Offsetting: a risk to our ancient woodlands

10th January 2014

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  • Biodiversity


Simone Medonos

Following Owen Paterson's comments that ancient woodlands could be subject to biodiversity offsetting, Robert Tregay, chair of LDA Design, argues that such sites cannot and should not be offset

The Times started off the new year with an interesting and challenging piece (4 January 2014) discussing biodiversity offsetting following an interview with environment secretary Owen Paterson. The article covers the issue of offsetting ancient woodland to pave way for new developments, and Paterson’s claim that tree planting – at a ratio of 100 new trees to one ancient tree – is a good example of biodiversity offsetting.

As a consultancy that assists many house builders to secure planning consent for new developments, my firm deals with infrastructure provision, biodiversity offsetting, and threats to ancient woodland every day, both nationally and internationally. These are issues at the heart of sustainable development.

Often, the economic need for development and the UK government’s robust conservation policies clash and give rise to genuinely difficult decisions. This can be the case with major infrastructure projects, such as roads and railways. It is, however, deeply unnecessary that ancient woodlands, or other top conservation sites, should be seen by the government as a constraint to our country’s need for new housing developments.

First and foremost, there are ample development sites on less environmentally sensitive land. Ancient woodland cannot be offset, as the value of the land lies primarily in its history. These woodlands store genetic material and are ecologically complex systems which, most crucially, include soil and soil organisms, as well as more visible species. Nor can their value be adequately measured simply by counting the number of trees they contain.

Compulsory biodiversity offsetting, as trailed in the government’s green paper last September, may be a good idea, but it should not be applied to our most valuable and irreplaceable habitats, which include ancient woodlands. Offsetting could, however, be applied to lower value and more easily replaced habitats where a case can be made for sustainable development to meet housing need. As an example, this could apply to some wetland, scrub and grassland habitats, but it is dangerous to generalise as there are many sites where these habitats are high value and difficult, risky or impossible to replace.

The government must apply biodiversity offsetting with great care. It must ensure that neither policy weaknesses nor an over-simplified scoring systems for measuring value and impacts result in a weakening of overall biodiversity. This isn’t necessary for housing delivery and would further damage the government's environmental credentials. There is a risk that biodiversity offsetting will be seen as a “licence to trash”, and the concept will become, unnecessarily, a lose-lose for the government, especially if it fails to recognise the importance of our most valuable habitats.

This country is able to deliver the required housing provision on land with lower environmental value and without the loss of a single tree or clod of soil in our vitally important ancient woodlands.

Professor Robert Tregay is the chairman of consultancy LDA Design and has more than 34 years’ professional experience.

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