CIEEM held a conference on biodiversity offsetting last week, and I was lucky enough to be the first speaker. I had put in an abstract for a talk which was highly sceptical of offsetting and whether it would provide any benefits for conservation. CIEEM will be putting the talk up on their website and I’m not going to repeat it here – for regular readers you will be familiar with my arguments. The talk appeared to have been well received although some came up to me afterwards and suggested I had not been tough enough in my criticism of BO. A straw poll on the day indicated about half of the audience (of about 300) were for and half were sceptical of BO.
Some of the other talks were very interesting – examples from Queensland indicated a scale of habitat loss resulting from mining activities which dwarfed anything we could imagine here, but the approach to offsetting was to improve the condition of existing habitat (in the long term but still temporarily). Habitat creation was not really an issue for them, as there were still large areas of natural habitat there. We were also treated to a presentation from ecologists working for HS2 who had decided the Defra metric wasn’t helpful to them, so they had changed it to include offsetting the loss of ancient woodland. This was roundly condemned in the question time, by none other than Jo Treweek, one of the founders of offsetting, who lambasted HS2 for taking this approach, stating this was exactly the type of thing that led people to justifiably call offsetting “a licence to trash”. HS2’s approach to offsetting ancient woodland was that it was worth twice as many credits as normal priority habitat. This does sound very similar in approach to Owen Paterson’s idea – paraphrasing Chairman Mao “let a thousand trees be planted” which I wrote about in January.
If I took away one thing from the day it was that it would be a good idea to use the existing defra metric on developments that have already taken place where some mitigation has been incorporated, before offsetting was created. One example I gave in my talk was the Weymouth Relief Road, which created considerably more good quality neutral and calcareous grassland than had been lost. I will let you know the results of that exercise – but please think about developments near you where this might also be applied. It will be a good test for the metric and might yield some surprising data.
Probably the biggest test case for biodiversity offsetting is rumbling on – Lodge Farm SSSI in Kent. As you may recall Lodge Farm is a MoD site which the Government are keen to sell off for 5000 new houses and associated infrastructure. I don’t know why they haven’t rebranded it a garden citylike they have for the Ebbsfleet developmen up the road a few miles. Lodge Farm was confirmed as an SSSI in November, for Nightingales and its unimproved grassland. I have pondered previously whether Offsetting would be applied to Lodge Hill despite it being an SSSI.
The Defence Infrastructure Organisation (a Government Agency) has resubmitted the planning application for the development. I will repeat that again for effect – the Government has, in the last four months – confirmed that Lodge Hill is of national importance for its wildlife value and used primary legislation to protect it from harm; and then almost immediately applied for planning permission to destroy it. One of the justifications for this ludicrous act is that another (untested) government policy – “biodiversity offsetting” will mitigate that harm. That answers my previous question, at any rate.
Several things occur to me:
- clearly the Biodiversity Duty is a totally useless and meaningless piece of legislation if it allows this sort of thing to go ahead.
- Biodiversity 2020 the England Biodiversity Strategy is fatally flawed if it fails to prevent one arm of government from so flagrantly over-riding another arm of Government to destroy such a valuable site.
- Planning Guidance to inform planning decisions affecting SSSIs was previously provided through circular 06/05 which updated PPS9. Both of these have been superceded by the NPPF and Defra is at this moment working on updated guidance.
- Big questions now sit over the effectiveness of SSSI legislation as a means to protect sites from development – with the impending introduction of a “duty to have regard to economic growth” for Natural England in the wings.
- Applying Biodiversity Offsetting to an SSSI will quite possibly kill the Biodiversity Offsetting goose before it has had any chance of laying any eggs of any colour, because no self-respecting organisation/developer would want to touch it with a barge pole.
The Biodiversity Programme Board in Defra sits at the heart of B2020 and is the key place where environmental folk from MoD would talk biodiversity with Defra folk. I wonder whether there have been any heated discussions about Lodge Hill with table banging, shouting and people storming out. Somehow I doubt it. Though we do know that Lodge Hill has been raised at the Cabinet this time last year. Incidentally the England Biodiversity Group is gradually dying on its feet as members find more interesting things to do with their time. We know that the veil of interest in the environment has finally dropped away from the Government altogether.
Back to Lodge Hill. The planning application has now been re-submitted with a deadline for comments of 15th April. Here is the link for submitting comments.
As some of you will recall, I provided expert advice to RSPB on the value of the grasslands at Lodge Hill – and after a very lively debate at Natural England board, the unimproved grasslands were eventually included in the SSSI. I wrote about this here and here. The grasslands at Lodge Hill are highly valuable – supporting increasingly scarce plants such as Dyer’s Greenweed and Pepper Saxifrage. Wet areas support the priority plant species True Fox Sedge which has become extinct across most of its English range. I have not come across a single example of a successful translocation of grassland supporting either Dyer’s Greenweed or Pepper Saxifrage.
Dyer’s Greenweed (c) Miles King
I would argue it’s simply not possible to translocate this species, nor should it be even considered. This type of ancient grassland should fall into the category of “irreplaceable habitat”. Defra have yet to come out with a definitive list of what they regard as irreplaceable – nor has CLG. The new Planning Practice Guidance website is silent on the matter.
Yet the Government, in the form of DIO is proposing just that. In the Environmental Statement recently published (downloadable from the Medway Council website) it is stated that ” Approximately 144ha of the SSSI will be lost to development….. and greater than 90% of the neutral grassland.” What is also clear is that the developers (the Government) are trying to claim that the only areas of unimproved grassland that they have to consider are those which were surveyed in 2012 and 2013. This is not true – there are others areas which the MoD prevented surveyors from looking at, including the best grassland supporting Pepper Saxifrage and Dyer’s Greenweed, which are in the SSSI and therefore automatically qualify as features of interest.
They go on to claim “The loss of the neutral grassland elsewhere in the ..planning.. boundary will be mitigated and compensated by a combined approach of using seeding and translocation.”
There is also a proposal to create a Nightingale Compensation Area on MoD land at Foulness in Essex, about 20km away. RSPB are obviously interested in this, from the viewpoint of Nightingale conservation. With their new “All Nature” approach I would hope that they continue to be as interested in the unimproved grassland at Lodge Hill as they are by the Nightingales.