This time last year, May 2012, the Department for Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) proudly unveiled a pilot scheme to test the feasibility of rolling out biodiversity offsets as a way of reducing biodiversity loss in the UK. It was claimed that such offsets would enable necessary development to go ahead whilst maintaining biodiversity through forcing businesses to pay to replace any habitat that they destroy.
One year on, the UK’s Biodiversity Offset Pilot has nothing much to show for. Not one of the six counties involved has made a single offset. This is disappointing for organisations such as the Environment Bank, for whom these pilots are core business, but for much of civil society, the failure is just a reminder that biodiversity offsetting is not the right approach to conserving our remaining natural spaces.
There are a number of reasons for slow progress. Since local governments have undergone severe budget cuts, there has been a lack of public funding to spend time on developing deals. Budget cuts have had a disproportionate effect on planning departments who have faced reductions of up to 50% in some local councils. This means there is less money to ensure local consultation and environmental assessments of proposed projects.
The problem has been both on the ‘supply’ end – there is a paucity of offset developers bringing land forward for restoration – and the ‘demand’ – offsetting is expensive and as offsetting is not mandatory under the pilot scheme, businesses don’t see the importance of engaging.
Despite these self-evident problems, biodiversity offsetting has support right from the top. Championed by Caroline Spelman and now Owen Paterson, biodiversity offsetting has been steamed through as if it were an inevitable part of our future environmental laws. Many believe they shouldn’t be: there is no evidence that offsetting will work to halt biodiversity loss. Decisions need to be evidence based, made with due caution and strong civil society consultation. This is not the direction the biodiversity offsetting is going.
A typical response to biodiversity offsetting is that it is a license to trash. Offset supporters say this is not true, invoking a mitigation hierarchy to ensure that the screening process for development remains rigorous: 1. Avoid, 2. Reduce damage (Offset on-site), 3. Offset. As Kerry ten Kate, Director of an influential offsetting consultancy, puts it: “Biodiversity offsets only come into play once rigorous steps have been taken first to avoid and minimize impacts. Far better to avoid harm to vulnerable and irreplaceable biodiversity to the extent possible, than to make good on damage later.” Indeed, far better to avoid harm, but there is no information about how the mitigation hierarchy will be achieved. Who will decide at what point a development project that will damage biodiversity has ‘avoided’ and ‘minimised’ enough, and what criteria will they use to decide if it is OK to move to the compensation or offsetting stage?
Natural England have said that the mitigation hierarchy is enshrined in our planning laws. But are these not the very same planning laws that are losing us biodiversity in the first place? If they are not working now, how will they cope when vested interests put increased pressure on whichever monitoring body is put in place to ensure the mitigation hierarchy is being implemented and that offsets are ‘genuine’.
The most honest analysis of biodiversity offsetting can be found from the Ecosystems Market Task Force. In their final report, published March 2013, they state that biodiversity offsetting is a “way of streamlining planning proposals for development.” Of course, businesses are only going to sign up if there’s something in it for them; this is the subtext we need to be aware of when we hear ‘biodiversity offsetting. The Environment Bank is promising to ‘smooth the planning application process’, as one spokesperson said, and it’s exactly why the UK’s proposed Biodiversity Offset Pilot will not reduce biodiversity loss, but increase it.
Biodiversity offsets have gained the support of some local authorities and conservation organisations, as they are also being touted as a way for squeezed local authorities and conservation organisations to raise funds to undertake public conservation activities. It seems however that they are missing the big picture. Gaining money to protect some areas by allowing the increased destruction of others seems like a poor deal for the environment.
This poor deal for the environment is not just being touted in the UK. The UK’s plans are part of EU proposals to use offsetting to achieve the ‘no net loss’ of biodiversity. The European Commission is currently consulting on plans to bring in legislation to implement biodiversity offsetting at the EU level. If made compulsory, this might undermine environmental law at the national scale across the EU.
The EU and UK are right about the need to tackle biodiversity loss, which is serious and increasing. The European Environment Agency estimates that 25 per cent of marine mammals, 15 per cent of terrestrial mammals, and 12 per cent of birds are threatened with extinction at EU level. Offsets won’t stop this. Biodiversity loss will only stop when we address the things that are driving it. This will be different in every country, but some key things are the weakness of our planning systems that often cave into lobbying from developers, low civil society engagement in our planning laws and over-consumption.
But this is not a call for an end to development, on the contrary, locally-approved, democratically driven development, envisaged as part of environmentally and socially coherent spatial planning is greatly needed. Regional planning with denser more resource efficient towns would reduce consumption and help achieve the EU goal of an end to biodiversity loss. Development can and should go ahead without harming our green spaces and habitats.
It is worrying to hear plans for biodiversity offsetting being spoken about not as ‘if’ but ‘when’. It’s time to send a strong signal to our ‘listening’ UK government that another U-turn is in order.