Defra consults on plan for biodiversity offsets

5th September 2013

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Developers will be able to choose to offset the impacts of their projects on biodiversity under proposals to incorporate offsetting into the planning regime in England

In a consultation launched today (5 September), the environment department has outlined its plans to create a biodiversity offsetting system in England.

Under the government’s preferred plans, developers would be able to choose to offset a project’s impacts on the local environment and wildlife, by improving the quality of a habitat elsewhere, rather than have it become a mandatory requirement.

“Offsetting is an exciting opportunity to look at how we can improve the environment as well as grow the economy,” commented environment secretary Owen Paterson.

“We want to hear from developer and wildlife groups alike on how we can simplify the existing planning process, while enhancing our natural environment. There is no reason why wildlife and development can’t flourish side-by-side.”

In a green paper accompanying the online consultation, the government confirms that it will only back a biodiversity-offsetting system that “achieves net gain for biodiversity” and improve planning requirements related to biodiversity. The aim is to create a system that is “quicker, cheaper and more certain for developers”, says Defra.

It proposes to incorporate offsetting into the existing planning regime. Under the plans, local authorities would consider the biodiversity value of land within strategic environmental assessments and then assess development applications to determine whether they adequately minimise harm to biodiversity, or whether any additional steps should be taken.

The government’s preferred option is for offsets to be voluntary - or a "fully permissive approach", but this has been criticised by Barry Gardiner, Labour’s shadow minister for the environment.

“Offsetting could improve the planning system, improve conditions for wildlife and avoid extra costs to businesses," he said. "But the government’s preferred option is for a 'fully permissive approach' that their own officials have told them will cost the most money, achieve the least growth, and is the most likely to damage Britain’s wildlife and ecosystems.”

The government is, however, also seeking stakeholder views on whether the planning system should require offsetting for applications above a certain size. “This would have an effect on the number of projects that need to undertake a biodiversity offsetting assessment and the amount of offsets required. The aim would be to ensure a sufficient market for offsets,” says the green paper.

The consultation also asks for feedback on how best to measure the biodiversity value of different habitats. It describes the matrix being used in offsetting pilot schemes, which allocates habitats with a value in “biodiversity units” in relation to the quality and “distinctiveness” of the environment, but acknowledges that it could be improved “to reflect species and improve the way it assesses habitat condition”, for example.

Biodiversity offsets will apply to protected species, and government plans to apply the principle first to great crested newts.

The consultation closes on 7 November, and Defra says it will publish its final proposals for biodiversity offsets and by the end of 2013.

The consultation was published alongside the government’s official response to the Ecosystems Market Taskforce report which advocated the use of biodiversity offsets. Within the response Defra pledges to work with the Financial Reporting Council and to publish a roadmap next spring on incorporating natural capital into business accounting and reports.

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