21 May 2014
In recent months, Biodiversity offsetting has become a highly publicised and debated environmental issue, but what does it all mean, how will it affect the way we work and ultimately what will it mean for our clients?
The Business and Biodiversity Offsets Programme (BBOP) defines offsetting as: ‘measurable conservation outcomes resulting from actions designed to compensate for significant residual adverse biodiversity impacts arising from project development and persisting after appropriate prevention and mitigation measures have been implemented’.
It has particularly come to the fore after the National Planning Policy Framework was published in 2012, which set out policies designed to protect the natural environment and promote sustainable growth. Amongst its stated aims are:
As a result, in April 2012 six local authorities entered into a pilot biodiversity offset scheme. The aim was to apply and develop the process so that they could feedback their findings to DEFRA and influence the necessary guidance and regulation which would be required, should offsetting be formally adopted as government policy.
These pilots have seen the creation of a comprehensive biodiversity impact assessment calculator, which allows ecologists to input information from an extended phase 1 habitat survey and generate a numerical ‘biodiversity value’ for each development site, prior to development. A similar calculation can then be applied to the proposed layout of the site to provide a post development biodiversity value and determine if there has been a net gain or loss in biodiversity on site. With this information it is then possible to assess at an early stage in the development programme whether biodiversity offsetting should be considered.
It should be noted that offsetting should only be used as a last resortand that development should still follow the usual mitigation hierarchy, whereby avoidance and reduction are the priority. Equally the protection afforded nationally important habitats such as ancient woodland will still apply, so offsetting will not represent a carte blanche approach to habitat destruction.
However, this scheme aims to provide a more transparent and consistent approach to assessing sites. Once embedded into our planning system, this clarity could allow developers to better consider the potential impacts and costs at a site feasibility stage, which should subsequently help reduce planning delays.
Offsetting could potentially give developers more freedom to increase their net developable area and discharge any long term liability for maintenance and management of the habitats they have created through mitigation or offsetting. Although estimates regarding the potential the financial implications of doing so are still somewhat vague. WYG ecologists have been involved in workshops and seminars around the country and will be able to advise you of how offsetting would work in practice.
The pilot schemes are due to submit their final reports to DEFRA in the summer of 2014 and it has been speculated that, assuming it is successful, the scheme could be formally adopted at some point in 2015. The one thing which appears to those we have discussed this with is, like similar schemes overseas e.g. in Australia. Whilst there is still a lot of work to do to ensure that offsetting can be integrated into the planning system, if it arrives, it will be here to stay.