Biodiversity offsetting guidance (2012) and Green Paper (2013) (England)
A process called ‘biodiversity offsetting’ is being discussed as a future conservation tool or at least a funding mechanism for future habitat creation schemes. It is expected that the majority, if not all, the funding for biodiversity offsetting will come from the construction industry with developers paying.
The mechanism of biodiversity offsetting is included and discussed further in the Natural Environment White Paper: ‘The Natural Choice’. The process is also mentioned in the Lawton Review, which provides recommendations to underpin the approach, while also highlighting possible risks. The overall recommendation was that, if a formal system were introduced, pilot schemes should be established to test and refine its operation. These pilot schemes were subsequently established for a two year period from April 2012 in six areas in England.
Defra subsequently published (in March 2012) two guidance documents: 1) Biodiversity Offsetting Pilots – Guidance for developers and 2) Biodiversity Offsetting Pilots – Guidance for offset providers. The guidance is for developers and providers operating in the six pilot areas only and aims to explain to the participants the benefits of the Biodiversity Offsetting Pilots, and the amount of offsetting needed and the ways to source the offset. Further technical guidance was also published by Defra in 2012 in “Biodiversity Offsetting Pilots – Technical Paper: the metric for the biodiversity offsetting pilot in England”.
The guidance for developers covers:
- The basics about offsetting – what is it?
- Offsetting and planning policy
- What are the benefits of being involved with the pilots?
- A step by step guide to calculating how many “units” of biodiversity you need to provide in compensation for your development’s residual impacts
- Finding an offset provider.
The information gathered during the 2 year pilot scheme was intended to allow Defra to understand the potential of biodiversity offsetting and to enable decisions to be made about how offsetting should be used in the future. The pilot schemes did not offer a get out clause for those needing to undertake habitat compensation for European protected species. This still needs to be undertaken in the usual, but evolving, manner.
The pilot schemes use the concept of a Biodiversity Unit, which does not in itself have a cash value. Instead the cost to the developer would be dependent on the cost of providing the equivalent Biodiversity Units at the offset site.
The Biodiversity Units which need to be provided are calculated from the distinctiveness of the habitat lost, its condition and the area of habitat affected. The number of potential Biodiversity Units which can be provided at an offset site is calculated by firstly determining the baseline number (i.e. the number of Biodiversity Units which already exist on the site), and subtracting this from the number of Biodiversity Units that the site has the potential to provide through habitat creation and restoration. The number of potential Biodiversity Units is then adjusted using ‘multipliers’ (which actually have the effect of reducing the numbers of Biodiversity Units per hectare) for delivery risk and spatial risk. A further ‘multiplier’ (reducer) is applied to take into account the time taken for the habitats to develop. The final figure is the actual number of Biodiversity Units which can be provided at the offset site.
In 2013, before the end of the pilot schemes, Defra published “Biodiversity offsetting in England Green Paper”. This was a consultation document which set out in more detail the Government’s proposals for biodiversity offsetting in England.
A summary of the responses to the consultation was published in February 2016 and a report evaluating the outcome of pilot studies was published in June 2014. It is fair to say that the responses to the consultation were mixed with, for example, just over 50% in favour and just under 50% against the introduction of biodiversity offsetting in England. The review of the pilot studies concluded that while biodiversity offsetting has protential, it would cost more for planning authorities and developers than the current system. Eight areas for improvement in the schemes were also identified. Since the publication of these documents, biodiversity offsetting has made little further headway. The government website states that it will continue to work on finding the best way to compensate for biodiversity loss but does not give any specific commitment to pursue biodiversity off-setting. However, some organisations are adopting biodiversity off-setting, independently of government policy, to help acheive a target of no net loss of biodiversity.