Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Off-sets and upsets: more on Owen Paterson and biodiversity offsetting

Last week I fired off a blistering blog post about Owen Paterson’s latest thoughtful and considered intervention about the role of conservation in the planning process. I’ve been doing a little more poking around about his bizarre contribution and its equally bizarre position as the headline in the The Times. What is not particularly apparent from the headlines is that Paterson’s comments appear to come on the back of a recent DEFRA consultation green paper about the wider role of off-setting biodiversity losses in the process of development. It’s worth having a look at the consultation paper which is much more considered and thoughtful than Paterson’s comments (and indeed seemingly in direct opposition to his comments). I want to offer some comments on the off-setting notion and have a little think about the relationship between off-setting and conservation of the historic environment.

The biodiversity green paper doesn’t bode well initially when it states ““Our economy cannot afford planning processes that deal with biodiversity expensively and inefficiently or block the housing and infrastructure our economy needs to grow.” A pretty clear statement of the subordination of conservation concerns to productivity and cost – those weasel words ‘expensively’ and ‘inefficiently’ are nicely subjective and undefined.

It also provides a nice clear definition of what off-setting actually is in this context. “Biodiversity offsets are conservation activities that are designed to give biodiversity gain to compensate for residual losses. They are different from other types of ecological compensation as they need to show measurable outcomes that are sustained over time.” (Page 7)…“It ensures there is “no net loss” of biodiversity as offsets demonstrably compensate for the residual losses and are secured for the long term;

To be fair, this is all good stuff. I don’t think anyone would have any problems with the notion that any destruction of ecological resources should be made up for in an appropriate way and commensurate way. There is also a commitment to the notion of a mitigation hierarchy when it comes to dealing with development. What is a mitigation hierarchy I hear you ask? Well, again, the green paper provides a nice succinct definition

The mitigation hierarchy is a policy for ensuring activities do not have unnecessary impacts on the environment:
first instance harm should be avoided, for instance by locating development at a different site

Where this is not possible the impacts should be mitigated, for instance through the detailed design of the development

Lastly any residual impacts should be compensated for, for instance by restoring or recreating habitat elsewhere

Now this notion should be familiar to those of us involved or interested in conserving historic buildings and monuments. It is basically the approach taken in the current planning guidelines, when it comes to archaeology – that, allowing for the importance of the identified or potentially identified remains, that damage should be avoided, failing that mitigated against through design improvements and only failing that should intervention be carried out. In practice, fieldwork might be seen as a form of compensation or off-setting for the destruction of archaeology; an intact and extant site may be destroyed through development, but this is off-set through preservation by record. Indeed more generally this mitigation hierarchy is embedded into the National Planning Policy “if significant harm resulting from a development cannot be avoided (through locating on an alternative site with less harmful impacts), adequately mitigated, or, as a last resort, compensated for, then planning permission should be refused.” Of course, the key challenge is ensuring that this is a hierarchy or sequence worked through in order, rather than simply a suite of options which a developer can choose from.

Now of course, when it comes to compensation and assessing ‘net loss’ there is a need to be able to broadly compare like with like- and so the green paper outlines the notion of ‘standard biodiversity units’ (essentially calculated through a grid showing habitat distinctiveness versus habitat quality). Again, this is actually an approach quite commonly used in conservation plans and audits for the historic environment, and whilst it seems at first glance scarily reductionist, it is in fact, relatively uncontroversial.

The Green Paper encompasses lots of discussions and consultation questions about how biodiversity offsetting might work in practice. As is usual in these cases, it will all depend on which final decisions are made as to whether the process might be a relatively enlightened piece of legislation enhancing and protecting biodiversity or whether it will act as a developer’s charter for landscape destruction (although given the general tenor of Owen Paterson’s contributions I think we can guess what he’d prefer). There are of course some queries about the process of consultation, for example, we could note the fact that the consultation is taking place before the six pilot projects have been completed and their results analysed and published….

What is particularly interesting though is given Paterson’s comment is that the consultation specifically singles out ancient woodland (along with limestone landscapes) of being of particular environmental significance and sensitivity ““Any development which damages these habitats effectively leads to an irreversible loss. “ (Section 5.6) and it specifically highlights that off-setting cannot be used to overturn other statutory protection for such landscape types (e.g. National Planning Policy Paragraph 118).

So, where are some general comments and observations about this little incident…

(1) There are actual closer parallels between this notion of off-setting of biodiversity and the protection of heritage assets that has perhaps been appreciated- could this be seen as a PPG16 for the natural environment?

(2) It is clear from the comments by myself and many others in their initial reactions to Paterson’s statement that is overly simplistic to treat ancient woodland simply as a natural biodiversity resource and that by definition ancient woodlands are likely to have significant heritage assets within them. Given this, is there a scope for a better way of preserving such landscapes that brings together heritage and natural conservation issues within system?

(3) It is notable that although this consultation began in September this year, no-one I know had heard about it (I know a lot of people interested in heritage environment protection). I’m not clear if the Council for British Archaeology responded (their consultation archive is a year out of date) – but I quite understand if they didn’t as it was aimed firmly at the natural conservancy world – but it is clear there is a need for perhaps more joined up communication. I do wonder though whether people end up getting ‘consulted-out’ – if I responded to every archaeological/ heritage environment consultation that appeared I’d never have time to do anything else.

(4) The plans for biodiversity off-setting could be a great new way of protecting threatened habitats or it could be a quick and easy way for developers to buy off the conservation lobby whenever they want to chuck up some new flats. It will all depend on how the government respond to the consultation.

(5) Finally, it is clear that Paterson’s statements about applying off-setting to ancient woodlands goes significantly beyond what is being suggested in the Green Paper. Is he simply badly briefed, deliberately courting controversy or serious planning to overthrow a lot of the existing statutory protection that protects endangered or rare habitats (and if so, how long before this approach is applied to Scheduled Ancient Monuments and Listed Buildings)…..?

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