Government’s biodiversity offsetting proposals ‘too simplistic’

Government proposals to introduce a system of 'biodiversity offsetting' must be improved to properly protect Britain's wildlife and woodlands, according to the Environmental Audit Committee.

In September, the Government set out proposals for biodiversity offsetting in a Green Paper consultation, Biodiversity Offsetting in England.

The Green Paper envisages the development of ‘habitat banking’, where an offset provider would restore or recreate habitats in anticipation that they would be able to sell the offset units at a later date.

Although the new system could enhance the way the planning system accounts for the damage done to valuable natural habitats, there is a risk of giving developers “carte blanche to concrete over important habitats,” according to the Environmental Audit Committee report on the proposals.

Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, Joan Walley MP, said there is a danger that an overly simplistic offsetting system would not protect long-established eco-systems, such as ancient woodland and Sites of Special Scientific Interest.

The Government’s Green Paper does not provide an evidence based analysis of how offsetting would deliver “biodiversity gain”, according to the MPs.

A major concern highlighted by the Committee is the twenty minute assessment for calculating biodiversity losses at a site, proposed by Ministers, which it also labels “overly simplistic”.

According to the committee, it should include particular species, local habitat significance, ecosystem services provided – such as pollination and flood prevention – and ‘ecosystem network’ connectivity to reflect the full complexity of habitats.

For sites of special scientific interest, the weightings in the metric must fully reflect their value as national, as well as local, assets, while ancient woodlands should be even more rigorously protected.

Walley added: “The assessment process currently proposed by the Government appears to be little more than a twenty minute box-ticking exercise that is simply not adequate to assess a site’s year-round biodiversity. If a twenty minute assessment was carried out in a British wood in winter, for instance, it would be easy to overlook many of the migratory birds that may use it as habitat in summer.”

The Committee has said that a mandatory, rather than voluntary, offsetting system would encourage a market to develop, which would in turn allow more environmentally and economically viable offset projects to be brought forward.

Responding to Defra’s Green Paper consultation, the Institute of Environmental Management & Assessment (IEMA) agreed with the Committee that a well-developed offsetting scheme could make a contribution to rebuild the country’s ecological networks.

Commenting on the proposals, IEMA’s policy and practice lead Nick Blyth said “Government’s biodiversity policy approach itself needs to be bigger, better and more joined up,”

“Biodiversity offsetting has a role to play, but the mitigation hierarchy must be followed to avoid and reduce impacts as far as possible in the first instance. Lessons should be learned from earlier experience with carbon offsetting (a practice that has previously suffered some significant lack of confidence). A transparent and robust approach will be required, and with safeguards put in place to avoid the risk of developers ‘jumping’ to an offset solution,” added Blyth.

Opposed to the proposals, Friends of the Earth nature campaigner Sandra Bell said: “We mustn’t gamble with Britain’s wild spaces – nature cannot just be shifted around the country at the whim of a developer.

“The Government should pull the plug on these madcap ‘off-setting’ plans and get on with delivering its commitments to protect and boost wildlife through better planning,” Bell added.

Leigh Stringer

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie