Defra should not treat biodiversity like pieces on a chessboard, to be moved about at will, says Rory Bergin
The government has signalled its intention to introduce ‘biodiversity offsetting’ in the planning system. In simple terms, this will allow developers of land that has some ecological value to remove the area that has value, and replace it with another area of similar or better ecological value elsewhere. Protected species legislation - Sites of Special Scientific Interest and so on - is unlikely to be affected by this. It is designed to deal with areas where there is ecological value but where the ecology is not unusually valuable or a habitat for protected species.
There are some sensible-sounding elements to the recently concluded consultation on biodiversity offsetting. The areas in question must be independently assessed, probably by using a system of accredited assessors (Suitably Qualified Ecologists?).
The new areas can be provided by a third party, the RSPB or the National Trust, for example, enabling existing areas of ecological value to be extended and improved. The new areas could be considered nationally. So a loss in London could be compensated for by an addition in Portsmouth, although there are a number of details that may limit the distance from the development site to the replacement site. In a recent speech, Owen Paterson, the secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, suggested that ‘an hour away by car’ could be a suitable distance.
The consultation also stated that hedgerows are excluded and must be replaced on site. Sustainable Urban Drainage Systems (SUDS) may be considered as a ‘local’ offset; if a SUDS system that involves habitat creation is used, then this may compensate for other habitat loss on the same site.
But there are many aspects to this new idea that set my teeth on edge. The language of the consultation document is unbelievably crass. The idea that ecology can be treated like pieces on a chessboard and moved about, almost at will, makes it sound as though this were normal practice. Also, quoting examples of best practice from Australia isn’t helpful. Looking to Australia’s current government for examples of environmental protection is a bit like asking a mugger for advice on security.
Local people living near a development parcel may not appreciate the ‘nicety’ that a part of their wellloved area is not unusual or home to valuable species. Replacing this elsewhere within an hour’s drive hardly represents a reasonable ‘replacement’ in human terms, even if the replacement is much better in environmental terms. The consultation considers the ‘environment’ as a set of numbers to be maintained and ‘grown’. While this may be realised in national terms using this offsetting process, the result for individual places where development happens is that they will be poorer, with lower levels of environmental quality, and with less consideration given to ecology than currently.
There is no discussion about the economic loss of arable land. Also, there is a bizarre suggestion that developers might consider ‘ecology banking’, where they buy or enter into agreements with ecology providers to create areas of ecological enhancement before they need them. The principle of applying a monetary value to ecology can be helpful, up to a point. This is going beyond that point. The banking system is years away from re-establishing its credibility with most people, and using this type of language is simply poor judgement by Defra that will do a lot of damage to otherwise potentially helpful proposals.
Rory Bergin is partner and head of sustainable futures at HTA Design