Talking point: A licence to trash the landscape?
New seasons come and go, and so do environmental catchphrases – the latest, entering the nature-lover's lexicon this autumn, is "biodiversity offsetting" – and already one wildlife charity that has a powerful influence in the West Country is warning that it could be a "licence to trash".
However, local government officers in Devon working on one of the UK's six pilot projects say it is merely a way of standardising a practice that has been carried out for years. The Government bills it as "the potential to grow the economy and improve our environment at the same time."
Biodiversity offsetting applies to the principle that, in some cases, allows developers to recreate natural habitat at some other location when a project could threaten a local environment. This week Defra launched a consultation asking for thoughts and observations on biodiversity offsetting, which it wants to implement more widely. The RSPB, however, is warning that biodiversity offsetting could do more harm than good: "Offsetting can be a useful tool for compensating harm to wildlife when all other options have been exhausted," said Mike Clarke, chief executive of the charity. "But it is very difficult to get it right, and it is much safer to maintain wildlife habitats where they are. We welcome a debate on how we can create housing and jobs while protecting the environment, but there is a real danger that offsetting could simply amount to a licence to trash."
Launching the consultation, Environment Secretary Owen Paterson said that 25 countries, including the USA, Australia and Germany, had successfully put biodiversity offsetting into action.
"I want us to be able to enjoy the benefits that it can bring too," he said. "It will unlock opportunities for business, removing the shackles of unnecessary bureaucracy at the same time as we improve our environment. This will have a positive result for the economy and wildlife alike."
Mr Paterson gave an example of how it might work: "Maybe a business wants to create more jobs by expanding their premises on a site that also contains an area of meadow. If there is no way of avoiding damage to the meadow the developers would offer to 'offset' it by creating a better alternative site for wildlife elsewhere.
"That could be planting reed beds or creating wetlands, for instance," he said. "It is important to stress that this is not a process that will make it easier to build on green spaces. What it does is make complying with existing rules in the planning system simpler, quicker and more certain. Safeguards will remain for certain types of habitat, such as precious ancient woodland that can't be quickly created elsewhere. However, it can achieve a real benefit for nature, as offset sites will often be either bigger or better quality than those they replace."
A two-year pilot set up to discover how the new strategy would work at ground level began in April 2012 when three parts of Devon were chosen, making the county one of six UK areas taking part.
Peter Chamberlain, the county council's environment manager, said that projects in North Devon, the South Hams and the Exeter area were still being put into place, adding that the RSPB's reference to "getting things right" was exactly the reason the programmes were taking so long to develop.
"It is slow going – the overall approach to the strategy has been developed and broadly agreed – but we're not yet at the stage where they're being applied," he said. "However, it is really important to say this is not a way of buying a right to develop – it's about setting up a process where any loss or harm that can't be dealt with in planning a development can be compensated for."
Mr Chamberlain said the new phrase was really just a way of adding a string to a planning department's bow: "Guidance in the Government's Green Paper clearly sets out three things that apply to any development. The first is that you should try and avoid harm in the first place. The second is mitigation – so, for example, if you were building a new school on a woodland site with wildlife interest – rather than putting the block in the middle, you place it on the edge and perhaps turn the woodland into an educational wildlife area."
Only in the third and final resort would planners look at biodiversity offsetting in the sense that a degree of environmental compensation could be applied at another location, said Mr Chamberlain.
"The principle is not a new one," he added.
The RSPB remains unconvinced – Tony Whitehead, the charity's spokesman in the South West, said: "We are very worried about this – you wouldn't for example, say, 'we want to build a big housing estate on Salisbury Plain so we're going to move Stonehenge'. You can't 'move' ancient woodlands – they take 600 years to evolve."