Under the plans, developers would have to provide new wildlife sites better than any site that they were allowed to build on. This could improve the environment for wildlife as well as simplify the existing planning process, it is claimed.
The government said that it would only introduce biodiversity offsetting if it was shown to add no cost to business, simplified the planning process and achieve a net gain for biodiversity.
The green paper says that biodiversity offsetting is used in 25 other countries including the USA, Australia and Germany. It also sets out how biodiversity offsetting might work in England.
Environment secretary Owen Paterson said: “Offsetting is an exciting opportunity to look at how we can improve the environment as well as grow the economy.
“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.”
Biodiversity offsetting was one of the recommendations made in the Ecosystems Market Task Force report, ‘Realising Nature’s Value’, published in March 2013. The Task Force, a group of business executive chaired by Kingfisher boss Ian Cheshire, said that biodiversity offsetting would achieve a “net gain for nature”.
Biodiversity offsetting pilots have been running in six areas since April 2012. They are due to be completed in April 2014. The pilots have already provided information that has influenced the government’s thinking about biodiversity offsetting. They have shown that offsetting needs to achieve a critical mass to deliver an effective system. The government therefore proposes to continue the pilots so they provide further evidence that can be fed into guidance and regulations that will need to be put in place to set up an offsetting system.
The consultation runs from 5 September to 7 November 2013.
Biodiversity offsetting in Victoria, Australia
The Australian state of Victoria uses the ‘habitat hectare’ as the unit in its BushBroker biodiversity offsetting scheme. The value of a particular site in habitat hectares is calculated with a standard methodology taking account of:
- The area of the habitat
- The quality of the habitat as assessed in an easy-to-use framework (e.g. woodland quality is based on a number of factors such as canopy cover)
- The context of the habitat based on underlying public data which looks at the scarcity of the habitat, its fit within the wider ecosystem and its importance for wildlife
Before planning permission is enacted a developer must secure an offset which provides an environmental gain worth the same number of habitat hectares. A thriving market for habitat hectares has now emerged to meet the state’s offset requirements.
UK example: Thameslink
Network Rail’s £4.6bn Thameslink Programme represents a major upgrade of existing rail infrastructure along one of Europe’s busiest stretches of railway. Sites include urban depots with little surrounding vegetation cover, scrub-covered railway embankments in Greater London and woodland areas in the surrounding countryside. This meant the project looked at a number of biodiversity considerations including green corridors, linking habitats, and migration routes for protected species
In the first instance Thameslink looked to avoid and mitigate impacts by reducing the amount of vegetation that would be cleared, or relocating infrastructure installation. Where residual loss could not be avoided, Thameslink has undertaken on site enhancements along sections such as landscaping and planting schemes sympathetic to the biodiversity of the area. In addition more major projects have been put in place:
- Around 1500 trees were planted at Woodland Trusts’ Heartwood Forest to compensate biodiversity impact from all permanent vegetation clearance works along the route.
- A 700m2 brown roof has been constructed on the new ticket hall building at Farringdon Station. This has contributed 20% of the borough's annual Biodiversity Action Plan target for habitat creation, and was made a condition of the planning permission for the building. The main purpose of the roof is to provide habitat for invertebrates, which will in turn provide foraging opportunities for a number of birds including black redstarts.
In its second stage, Thameslink set a target to achieve a net gain in biodiversity. Thameslink, with support from Parsons Brinckerhoff, used Defra’s biodiversity offsetting metric to calculate the baseline number of biodiversity units, units lost from habitat clearance and units gained from onsite planting and offsite habitat creation. The metric provided a solution Thameslink could use to measure progress towards its target and information that fed into collaboration with a conservation partner on a biodiversity offset. Given restrictions on planting along the railway corridor, the offset is being designed for Thameslink to deliver long-lasting benefits for nature conservation.