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Britain’s next big environmental battle

Devon woodland

England's beautiful woodland is under threat. Mark A Coleman under a Creative Commons Licence

This week London Zoo hosts the first global conference on biodiversity offsetting, a bland name for a policy that could trigger Britain’s next great environmental battle.

Put simply, biodiversity offsetting creates a market for developers to concrete over precious habitats, wildlife and forests – as long as they pay to replace them elsewhere.

Among the speakers at the conference will be Environment Secretary Owen Paterson, whose government appears on the brink of pushing through offsetting, despite compelling evidence of its past failures and mounting opposition from across the political spectrum.

Three years ago, a fierce public backlash forced the government into an embarrassing U-turn over its plans to sell off thousands of hectares of England’s forests. Resistance to offsetting is reaching  similar levels, with critics saying it ignores the absurdity of trying to recreate complex ecosystems, reduces nature to pounds and pence, and gives developers a ‘licence to trash’ treasured landscapes.

So why is the government so keen to embrace such a contentious policy?

Owen Paterson claims that offsetting ‘has the potential to grow the economy and improve our environment at the same time’. What he doesn’t say is that it’s a way of getting businesses to fill the holes left by his government’s deep cuts to budgets for protecting the environment. The Environment Agency, whose responsibilities include conservation and ecology, has had its funding slashed in real terms by a quarter since 2009, while the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra)’s budget will be reduced by £37 million ($62 million) by 2015.  

In truth, restoring nature is costly and requires ongoing financial commitment. Will developers with profit margins to protect be willing to pay over the long term? Not if the fate of one of Britain’s first offsetting project is any indication. Twenty years ago, the hugely controversial M3 motorway at Twyford Down, Winchester, was built – and a chalk grassland was created as ‘compensation’ nearby. Within a few years it had been paved over to make way for a vast flood-lit car park.

Today, major developments that are just as contentious as Twyford Down are in the offing – fracking, the HS2 high-speed rail network, and the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station. The link between them and the government’s desire to bring offsetting into the English planning system is clear: for example, HS2 Ltd, the company behind the projected high-speed rail network, has drawn up detailed offsetting plans to supposedly compensate for the 43 ancient woodlands and rare and protected species that are threatened by their plans. This was recently derided by Defra’s own offsetting expert, who said they were entirely inappropriate for this development.

Offsetting is already making an indelible mark in Britain’s planning system, loosening it, speeding it up – and leaving it defenceless to protect nature.

In Smithy Woods, near Sheffield, developers are using it to get their plans approved to bulldoze a 12th-century forest to make way for a motorway petrol station – offering to plant twice as many trees on land close to the site. But, as local campaigners point out, it would take 850 years to recreate this ancient woodland. Offsetting is also being used to push through controversial planning applications for new large-scale housing projects in Kent and North Tyneside.

These cases reveal how developers are using offsetting to bypass environmental planning restrictions. Planning laws should be there to protect the commons for nature to thrive and people to enjoy. If projects are proposed, they should be considered for their appropriateness and impact, in meaningful time frames and in consultation with communities. This can only be done with a strong planning system, acting in the interests of people and nature, not corporate greed. Biodiversity offsetting will destroy any prospect of this – but it’s not too late to stop.

From Sheffield to Somerset, from Coventry to Kent, people are seeing biodiversity offsetting for what it is: a tool to build worse, build more and build faster. The government has a fight on its hands.

Green groups from around the world will discuss biodiversity offsetting at Nature is not for Sale, June 2, 5.00pm, The Hub, Regent’s Park, London. The conference at London Zoo runs from 3-4 June.

Hannah Mowat is a Campaigner at FERN, the environmental and social justice NGO.

See New Internationalist issue 391 for a comprehensive critique of carbon offsetting.

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