Biodiversity Offsetting - Environmental Audit Committee Contents

3  Locating offsets

20.  The Green Paper proposes that offsetting could be provided locally or further afield. Allowing offsets further away might be less expensive or more efficient environmentally. The Green Paper suggests that one advantage of offsetting is that "compensatory habitat can be provided away from the development site by specialists on less-expensive land."[44] But it also acknowledges that distant offsets could have adverse effects on local communities.[45]

21.  The Green Paper sees simplicity as a key criteria for the success of an offsetting system, which the Government believe could be undermined if it were not applied consistently across the country and if there were local variations that could result in "additional costs and delays to development".[46] The Environment Bank, similarly, saw advantages of a uniform approach applied consistently across the country, including for long-term planning.[47] The Wildlife Trusts, on the other hand, believed that:

    Offsetting must provide scope for local variation and flexibility which should be set out within local plans. Local variation is important because habitat which is valuable or distinctive in one area may not be considered valuable or distinctive elsewhere... This is an integral part of the planning officer's role when considering and applying local and national planning policy and should, as with other planning issues, be informed by local ecological expertise.[48]

RSPB also emphasised a need to reflect local habitat priorities (paragraph 14).

22.  Whether offsetting is provided locally or further afield, a potential benefit of offsetting would be its ability to provide habitats aligned with or connected to ecosystem networks.[49] The Green Paper envisages creating an "overall net gain for biodiversity through locating the right offsets in the right place to improve ecological networks".[50] Friends of the Earth told us that "if you place your offsetting in strategic locations ... you can improve ecological connectivity".[51] The Environment Bank saw a need for habitat maps to be further developed to help create that opportunity.[52] Friends of the Earth, similarly, told us that "better spatial planning would increase certainty for developers, meaning stronger local plans that identify where biodiversity needs to be protected and better connected, and where new habitat creation is required".[53]

23.  So far in this report we have discussed the pros and cons of offsetting in terms of the potential impact on wildlife and habitats. But there it is also important to consider the implications for people's well-being. Access to nature is vital. A recent RSPB study calculated that just one in five children is 'connected to nature'.[54] The National Trust told us that any offsetting system should "safeguard people's ability to enjoy wildlife".[55] Friends of the Earth emphasised that people get "real benefits from having access to nature", which cannot be replaced simply with more 'amenity space'.[56] The National Trust believed that allowing replacement habitats in the area covered by a planning authority—an option in the Green Paper—might deny ready accessibility to local people.[57]

24.  The Secretary of State told us that "in order to get people's support, it has to be reasonably local and within reasonably easy reach. If people are going to lose an environmental asset and they want to enjoy something else, I think it has to be reasonably close".[58] "Local people want to see that their local environment has been improved."[59] He assured us that offsets would not be provided in parts of the country far away from the development to which they were linked.[60]

25.  Any offsetting scheme should take account of reduced public access to the biodiversity being lost with development. Distant offsets might be contemplated, especially if they benefit ecosystem networks and if the public has little or no access to the development site. Where local people's enjoyment of habitats and wildlife would be directly affected, on the other hand, offsetting decisions should be considered at the lowest planning authority level possible. This would have the additional benefit of allowing that authority to be able to give full weight to both the loss and the gain under its jurisdiction.

44   Biodiversity Offsetting in England Green Paper, op cit, p6 Back

45   ibid, para 28 Back

46   ibid , para 29 Back

47   Environment Bank (BIO 012) para 15 Back

48   Wildlife Trusts (BIO 020) paras 5.1 and 5.2 Back

49   Defra, Making Space for Nature (September 2010), p15 Back

50   Biodiversity Offsetting in England Green Paper, op cit, p3 Back

51   Q7 Back

52   Q26 Back

53   Q4 Back

54   "Just one in five UK children connected to nature", RSPB, 16 October 2013 Back

55   National Trust (BIO 080) para 11 Back

56   Q20 Back

57   National Trust (BIO 080) para 31 Back

58   Q58 Back

59   Q66 Back

60   Q65 Back

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Prepared 12 November 2013