Defra confirmed in July 2014 correspondence with BSG Ecology that, ‘there are no plans at this stage to announce a way forward on biodiversity offsetting’. We enquired about the status of offsetting further to the Green Paper that was out for consultation in 2013, and the subsequent completion of the six biodiversity offsetting pilot projects in April 2014. Defra also confirmed in their letter that ‘They [the offsetting pilot projects] will require several months of analysis before they can fully inform our thinking. The final report of the results of the pilot offset projects is not currently available; however we are committed to publishing it.’
Although the pilot has now ended, some local authorities in England are continuing to use the metric-based system of offsetting in their approach to planning consultation responses. We are currently working with two local authorities that lie outside the six pilot areas who are also using the metric calculator when considering implications for biodiversity as part of a planning application submission.
We understand, from our work with developers, that on the strength of the Green Paper and the pilot projects, several local authorities are considering incorporation of an offsetting system into their local planning policies when updating their Local Plans. This would be an interesting development: at present the offsetting system as proposed by Defra appears to have no policy standing, and adoption through the local plan process would seem to lack the benefit of a Defra direction that takes into account the outcome of the Green Paper responses (or the lessons learned from the pilot projects). This leaves the door open to inconsistency of approach across different planning authorities, as well as potentially prompting serious debate over the principle of some aspects of the system, such as the inclusion of low value habitats (for instance, arable fields).
In our work on projects involving offsetting in the pilot areas during the pilot period, we encountered inconsistency in application of several elements of the method. We also found offsetting to be a strong cause for disagreement between applicant and planning authority, leading to protracted debates and negotiation. The continued use of offsetting at this time, in the absence of a direction from Defra, does not auger an improvement in this situation. Local systems could potentially be established that do not have the consistency and expediency that were identified as two of the key reasons for an offsetting system.
Very careful consideration will be required in those local authority areas where offsetting is being proposed as a means of compensating for significant residual losses that cannot be met on site. Discussions with local planning authorities are likely to be very involved, and this is potentially exacerbated so long as there is no clear policy foundation – either locally or nationally – upon which the use of offsetting is being requested.
A summary of the interim report, covering the first year of the two year pilots is available on line on the Defra website.
If you would like advice in respect of biodiversity offsetting generally, or the continued use of the metric based system for a particular development please contact Kirsty Kirkham or Dr Peter Shepherd.