Natural Capital Committee: Biodiversity net-gain must not rely on offsetting

The UK Government's independent advisor on natural capital has criticised proposals put forward by the Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) that would require developers to pay for biodiversity offsets in other regions if their projects result in habitat loss.

Natural Capital Committee: Biodiversity net-gain must not rely on offsetting

Some developers have already voluntarily adopted a net-gain approach to biodiversity

In its recent consultation on whether property developers should be required to deliver a “biodiversity net-gain” when building new housing or commercial projects, Defra proposed that developers “unable to mitigate biodiversity loss on site or to purchase the required biodiversity units locally” should be required to pay a cash tariff, in order to fund habitat conservation and restoration elsewhere. 

The Department said that such tariff levels would “need to reflect the costs of creating and managing compensation habitat in a suitable location, strongly incentivise the protection of existing habitats and encourage suitable local compensatory habitat creation when necessary.”

The consultation also considered whether small and brownfield sites should be exempt from these rules.

According to the Government’s Natural Capital Committee (NCC) – a team of eight scientific experts tasked with providing independent advice to Ministers – such a tariff-based system should not be used to underpin the offsetting aspect of net-gain, as it would give large developers the ability to deliver projects which damage wildlife without investing in systems and technologies which enable building to have a lower environmental footprint.

In its advice to Government on biodiversity net-gain this week, the NCC wrote that Defra’s proposed tariff system “has the real potential” to be “bureaucratic, costly and distortionary”.

The Committee wrote that consideration should, instead, be given “to the design of simple principles which obviate the need for a centrally controlled tariff system.”

While the NCC wrote in its advice that it does believe that “those whose activities give rise to environmental damage” should be required, by law, to pay for the associated costs of net-gain, it claims that a tariff -based system enabling the purchase of biodiversity offsets in other regions would not cover the costs of both remediations for the damage done and, building on this, further gain.

The NCC additionally criticised Defra’s proposals to only mandate biodiversity net-gain for developments in England which fall under the Town and Country Planning Act 1990. It is calling for the Department to extend the requirement geographically to Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, and in scope to cover marine developments and major infrastructure projects.

Based on the NCC’s advice – and that given by other stakeholders across the natural capital and built environment sectors during its net-gain consultation – Defra may choose to make amendments to its upcoming 25-year Environment Plan, which is due to be published later this year. The draft bill was launched in December 2018.

Industry leadership 

The publication of the NCC’s advice comes at a time when several key players across the UK’s built environment sector are publically lobbying for the upcoming Environment Bill to place a focus on biodiversity net gain by setting out ambitious restoration policies which cover wildlife, water, soil and air quality.

Convened by the UK Green Building Council (UKGBC) and Greener UK, 23 organisations recently signed a letter to Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond, calling on future legislation to boost economic growth through restorative planning that benefits the environment. Hammond notably announced a review examining the economic benefits of biodiversity on a global, national and local level in his Spring Statement for 2019. The review will be used to determine the most cost-effective and environmentally sustainable interventions which could be taken to protect nature

Moreover, some developers already follow a biodiversity net-gain approach voluntarily. Among them are Berkeley Group, Balfour Beatty and Warwickshire County Council. 

Sarah George

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