Biodiversity offsetting – in the words of Edmund Blackadder: ‘the only slight problem with this plan is that it’s bollocks’. No one can argue with the aspiration to enhance ecological networks, to restore habitats and to create landscapes which are more permeable to species dispersal but this shouldn’t be conflated with compensating for biodiversity loss through development.
If we had an even moderately perfect knowledge of ecological systems and could accurately quantify biodiversity loss, recreate habitats effectively and monitor cause and effect in terms of species diversity and population numbers we might have a fighting chance of making biodiversity offsetting work. In practice we get about as near as the x-box game ‘Call of duty’ does in depicting the complex realities of war.
It seems like a simple idea but where do we draw the line? Can we mitigate for any loss? What about irreplaceable habitats such as ancient woodland? With land being a finite resource surely at some point mitigation sites themselves will need offsetting? In practice even with the best science we can muster biodiversity offsetting will be a deal between the developer and a third party facilitator with politics and personalities playing the major part.
The proposed National Planning Policy Framework already gives developers a green light through a presumption in favour of sustainable development which chooses to equate sustainable economic growth (or growth that can be maintained over time) with sustainable development. It is interesting to note that the Brundtland Report: Our Common Future states that sustainable development requires the ‘promotion of values that encourage consumption standards that are within the bounds of the ecologically possible and to which all (not just residents of the UK) can aspire’.
Biodiversity offsetting appears to me to be a means of making us feel better about behaving badly. It is an excuse to allow poorly thought out and bad developments to go ahead whilst providing us with a warm blanket of fluffy community tree planting schemes albeit with extra ‘benefits’ because we will now have colourful maps showing how they contribute to ‘ecological connectivity’.
But good development, truly sustainable development is not an impossible goal and shouldn’t we be demanding that more effort goes into achieving this than compensation measures with uncertain benefits?
Sustainable development requires an understanding of place: their geography and history or if you prefer their social, economic and environmental character. With a bit of forethought, good integrated policy making across government and local planning we should be seeing developments go ahead which serve the needs of the community; are placed in a locality and designed in such a way that they contribute to local character; utilise local skills, services and materials and support sustainable management of the land and environmental resources. Biodiversity benefits should be an integral part of good development and not a sweetener to persuade us to accept bad development.