Long awaited and controversial plans for ‘biodiversity offsets’ are the subject of a consultation published as part of the Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (Defra) response to a March report by the independent, business-led Ecosystems Market Task Force, which backed proposals for biodiversity offsetting
The idea of biodiversity offsetting is that developers may compensate for the impact of development upon the environment by funding the creation or protection of habitats elsewhere. The idea is to facilitate development through the planning system while seeking to guarantee that biodiversity and habitats are protected.
Introducing the Consultation, Environment Secretary Owen Paterson described offsetting as: “an exciting opportunity to look at how we can improve the environment as well as grow the economy.” Friends of the Earth described the proposals as “a licence to trash the environment.
Offsetting schemes are proposed which would require developers to provide new or improved habitats for wildlife that would be better than on the site on which they were permitted to build. However, this implies a reduction of restrictions on sites on which development may take place.
The Consultation suggests a possible win/win situation of environmental improvement at the same time as the streamlining of the planning process. It would open up a market whereby landowners who create or restore wildlife habitats will receive income by selling “conservation credits” to developers who need to offset their environmental impacts.
However, in spite of this confidence in the scheme, it suggests as a preferred option a fully permissive approach to offsetting, under which developers would be able to choose to offset a project’s impacts on the local environment and wildlife, by improving the quality of a habitat elsewhere, rather than have it becoming a mandatory requirement.
Having said that, the Consultation seeks views on whether the planning system should require offsetting for applications above a certain size. It is thought that this may help kick start the market for offsets. It would have an effect on the number of projects that need to undertake assessment and the amount of offsets required
The consultation also seeks views on how best to measure the biodiversity value of different habitats. It envisages measuring value in “biodiversity units” assessing the quality and “distinctiveness” of the environment, but asks how this might be improved to reflect species and improve the way it assesses habitat conditions.
Offsetting schemes are already in place in a number of countries including the USA, Australia and Germany. In the UK, various pilots have been set up following recommendations in the government’s Natural Environment White Paper, published in June 2011.
The Consultation is open until 7 November 2013, with Defra aiming to publish its final proposals by the end of 2013.