How important is nature?

Should developers be permitted to make a financial contribution in lieu of protecting biodiversity on site?
 
Buckinghamshire Council are running yet another planning consultation currently and this one relates to treatment of biodiversity on development sites in order to deliver a “biodiversity net gain” – but will it work? They are consulting on a “supplementary planning document” (SPD) which planning applications will be required to comply with in the future.
 
The risks posed by the consultation document are summarised below, but you can read the full document here:

https://aylesburyvaledc.oc2.uk/document/22
 
You can reply to the consultation by emailing planningpolicyteam.bc@buckinghamshire.gov.uk or complete the on-line consultation survey. The deadline is 19th March.
 
In a nutshell, the SPD sets out a “Mitigation Hierarchy” for developers to follow, each stage being a step down in biodiversity protection from the one above it:

  1. Avoid damaging biodiversity
  2. Minimise damage to biodiversity
  3. Restore damage to biodiversity
  4. Offset damage to biodiversity (provide compensation) 

The Mitigation Hierarchy would appear to represent a sound framework to protect the environment on development sites, especially stages 1 and 2 in the Hierarchy. The theory being that the use of biodiversity offsetting is only to be used as a last resort once activities to avoid and minimise environmental impacts and on-site actions are taken to restore biodiversity – but see the risks below.
 
Biodiversity Offsetting is the process by which biodiversity losses on a development site are compensated for by creating biodiversity elsewhere. However, the issue lies with the fact that the possibility of “Offsetting” (Stage 4 in the Hierarchy) exists at all.
 
The risks posed by “Offsetting” are as follows:

  • It is unclear what rules exist to indicate when to move from one stage of the Hierarchy to the next. Who will decide whether environmental impacts can or cannot be avoided, or what actions are sufficient to minimize environmental impact before getting down to the “last resort” of offsetting? Therefore, the process will be seen as a quick tick box exercise for developers to get down to the offsetting element and lead to lip service being paid to the more important stages 1 and 2 of the Mitigation Hierarchy. 
  • Viability being used to avoid compliance.
  • There will exist the potential to lower the bar to approve developments that would otherwise be refused because of a negative impact on local biodiversity.
  • It becomes acceptable practice to look at how to deal with adverse impacts from development as a financial package rather than preventing projects that cause environmental damage.
  • It becomes the norm to accept biodiversity loss on development sites.
  • More often than not offsetting will mean that the activities to replace environments will be located on new sites some distance away from the development site -  which will risk even more of the development site being built upon, rather than imposing environmental protection on site.
  • The methodology puts a “£” value on the price of nature, rather than valuing its intrinsic value in its natural location.
  • Nature cannot be treated like a commodity - not all biodiversity elements and benefits are truly quantifiable, and trying to put a price on nature is a subjective process.
  • Despite attempting to provide a methodology to value the environmental ecosystem, other important factors such as location, social and health aspects to green space and habitat connectivity cannot be fully equated in financial terms. These elements cannot be replicated in a space elsewhere to deliver a net gain and unfortunately, in most cases, this approach will perpetuate biodiversity loss.
  • The offsetting process will deliver certain biodiversity loss on the development site in exchange for an uncertain level of biodiversity on the new site.
  • There will be a natural time lag before biodiversity on a new site can become established and before understanding how successful the new site will become.
  • Nature just gets moved around to support development. There is no guarantee that new sites would flourish and no penalty if they fail.
  • Direct conservation should be prioritised, offsetting may not be a gain.
  • Does the Council have the right capacity and capability, land availability, finance and staffing to ensure that offset sites can be acquired and managed effectively in perpetuity?
  • What ecology expertise is available to the Unitary Council to ensure that Stages 1 and 2 do occur on site and that stages 3 and 4 are only permissible to apply in extreme circumstances? Should it be the case that if Stages 1 and 2 cannot be accommodated, then development is not permitted?
  • Planning applications that deliver a negative biodiversity impact should simply be refused.
  • Bucks Council has an opportunity to act as a role model on how to manage this, by setting out a clear statement on how this will operate and we call on them to do so. 

In summary, the Mitigation Hierarchy approach has a fundamental flaw in allowing “offsetting” to occur at all, with the risks we have highlighted above. Please respond to the consultation by 19th March by e-mail to planningpolicyteam.bc@buckinghamshire.gov.uk or by using the on-line consultation survey.