I’m so terribly sorry, I ran over your lovely dog. It was unavoidable, I was rushing to work and couldn’t slow down; you know how it is! But really, don’t worry, because here’s a lovely new one for you. Same colour and everything. Well, bye now…
Anyway, back to business: DEFRA has just launched a consultation, which will run until early November, to look into biodiversity offsetting. This would mean that any development, say a new supermarket or road, has to consider the value of the habitats and nature that would be destroyed during construction. Then, as part of gaining planning consent, the developer would be required to pay for them to be re-created elsewhere.
This approach may indeed be somewhat ‘I ran over your dog but here is a new one’, but compared to the current system, it has significant advantages. At the moment, there is no uniform way for wildlife to be protected under the planning laws. Often charities have to fight hard to protect rare species. However, they don’t have the resources to get involved when the places concerned are not unique or the species nationally scarce – and this can be devastating and frustrating for local residents.
The offset scheme could also be fabulous for farmers. Under the proposals, farmers and other landowners who create or restore wildlife habitats will receive income by selling ‘conservation credits’ to the developers who need to offset their environmental impacts. This would mean developers, rather than tax payers, funding farmers to protect and enhance our countryside.
Pilot schemes for biodiversity offsetting are already underway in our region. These are based in Greater Norwich and Essex and involve organisations such as DEFRA, Natural England and local councils working together to see how biodiversity offsetting can work in practice.
In the foreword to the consultation paper, Owen Paterson, DEFRA secretary, states that, “Offsetting is a simple concept.” It may indeed be a simple concept (dog dead; get new one) but Owen Paterson would be wrong to assume it is a simple process (new dog not house trained and won’t walk to heel). Bulldozing a woodland takes hours, growing a new one takes a lifetime.
If we don’t get the detail right on this then we risk paving up nature’s paradise and swapping it for an area of empty space, whilst making development more costly and complicated at the same time.
It can be done properly though; the RSPB’s Lakenheath Fen in Suffolk is an A* example of this. Created to replace lost habitats on the coast, the reedbeds used to be carrot fields. Now the land is jam-packed full of rare wildlife, such as bitterns, cranes and golden orioles. BUT, and it is definitely a big but, this has taken massive investment, at least a decade, as well as incredible expertise and commitment. There is nothing simple about recreating habitats.
Now is your chance to comment on the consultation. The success of this proposal is all about the detail. Let’s not run over the dog just yet…
First published in the EDP and EADT on 12th October 2013