Biodiversity ‘offsetting’ proposals could be ‘license to trash’

The Government's proposals to introduce biodiversity offsetting in the UK have been met with apprehension by environmental groups, who feel it could be a "license to trash" for developers.

Biodiversity offsetting requires developers to provide new wildlife sites to compensate for the areas they are building on.

The proposals, according to the Government, could improve the environment for wildlife as well as simplify the existing planning process.

The move comes from analysing the 25 countries currently carrying out the initiative, including the US, Australia and Germany.

Commenting on the proposals, Environment Secretary Owen Paterson said: “Offsetting is an exciting opportunity to look at how we can improve the environment as well as grow the economy”.

Along with the proposals, Paterson published a consultation document on how biodiversity offsetting might work in England.

“We want to hear from developer and wildlife groups alike on how we can simplify the existing planning process while enhancing our natural environment. There is no reason why wildlife and development can’t flourish side by side,” he said.

However, wildlife group RSPB has warned that if it is “done wrong, biodiversity offsetting could harm threatened wildlife”.

RSPB chief executive, Mike Clarke, said: “Offsetting can be a useful tool for compensating harm to wildlife when all other options have been exhausted. But it is very difficult to get it right, and it is much safer to maintain wildlife habitats where they are.

“There is a real danger that offsetting could simply amount to a licence to trash,” he added.

Providing an example, Clarke pointed to the US, which has had an offset system in place for more than 20 years. “There’s a wealth of evidence that in the United States, supposed replacement habitats regularly fail to restore lost wildlife”.

“Offsetting is sometimes a necessity, but it must be a last resort. If Government want to get this right, they will have to listen very carefully to the conservation community and heed our warnings. They will also need to ensure that planning authorities have the expertise to assess proposals for offsetting, otherwise, it will go horribly wrong for wildlife,” he said.

Equally cautious over the Government’s plans, Friends of the Earth nature campaigner Sandra Bell said: “Nature is unique and complex – not something that can be bulldozed in one place and recreated in another at the whim of a developer.

“Instead of putting nature up for sale the Government should strengthen its protection through the planning system and set out bold plans to safeguard and restore wildlife across the UK,” she added.

Leigh Stringer

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