Many words have already been written about this contentious mechanism and, I am pretty certain, there are many more still to come.
The one word that is rarely mentioned though and is on the critical path to success, or not, is trust.
This laudable quality is in particular short supply when it comes to politics, and biodiversity offsetting is all about politics. Sure, the notion of offsetting is all dressed up with deep, solemn words about the supposedly twin challenges of growing the economy and improving the natural environment, and about the need for a planning system that is fit-for-purpose. In reality it is about nuancing the checks and balances of our planning processes so that apparent delays or blocks do not compromise the relentless pursuit for housing and infrastructure. That much of this housing is in the wrong place (hence the delays and blocks) seems to be overlooked, but that debate is for another day.
Somewhere, in the mists of time, sustainable development was defined whereby economic and social development and environmental protection had equal weight. Now it seems to be about economic growth at almost any cost and with a bit of offsetting thrown in to make it more palatable when it is especially tricky.
A quick word on biodiversity offsetting. It is proposed to be a measurable way to ensure we make good the residual damage to nature caused by development which cannot be avoided or mitigated. This guarantees that there is no net loss to biodiversity from development. Advocates maintain that it should not change existing safeguards in the planning system, but is supposed to make it quicker and simpler to agree a development’s impacts to ensure losses are properly compensated for. This sounds so reasonable if it were not so naïve.
The proponents of biodiversity offsetting, cite countries as diverse as Australia, Germany, India and the United States which have done some of this successfully. Anyone who knows these countries will also know of their failures too. All four have shown a lack of leadership in climate change so why should an odd bit of biodiversity offsetting count for anything, while the elephant in the room, climate change, is still stomping on everything in sight. Does anyone even know that this year’s climate change talks (COP 19) is in Warsaw, Poland, and that it runs for two weeks beginning in a week’s time (from 11-22 November 2013). It is virtually invisible.
Anyway, back to biodiversity offsetting. Biodiversity offset policies essentially require companies to fully compensate for any ‘unavoidable’ biodiversity impacts they cause through development; for instance, clearing habitat to make way for mineral extraction. To do so, they must create additional equivalent biodiversity somewhere nearby: by planting a woodland, digging a wetland, restoring degraded native grassland, increasing the productivity of fish spawning habitat and so on.
Proponents naively contend that biodiversity offsetting remains one very credible way, if used appropriately, in which we can slow the loss of biodiversity worldwide.
What happens in practice is that (in) sincere pledges are made which cannot (or will not) be enforced and the end result is that development occurs and the biodiversity offset does not see the light of day. One cannot trust the process to work equally therefore it is a flawed mechanism. We should not be surprised, of course, all over the world environmental impact assessments are undertaken which produce environmental and social management plans (to manage the bad parts of a development) and these are gradually eroded to little more than lip service.
A classic example of biodiversity offsetting, or lack of it, is taking place right now.
Some while ago in the parish of Purton (in Wiltshire) a planning application was received by the planning authority for 200 new homes. At the time, the contiguous parishes and relevant planning authorities felt that the site in question was not the appropriate place for housing and was not supported in the most recent draft housing strategies. The relevant planning authority refused the application and, as is usually the case when significant profits are at risk, the developer went to appeal. This means that a government-approved planning inspector would sit (a bit like a judge) and hear competing evidence and then make a decision. The decision that the planning inspector made was to approve most of the site for development but expressly said that Bradley’s Meadow should be left alone as it was a site having Nature Conservation Importance.
The developer went away, built the houses, and then returned to say that the Inspector was wrong and that Bradley’s Meadow was not particularly interesting and should be built upon.
This is where trust or lack of it kicks in.
If a government-appointed inspector who is completely independent decides that a site with an existing designation of Nature Conservation Importance should be left alone and not built upon, then that should be the end of the matter.
Even when the developer returns for more we should expect our planning authority to stand up, at least, and say no. Instead, permission is given with some conditions, one of which was a biodiversity offset. The developer is not interested in this other than putting aside some money to fund the offset. The planning authority wants the developer to develop the offset. There is an impasse and so the developer now goes to appeal* to bypass the planning authority. The developer has also submitted a new application** for what appears to be the same land and the same number of houses.
These are the games that developers play.
They are not interested in biodiversity offsets per se as part of a legitimate planning process. Let us not kid ourselves, there is no trust in this process and we should not have trust in biodiversity offsetting until those involved in the process are of better calibre, subscribe to the notion of responsibility and acknowledge the trust needed.
* …see separate posting on this appeal against the first application
** …to comment on this second application 13/04912/FUL Land at Moredon Bridge, Purton Road for 50 Dwellings, access, associated works etc send your comments by 21 November to: Lee.firstname.lastname@example.org. For information on the application itself go to: http://tinyurl.com/ntmgtdx