Biodiversity offset plan a 'box-ticking exercise'

14th November 2013

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Defra proposals for a biodiversity offsetting scheme are "overly simplistic" and don't offer enough protection for important habitats, warns the environment audit committee (EAC)

After hearing evidence from the environment secretary, developers and wildlife groups, the parliamentary committee has concluded that, while a market in biodiversity offsets could compensate for damage caused to England’s ecosystems by construction projects, the government’s plans are too simplistic.

“The assessment process [to calculate biodiversity loss at a site] proposed by government appears to be little more than a 20-minute box-ticking exercise that is simply not adequate to assess a site’s year-round biodiversity,” warned Joan Walley MP, chair of the EAC.

The committee concludes that the proposed assessment is not sophisticated enough to evaluate the complexity of habitats, particularly the impact on individual species and the interconnectivity of ecosystems.

It also warns that Defra’s proposals do not offer enough protection to important habitats, such sites of special scientific interest (SSSIs) and ancient woodlands. “There is a danger that an overly simplistic offsetting system would not protect these long-established ecosystems,” commented Walley.

“Biodiversity offsetting could improve the way our planning system accounts for the damage developments do to wildlife, if it is done well. But ministers must take great care to get offsetting right or they risk giving developers carte blanche to concrete over important habitats.”

The EAC concludes that the weightings in the metric for assessing biodiversity loss should be changed to consider the national importance of SSSIs and other important sites, as well as their importance locally.

The committee also recommends that biodiversity offsetting should be mandatory, arguing that the poor uptake of Defra’s ongoing pilots suggests that a voluntary approach would not work.

The EAC’s conclusions closely echo IEMA’s response to Defra’s proposals. Research by the Institute revealed that the majority of members did not believe that developers would take up biodiversity offsetting unless it was mandatory. They also demanded further safeguards for the environment, fearing that government’s suggested scheme could actually cause more harm than good.

IEMA urged the government to ensure that the mitigation hierarchy is applied in the offsetting process to ensure that it developers do not automatically move straight to offsetting.

It also warned that biodiversity offsetting was not a straightforward process and any scheme had to demonstrate that offsets were providing habitats of equal value to that being lost.

“The government’s biodiversity policy approach itself needs to be bigger, better and more joined up,” said Nick Blyth, IEMA’s policy and practice lead. “Biodiversity offsetting has a role to play, but the mitigation hierarchy must be followed to avoid and reduce impacts as far as possible in the first instance.

“Lessons should be learned from earlier experience with carbon offsetting – a practice that has previously suffered some significant lack of confidence. A transparent and robust approach will be required, and with safeguards put in place to avoid the risk of developers ‘jumping’ to an offset solution.”

Reacting to the EAC’s report, Barry Gardiner MP, Labour’s shadow minister for the natural environment, argued that an independent broker was needed to provide the level of assurance needed by developers and the public.

“The EAC has identified a serious problem with the simplistic approach proposed by this government. Biodiversity offsetting must be transparent and take full account of the interconnectedness of habitats, species and ecosystems,” he said. “An independent broker … will be an essential element of any successful scheme.”

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