Government sets out offsetting scheme details

Details of a new system through which developers would be allowed to go ahead with schemes in environmentally sensitive areas if they offset any damage by paying for conservation activities elsewhere have been published for consultation.

Conservation: biodiversity offsetting proposals published for consultation (picture by David Rose)
Conservation: biodiversity offsetting proposals published for consultation (picture by David Rose)

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A green paper, published today by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), includes proposals on how biodiversity offsetting might work in England.

The document describes biodiversity offsets as "conservation activities that are designed to give biodiversity gain to compensate for residual losses".

It says that around the world more than 25 countries including Australia, Germany, India and the United States have put in place biodiversity offsetting systems.

The document says that biodiversity offsetting "ensures that there is ‘no net loss’ of biodiversity as offsets demonstrably compensate for residual losses and are secured for the long term; and provides scope to achieve an overall net gain for biodiversity through locating the right offsets in the right place to improve ecological networks".

According to the green paper, the government thinks that biodiversity offsetting is likely to work best if it is used as part of the planning system. It says that biodiversity offsetting "has the potential to help the planning system deliver more for the economy and the environment".

The document says that integrating biodiversity offsetting with the planning system might meant that, at the plan-making stage, planning authorities could use a standard metric to assess the biodiversity value of different areas of land.

Under the proposed system, the local planning authority would consider the amount of residual harm that may occur and whether there are any additional steps that should be taken.

The consultation says that, if planning permission is then granted, it would be subject to the developer securing an offset which provided the same number of biodiversity units – a proposed metric to measure biodiversity loss – as would be lost. It says that the system would need to ensure offsets are capable of being a material consideration for a planning decision.

The consultation document says that the government would look at the scope to "backdate" offsetting so that any applications under consideration would be able to make use of the mechanism at the point it is introduced.

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.

"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."

But charity Friends of the Earth (FoE) described the proposals as a "licence to trash" nature.

FoE 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."

Biodiversity offsetting in England: Green Paper is available here.

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