At the end of Natural England’s press release confirming Lodge Hill had become an SSSI on tuesday were these words.
“The decision to extend the SSSI clarifies the environmental importance of the site but does not determine whether or not development can go ahead; this is a matter for the planning system. Natural England will continue to engage with the local planning authority (Medway Council), the landowner (Ministry of Defence) and its commercial partner (Land Securities) to contribute, as appropriate, to the planning process. In particular, and in order to contribute to sustainable development, we will consider carefully any proposals for a habitat creation scheme to offset the impacts on the special wildlife of the site, should development proceed.”
I thought – but how can Biodiversity Offsetting be applied to an SSSI? Except in the most exceptional circumstances….
The Biodiversity Offsetting Green Paper has this to say on the subject (para 31):
“For Sites of Special Scientific Interest the conditions of paragraph 118 of the National Planning Policy Framework would have to be met. The Government considers this could only be the case, depending on the circumstances, if the offset provided the same type of habitat as close as possible to the Site of Special Scientific Interest that would be harmed.”
now does this mean “close as possible” in a geographical sense, or close as possible in an ecological sense?
The NPPF para 118 states:
We cannot assume that the Offsetting Proposals in the Green Paper will proceed unchanged, though they may well do.
There are some key words/phrases in these policies which would benefit from more detail:
Benefit – as in benefit of the development clearly outweighing the impact on the SSSI.
Cannot be avoided – the top of the mitigation hierarchy. What circumstances would apply where an alternative location not on an SSSI was unsuitable?
depending on the circumstances – this could mean anything goes.
Vice Chair of Natural England, David Hill, who is also chairman of the Biodiversity Offset cheerleaders The Environment Bank, asked NE grassland specialist Richard Jefferson whether it was possible to recreate an equivalent grassland to the one at Lodge Hill in “about 40 years”. Richard stated that the recreated grassland would only be a facsimile of the grassland at Lodge Hill as it would be a much simpler grassland without all the complexities of the one at Lodge Hill. Of course, it was this very complexity that flummoxed the board in their gaining an understanding of the quality of the grasslands there.
How safe is Lodge Hill SSSI now from being developed and the impact offset?
I recommend you take a look at Natural England’s response to the Green Paper. It specifically raises concerns over para 31 and the suggestion that SSSIs could be offset. I will quote at length since it is well put:
“We are concerned by the wording of section 31 of the green paper which implies that development impacts on an SSSI could be offset by providing habitat of the same type as close as possible to the site. Offsetting must not be a factor in determining development proposals that might impact on designated sites, irreplaceable habitats (including ancient woodland) or protected species… NPPF Para 118 must continue to apply. The special biodiversity value of these sites cannot be replaced in any reasonable timescale or with any assurance by any form of compensatory scheme, wherever located, and however carefully managed.”
Interesting then that David Hill asked about re-creation!
I’m not sure how much biodiversity offsetting as a policy would change any decision on developing Lodge Hill. I think its a bit of a red herring.
The NPPF and its wording (avoid / benefits / circumstances) and its interpretation will be what determines whether the development goes ahead and whether the nightingale (and other) habitat is destroyed.
From looking around there are, unfortunately, lots of examples of SSSIs being damaged or lost from development. ‘Compensation’ for this loss happens all the time – not sure how offsetting changes this. Problem is ‘our’ willingness to see these habitats destroyed.
This comment has come in from Simon Evans at the ENDS report:
“You should take a look at Natural England’s green paper response, which is perhaps surprisingly on its website.
It says (and it’s worth quoting at length):
“We are concerned by the wording of section 31 of the green paper which implies that development impacts on an SSSI could be offset by providing habitat of the same type as close as possible to the site. Offsetting must not be a factor in determining development proposals that might impact on designated sites, irreplaceable habitats (including ancient woodland) or protected species. The Government policy principle requiring local planning authorities to aim to conserve and enhance biodiversity protection, as stated in the National Planning Policy Framework at Para 118 must continue to apply. The special biodiversity values of these sites cannot be replaced in any reasonable timescale or with any assurance by any form of compensatory scheme, wherever located, and however carefully managed.”
Anyway in that context David Hill’s question on re-creating Lodge Hill grassland takes on a new level of interest!
Thanks for these comments.
Natural England seem to be taking the position that the emerging biodiversity offsetting policy could threaten the strength of protection that SSSI designation affords a site. Such a policy would provide Local Authorities with a justification for approving damaging development proposals affecting SSSIs, on the basis that it was Government policy that those impacts could be offset.
Ultimately it will be only tested by Planning Inspectors and the Courts. In the meantime, it could provide a new loophole through which unscrupulous developers and ineffective local authorities could slip developments on, or affecting, SSSIs.
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