I have been thinking a bit more about last week’s Biodiversity Offsetting debate at the All Party Parliamentary Group on Biodiversity, which I blogged about here. Something was niggling away at the back of my mind and I couldn’t quite work out what it was until the weekend.
As I mentioned, the proposals as they stand apply only to built development within the planning system. This would be the regulatory framework to make offsetting mandatory, at least for larger projects. But the offset suppliers would not necessarily sit within the same framework. The Minerals Products Association suggested that they would be ideal people to supply offsetting because they take land, remove the minerals, then put it back to some after-use which can include benefitting biodiversity. Their activities sit squarely in the planning system. That all sounds ideal, except that they are doing that already – Nature after Minerals, an excellent partnership project, is doing this. Section 106 agreement are the long standing, though still flawed, mechanism to require developer to “make good” the environmental and social impacts of their developments. Section 106 has probably been used to best effect in restoring mineral sites. What would a switch to a biodiversity offsetting approach achieve beyond what is already happening? It’s difficult to see it as anything other than a move to wriggle out of statutory restoration requirements and into a market-based approach.
Where else could offsets be supplied? how about Nature Reserves! Well, the organisations that own nature reserves (mostly conservation charities and statutory agencies) should be looking after them in an exemplary way anyway, since that is what they were set up to do. Again it’s difficult to see how offsetting would add much to what is already being done there.
Ok we’re running of choices here – I know, farmland. That would be ideal. It’s mostly lost all its biodiversity already, so offsetting is bound to achieve an improvement on what’s currently there. Farmers could either use offsets to create entirely new habitat (within the maximum 32 years time span available in the Defra offsetting proposals) or use it to restore habitat that has been degraded.
Creating entirely new habitat is always very attractive. OK, so a farmer gets paid loads of money through the offsetting market, to create a new, say, meadow, for example. Meadows of BAP quality can be created within 10 or 20 years. Of course they won’t be anything like ancient meadows, but that’s another story. Great – mission accomplished. Except that if an offsetting agreement lasts only 20 years (and its funding only lasts 20 years), what happens then?
I can see 3 options for the future of that meadow.
1. the farmer, out the goodness of their heart, continues to manage the meadow sympathetically because they just love having it on their farm.
2. the farmer successfully finds more offsetting credits to continue to pay for its management, if the rules allow.
3. the farmer ploughs up the meadow and returns it to intensive agriculture.
1. is possible but unlikely. 2. may not be allowed within the rules. 3. in theory, if the meadow has reached BAP quality, would be prevented by the EIA (agriculture) Regs. Of course there’s nothing to stop the farmer temporarily abandoning the meadow until it loses its BAP quality, at which point the EIA Regs no longer prevent them from ploughing it. That might take 2 or 3 years.
So the problem I see with this approach is that there is a fundamental mismatch between the Regulatory Framework within which sits the Offset buyers ie the developers, and that which applies to the Offset providers, the farmers.