enjoy something else, I think it has to be reasonably close … I think if we make it too distant, we will not get the support on the ground."
In November 2013, a report by the Association of Local Government Ecologists (ALGE) warned of a skills gap in the ability of local authority planners to administer the system, pointing out that 90% had no ecological qualifications and only a third of planning authorities had an in-house ecologist.
A House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee report was published on 6 November 2013, and on 28 March 2014, DEFRA confirmed that it accepted the Committee’s recommendation to finalise biodiversity offsetting proposals only after pilot exercises have been completed and evaluated (ref parliament.uk).
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- Campaigning for biodiversity.
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