Wednesday, 18 September 2013

BIODIVERSITY OFFSETTING





The Government is consulting on setting up biodiversity offsetting through the planning system. It sets out the Government’s objectives for biodiversity offsetting and options for implementation, asking a series of detailed questions. The consultation takes the form of a green paper on biodiversity offsetting.


Relevance To Farming

Biodiversity offsetting is relevant to the industry as it could be an opportunity for farmers to provide the offset and farmers undertaking projects that require development consents or planning permission could be required to offset the biodiversity impacts of that development. 

Biodiversity offsetting has the potential to provide another opportunity for land managers. To be an offset provider land managers will want to see a fair return for their activity. They are unlikely to agree commit their land in perpetuity to biodiversity offsetting.

The points of principle established in response to 2011 Defra consultation on biodiversity offsetting will form the basis of our response: 
  • The process or framework for offsetting must be as simple and as straightforward as possible. 
  • Farmers and landowners have a valuable role to play in providing land for offsetting and need to be closely involved in any discussions about the design (or piloting) of any mechanism for offsetting. 
  • The operation of offsetting should be properly tested before any formal system is introduced. 
  • Offsetting should not undermine or compete with agri-environment schemes or should not inadvertently breach double-funding regulations.
  • Central guidance on offsetting (in terms of size, spatial location, habitat quality and practical implementation) is needed. Guidance should be available and applicable to all those in the supply chain, from buyers through to providers of offsets. Guidance for local authorities will key be.

The biodiversity offsetting proposals should not complicate the planning process, add additional costs or increase timescales for reaching a decision.


Timescales

The Government’s green paper consultation closes on 7th November. Following this consultation the Government will develop it detailed proposals for using biodiversity offsetting and plans to set these out by the end of 2013.


Next Steps

The consultation contains much detail and seeks response to 38 detailed questions. Internally we will draft a response to these questions.

Below are some extracts from the full consultation, to give a flavour of the issues covered.




Government’s Position

The Government is interested in how a biodiversity offsetting scheme can help meet the need for both nature and development for its long-term prosperity. In the Government’s view the planning system should help deliver both these objectives. The best planning decisions do manage to protect and enhance biodiversity; however the system does not always work as well as it should. Some planning decisions take too long and the outcome can be too uncertain, which can hinder development. At the same time biodiversity impacts are not always adequately taken into account, or mitigated or compensated for in ways that deliver enduring environmental benefit.


Applying Biodiversity Offsetting 

The Government will only introduce an offsetting system it is satisfied it will:
  • Improve the delivery of requirements in the planning system relating to biodiversity so it is quicker, cheaper and more certain for developers.
  • Achieve net gain for biodiversity by: ensuring that the number of biodiversity units lost at a development site is equally matched by the number of biodiversity units replaced at an alternative site (ensuring “no net loss”); and seeking to locate offsets in a way that enhances ecological networks (achieving “net gain”). 
  • Avoid additional costs to businesses. This will ensure it is consistent with Government’s commitments: not to increase net burdens on housing developers over the Spending Review 2010 period; and to one-in, two-out on all regulatory burdens.


Choice On Use Of Offsetting

The Government sees offsetting as one way to meet existing requirements in the National Planning Policy Framework and other planning regimes to have regard to biodiversity. There is therefore a choice on when offsetting might be used instead of existing arrangements and a number of options on how this could work: 
  • A fully permissive approach where developers could choose whether to use the offsetting metric to assess their project’s impacts and choose the means of securing compensation (i.e. through a section 106 agreement or by obtaining an offset).
  • A partially permissive approach where developers might be required to use the offsetting metric to assess their project’s impacts and then be free to choose to the means of securing compensation (i.e. through a section 106 agreement or by obtaining an offset). 
  • A uniform approach where developments that exceed a certain threshold would be required to use the offsetting metric to assess their project’s impacts. 
  • A Community Infrastructure Levy based approach. Instead the charging authority, usually the planning authority, would purchase offsets sufficient to compensate for the aggregate impact on biodiversity of developments in their area. The offsets would be funded by the levy collected by the planning authority and so would need to be built into their charging schedule. 

This implies that the Government’s proposals will require biodiversity offsetting when seeking planning permission, not voluntary. 




Detailed Considerations

There are a number of more detailed choices on a series of issues that will have a large impact on how biodiversity offsetting works in practice. The Government seeks our views on how might approach:
  • Deciding whether harm is significant.
  • Securing offsets against provider failure.
  • What kind of habitat can be provided as an offset.
  • Using a strategic approach to achieve net gain.
  • Ensuring environmental benefits are additional.
  • Ensuring consistent application of the metric.
  • Including hedgerows in the metric.


Implementing Biodiversity Offsetting

The Government’s green paper suggests conservation covenants as one route for implementation. It is likely legislation would also be needed to integrate biodiversity offsetting with the planning system. Much of the rest of the system could be put in place through planning guidance. 

A number of other powers may need to be introduced in primary legislation at the same time as conservation covenants. This could include giving the Secretary of State powers to specify:
  • The national metric that is to be used for determining offsets.
  • Any thresholds for where that metric is to be applied.
  • How developers and planning authorities are to determine the residual impact of development on biodiversity and offset that impact.
  • How public registers of offsets are to be kept.
  • How and by whom the metric will need to be applied and how disputes concerning its use might be resolved.

— Sources: GOV.uk, NFU.



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