Defra is currently analysing the consultation responses received on the Defra green paper entitled Biodiversity Offsetting in England. The paper was published in September 2013 and the consultation period ended on 7 November 2013. It is understood that there is general support across all the main political parties to implement a biodiversity offsetting system in some form. Biodiversity offsetting is already being ‘used’ in different ways in development projects, not least within the Defra Trial areas. As such professional ecologists and other professional disciplines, in particular planners and developers, need to be up to speed with the principles, the application of the system as it currently is being implemented, and how it might evolve.
BSG Ecology submitted a consultation response in November 2013 due to our ongoing interest in the proposed system, (see Viewpoint_Biodiversity_Offsetting pdf at the end of this article) and because we are currently working with several clients in offsetting trial areas who are facing the real challenges of applying the offsetting metric in practice. Based on our recent experience and the questions posed by Defra, our assessment of the emerging key issues for biodiversity offsetting can be summarised as follows:
- There is a need for consistency in the application of the metrics calculator principles between local authority areas. It is reasonable for developers, who may be operating throughout England, to expect this, and from our experience there is undoubted inconsistency.
- Local variation may be built into the detail of the metrics system by local authorities to allow for locally distinctive habitats to be valued more highly. However, where there is a need for variations in values, they should be presented publicly and transparently, with sound scientific reasoning and an appropriate evidence base.
- Ecological expertise is required to objectively interpret the application of the criteria within the metric (including distinctiveness and condition on a case by case basis) to ensure that it is fairly and reasonably applied.
- Expectations of the time required to process offsetting applications are that it will be quicker to agree ecological compensation requirements by using a standard approach. However, the time required to progress a planning application through to determination can be influenced by factors other than ecology such as the negotiation of local politics, affordable housing requirements or the s106 obligation requirements as a result of biodiversity offsetting. In our experience, estimated costs for biodiversity offsetting schemes can be high and the resulting negotiations protracted, further adding to the time required to process a planning application. The current lack of a market of offset providers means that there is no established cost-base for calculating the financial cost of biodiversity offsetting projects. Higher costs resulting from the provision of biodiversity offsetting financial payments could have knock-on effects on the availability of remaining s106 funds for other infrastructure considerations such as education.
- There is an as yet unresolved tension between the inclusion of low value habitats such as all arable land (regardless of biodiversity value) in offsetting calculations and the valuation of these habitats in EIA terms. On the one hand such habitats are often assessed of having value only in the local context, and on the other there could be a requirement to offset the loss of the habitat. Is there really a clear need to provide off setting for such inherently low-value habitats? If offsetting for such habitats is going to be required, then there is going to be a need to work out how this is reflected in EIA valuation and assessment.
- The like for like replacement (or more) for all hedgerows, as currently proposed, will generate many kilometres of hedgerow. In our view, it may be appropriate in some cases to consider offsetting with another habitat type rather than hedgerow so long as it adds to or improves habitat connectivity.
- There is going to be a need for clear strategic thinking at local level for offsetting priorities if this system is going to help deliver the ambitious vision of the Lawton Review – Making Space for Nature.
We need to be ready for biodiversity offsetting and work to future-proof development applications where offsetting may be required, by considering the potential for offsetting at the feasibility, design and masterplanning stages.
If developers take a lead and drive the issue forward, rather than wait to see how planning authorities respond, this could provide an opportunity to reduce application time and costs. It could also give rise to some real opportunities for the implementation of the Lawton Review recommendations of ‘bigger, better, more joined up’ habitats (see 201009space_for_nature pdf at the end of this article).
We will be preparing a follow-up article and posting it on our News and Views pages about what biodiversity offsetting might mean to individuals and organisations who can provide land for offsetting.
If you would like to talk to BSG Ecology about biodiversity offsetting and what it may mean for you, or you would like a senior member of our team to come and talk to you and your colleagues about biodiversity offsetting, please contact Kirsty Kirkham or Dr Peter Shepherd.
Photograph shows an example of regenerating ancient woodland (oak-birch).