Biodiversity off-setting was announced in the Government’s Natural Environment White Paper - its 50-year vision for the natural environment. It is an approach that can be used to compensate for habitats and species lost to development in one area, with the creation, enhancement or restoration of habitat in another.
The idea is that any residual negative impacts on the natural environment would be compensated for, or ‘offset’ by developers. We believe that the offsets should be used near the impact, targeted locally in strategic areas that will benefit wildlife, for example to create ecological networks.
Biodiversity off-setting includes habitat compensation in situations where mitigation cannot be undertaken. I'm not sure how this can be squared with the legal protection of certain species (and habitats), particularly those covered under the Habitat Regs. Off-setting is therefore likely to include other mitigation actions such as reptile translocation.
Presumably The Wildlife Trusts believe that sites purchased by developers to compensate for the loss of habitat through development should themselves be free of future development risk? Unfortunately recent proposals by Wiltshire Wildlife Trust don't exactly inspire confidence.
In their 3 point plan, The Wildlife Trusts recommend the following:
- The starting point for any development proposal should be to avoid damage to our most important wildlife sites.
- Next, it is essential to mitigate the potential damage of a development through good design.
- Only then - and as a final measure - should off-setting be considered to compensate for damage that cannot be avoided or mitigated.
I don't disagree with any of these points, but what about ensuring the site proposed for off-setting is protected against inappropriate future development. Perhaps that needs to be added? Does the site selected for biodiversity off-setting need to meet minimum requirements before it is selected? What happens if another protected site is selected, or an unprotected site with high biodiversity interest? Is that really offsetting? When off-setting includes translocation (restocking), IUCN guidelines need to be considered.
In an article in today's Express, problems with the hasty implementation of biodiversity off-setting are highlighted.
However, the Wildlife and Countryside Link, an umbrella organisation for conservation groups – with a combined membership eight million – has written to Environment Secretary Owen Paterson outlining their “extreme concerns” that offsetting is being rushed through.
Organisations that see the prospect of biodiversity off-setting as a quick way to acquire land, need to carefully consider how the public will react to their involvement. As Wiltshire Wildlife Trust have demonstrated all too clearly, misjudging the public mood can result in very negative PR. Conservation organisations simply cannot afford to lose public trust...