Tuesday 7 January 2014

Owen Paterson can’t see the wood for the trees!

The idea of “biodiversity offsetting” was discussed before the last election and has now ended up as a major element of the Natural Environment White Paper.  This was a good idea in concept – if marginal damage to wildlife in one area is more than compensated for by gain (a biodiversity offset) in another then a level of acceptable development might be possible whilst at the same time delivering overall wildlife gain, everybody wins.

The dangers to this approach are obvious.  Habitats are often irreplaceable, they can’t simply be patched-up somewhere else; it could be open to abuse, so losses are not replaced by gains and there could be endless arguments over where, when and how much habitat can or can’t be constructed.  Furthermore, people in one area will not be too pleased if their environment is devastated on the basis that another community a long way away might be seeing some wildlife improvement.  There also might be in-principle concerns about the comodification of nature – the whole idea of trading nature may simply be wrong.

Nevertheless these problems are all well-known and DEFRA have been investigating ways of ensuring that a system is not miss-used.  Offsetting should not turn an unacceptable development into an acceptable one; irreplaceable habitats should not be lost in the hope that a poor copy might be built somewhere else, and this should not just become a licence to trash.

All this, however, appears to have been swept aside in Owen Paterson’s recent interview in The Times (subscription).  Ancient woodlands are some of our most cherished, irreplaceable habitats.  They are at least 400 years old; indeed many may date back to the Ice Age.  They are living ancient monuments, stores of historical information and homes to plants and animals that simply don’t turn up if you plant a copy somewhere else.  Yet Mr Paterson considers that all this can be ignored if you plant enough new trees in compensation.  Serried ranks of recently planted trees are no replacement for a place that could have hundreds of years of history.  The purpose of biodiversity offsetting is explicitly to achieve net conservation gain; Owen Paterson, however, seems to be using it simply as a method of unlocking destructive development.

I have been cautiously supportive of the idea of biodiversity offsetting for a long time.  It really could bring significant funds into nature conservation and deliver some serious wildlife gain if deployed correctly.  Mr Paterson’s approach, however, does make me wonder whether the idea is now discredited and whether George Monbiot is correct in his criticisms – is this really just a licence to trash?

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