Nature can’t be shuffled around like politicians or for profit

lichen - ramalina siliquosaBiodiversity offsetting? It sounds as interesting as a ministerial reshuffle. But a reshuffle is here today, gone tomorrow. The government’s proposal to allow developers to build over wildlife spots providing they ‘recreate’ them elsewhere is more than a minor change within the incomprehensible thicket of environmental rules. Biodiversity offsetting could threaten our fragile biodiverse landscapes.

Owen Paterson told the Independent:

For the developer there are massive advantages. You’d have certainty, you’d have clarity, and you’d have speed and a massive reduction of cost. But you’d also leave the environment in a better place than you found it for the longer term.

Wildlife groups are nervous.

The Woodland Trust has drawn up its red lines that cannot be crossed in pursuit of allegedly green development, saying:

Irreplaceable habitats, like ancient woodland, can never be replicated or created elsewhere.

The RSPB warns that the scheme could be a “licence to trash” biodiversity. The Environment Bank, an independent broker between planners and developers, told the Guardian:

When you put a value on biodiversity, you are putting a financial incentive for developers not to trash it.

I think the jury is out on that.

My worry is that that the many vested commercial and charitable interests in the ecological field will eye the money and not always act in the best interests of biodiversity. Nature trusts are property holders with staff and responsibilities and they need money to run. There is an emerging breed of commercial brokers who aim to handle the offsetting negotiations and take their cut. Biodiversity offsetting is rewarding for everyone’s bottom line from the developer to the provider, but I am not convinced it is beneficial for nature’s bottom line.

You can grow a half-decent oak in a century or so, but it is another century or more before the lichens get well established. Eventually there may be 300 types of lichen on a single tree. It’s  the lichen, the mosses, the liverworts, the beasties too numerous to mention and too small to see, as well as soaring trees, lush grassland and boggy ponds that give a patch of land its distinctive biodiversity signature. And this cannot be established in weeks or years, sometimes even decades.

And therein lies a danger. Few land managers, whether nature trusts, councils or farmers will want to be tied to century long schemes. We live in an age of short-termism and no one is going to tie themselves down to manage a bit of land for 100 years. It’s going to be short-term money, front loaded spending – satisfying the requirements now, while leaving the future of biodiversity as perilous as ever.

If we ever get the housebuilding boom we need, offsetting is likely to suck biodiversity dry in many areas of our landscape and concentrate it in a few islands. It’s the zoo mentality. It’s also the attitude that biodiversity is somewhere else from where you live and work. It’s the attitude that it’s someone else’s responsibility. Not the responsibility of all of us. And it is saying that markets are the best solution.

We don’t have good precedents on markets. The laissez-faire approach banking sector led to it all but wrecking itself and the country. The energy sector is a model of how to stride towards green targets, while squeezing the poor, inflating energy company profits and still running the risk of the lights going out.

The banking and energy scandals have daily impacts on all of us. The truth is that with biodiversity, as the grasses and liverworts shrivel and the bugs die, we probably won’t notice much. But future generations will be denied the richness of biodiversity on their doorsteps, except of course in nature zoos.

Biodiversity is not something to be moved aside for the convenience of developers in the way that political reshuffles serve the convenience of the government of the day.

Image: A lichen – Ramalina siliquosa by Lairich Rig under cc2.0.

* Andy Boddington is a Lib Dem living in Shropshire, and a former editor for Lib Dem Voice

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6 Comments

  • Eddie Sammon 18th Oct '13 - 2:31pm

    Biodiversity offsetting is as ridiculous as the last ridiculous offsetting policy – carbon offsetting. It will just create a market for people who create these new biodiversity sites when the best solution is simple regulation.

    ” Biodiversity offsetting is rewarding for everyone’s bottom line from the developer to the provider, but I am not convinced it is beneficial for nature’s bottom line.”

    Well said Andy.

  • Eddie Sammon 18th Oct '13 - 3:17pm

    I don’t mean to be rude to the people who believe in these offsetting policies, but I don’t see the efficiency in destroying something somewhere in order to create it elsewhere. You can’t sell something that you have just destroyed and I think trying to make this possible is a government intervention too far.

  • Eddie Sammon 18th Oct '13 - 3:26pm

    Of course, I mean you can’t buy something you have just destroyed, which is what the government is trying to make possible. No two sites are exactly the same and we don’t know if the work is going to get done properly either.

  • “allow developers to build over wildlife spots providing they ‘recreate’ them elsewhere”

    Even the scientists haven’t achieved that!
    Please can someone in government please tell us how a developer will be able to ‘recreate’ an ancient woodland or SSSI so that someone alive now can appreciate them? and how will these sites be protected into the future? or does the government mean ‘recreate’ in the Disney theme park sense? and so bulldozed by the next planning application.

    I suspect like Andy, it’s the latter…

  • It would be very easy, if this policy were to be taken on, to create mechanisms to shorten (and make cheaper) consultation processes on development. This can also marginalise the wildlife groups and advocates, who really know something about ecological relationships. What people must realise, which I don’t think Andy’s article does proper credit to, is that it isn’t just those individual species affected by any particular application, or even his “zoo” concept, but ultimately humanity, and countless other species beyond the current mega wave of extinctions going on in the world which are at risk.

    Humans, being at the top of the food chain are particularly at risk – the major predators have always been at risk in previous extinctions. Andy is absolutely right to emphasise the short term thinking of this type of proposal. Our politics needs to move away from the total emphasis it has at present on money, economics, growth etc – to recognise there are many things we cannot monetise. If we don’t start that process very soon, I can see little future for humanity itself.

  • Linda Forbes 20th Oct '13 - 9:40am

    Perhaps biodiversity offsetting could initially be applied to the Palace of Westminster and its denizens, or even the City of London. It would allow developers to build affordable housing or a nuclear power plant over these ‘wildlife’ spots providing they ‘recreate’ them elsewhere. Could I suggest they consider transferring Parliament to one of the towns or cities written off as having little future? Or does this scenario clearly demonstrate the wrongheadedness of the general concept? Then again, maybe not…

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