March 16 2014 Latest news:
Sunday, December 15, 2013
If the conservation work currently carried out on private land in the eastern counties and across the country is to continue into the future, a market-based approach such as biodiversity offsetting needs to be thoroughly explored, writes Maisie Jepson, rural adviser, CLA East.
Under this system, farmers and landowners would be paid by developers to create, or upgrade, habitat to counter the environmental impact of a development. The aims are to improve the way in which the planning system deals with biodiversity issues by making it quicker and more certain, and to improve the state of the natural environment.
This is an innovative way to pay for the protection of wildlife and habitats, and a group of 140 environmental groups that have recently called for a halt to it are missing the point.
They claim biodiversity offsetting is a licence to “destroy nature”, but they appear to misunderstand the principle of the system. They believe it will give carte blanche to developers to damage the environment in one place as long as they improve it in another – and this is incorrect.
Biodiversity offsetting will not circumvent the planning laws. Developers are obliged to go through the full planning process, demonstrating that they have taken every step to avoid environmental damage and, where that is not possible, mitigated it. Then, and only then, will developers be able to consider offsetting any environmental damage caused.
If the habitat that is proposed to be lost is of high quality or distinctiveness, the offset needed would have to be a large area. The idea then is actually capable of halting development as the cost for the offset could make the development uneconomical. The cheaper and easier sites to offset will be those of low habitat quality and would encourage use of brown-field sites. Some habitats should be considered irreplaceable, such as ancient woodland, and should therefore be incapable of being offset.
The bottom line is that we need to find new ways to pay for the wildlife and habitats we all want, and biodiversity offsetting may be the way to do it. It’s a complicated topic, but we simply cannot expect current levels of public funding for the natural environment to continue indefinitely.
Biodiversity Offsetting represents one example of Payments for Ecosystem Services. Ecosystem Services is a term used to represent the diverse benefits that we derive from the natural environment. This includes things like food, flood protection, climate regulation, recreation, tourism and education. It is now widely recognised that we need to come up with alternative and sometimes novel methods of raising funds to protect them.
There is much still to resolve, but in principle the CLA supports Government’s desire to make biodiversity offsetting a reality. However if it is to work, the system must be part of the mitigation hierarchy otherwise the market will not achieve sufficient confidence from potential offset providers.
This could be a way of funding schemes similar to our current Higher Level Stewardship schemes, but it should not be used as an excuse for the Government to cut funding for environmental protection. It is clear that the Common Agricultural Policy is an unsustainable solution in the decades to come as the EU expands.
Biodiversity offsetting already exists in various forms in a number of other countries, including Australia, New Zealand, Germany and parts of the US. The circumstances in each country are different, and none of them provide a model we can directly copy, but we must learn from their experiences and adapt them to the English countryside. England has been trialling the idea with six areas piloting the concept; Essex is one of the pilots, which started in spring 2012.
The Suffolk, Essex and Norfolk branch committees, as well as others from the eastern region, have each been debating the best ways to make the scheme workable on the ground, and their thoughts and comments are going to be folded into the association’s thinking on the subject going forward.