Newt credits

Environmental campaigners, developers and those interested in the natural world have until 7 November 2013 to respond to Government consultation on proposals for   ‘newt credits’, or ‘biodiversity offsetting’. The Government’s recent Green Paper explains what biodiversity offsetting is, but put simply, land which is rich in wildlife, can be developed, provided the developer pays compensation (or ‘newt credits’) to restore another site that potentially could have the same diversity of wildlife as the site that will be lost. DEFRA are quick to point out that this scheme does not replace the law on protected species, although it is hard to see how ripping out one area and putting money into a site somewhere else protects our natural habitats.

DEFRA says that England faces the twin challenges of growing its economy and improving its natural environment, that we cannot afford to hold up housing development, but that environmental issues have done just that. Any developer knows how frustrating it can be waiting for environmental impact assessments to be done and the extra cost involved in dealing with lengthy planning delays.

The benefits to the developer are in transparency, because the value of the loss of wildlife habitat is measured in accordance with a formula, as is the replacement of wildlife habitat elsewhere; for hedgerows the measurement is in metres lost and metres replanted. An industry of ‘offset providers’ will be required to provide developers with the replacement schemes and to manage the offset schemes. Natural England is closely involved with the new offset providers in identifying sites to benefit from the offset payments.

DEFRA is currently piloting biodiversity offsetting schemes with local planning authorities and developers in six areas of England, Devon being among them. In South Devon offsetting is used for the benefit of priority habitats and two key protected species, the Greater Horseshoe Bat and Cirl Bunting.  The pilot is illustrating that offsetting does not change the existing protection and processes for protected species and habitats – but that it can be used to benefit protected species.

Friends of the Earth have called the proposals ‘a licence to trash nature’ although the consultation does address the question of whether some sites should be seen as irreplaceable. For developers the scheme has attractions because environmental issues broadly are dealt with by compensation payments worked out by a published formula. The key issue seems to be whether the destruction of a wildlife habitat in one place is ‘put right’ by the improvement of a site elsewhere.

Clare MagillHead of Business Services01752

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