'Licence to trash nature': Campaigners warn of new scheme that would allow house-building in biodiverse areas

Government's controversial programme known as 'biodiversity offsetting' could result in natural habitats for many species being developed

A A A

The Government has been accused of trying to introduce a policy feared by some to be a back-door "licence to trash nature" for housing developers.

According to campaign groups, a controversial programme known as "biodiversity offsetting" could result in natural habitats for many species – including chalk meadows, marshes and ancient forests – being developed for housing without adequate replacement. Under the proposals, developers are supposed to contribute funding towards offsetting damage done to wildlife, then used to re-create a similar habitat elsewhere.

But groups including the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and Friends of the Earth have warned the scheme could backfire. The charity Friends of the Lake District even suggests it could create a "perverse incentive" to develop biodiverse areas because the combined cost of the land and offsetting could be cheaper than prime farmland elsewhere.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is holding a public consultation exercise about introducing a national system, with responses due in by Thursday. However, in August, the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) quietly published draft planning guidance that invited developers and councils to consider biodiversity offsetting, while noting Defra was still "looking closely at the costs and benefits".

But 17 conservation groups, including the RSPB, WWF and Campaign to Protect Rural England, have said in a joint statement that they are "concerned that a poorly implemented offsets system could have a negative effect on biodiversity", adding that similar schemes abroad had resulted in "net biodiversity loss". Among the areas that could be developed are sites of special scientific interest (SSSI) – those that house Britain's "very best" wildlife.

Friends of the Earth's planning adviser, Naomi Luhde-Thompson, said that a decision this year from Eric Pickles, the Communities and Local Government Secretary, to allow a quarry to be created in the 400-year-old Oaken Wood in Kent – home to rare lady orchids, nightingales and other important species – was a sign that the Government appeared to think there should be few limits on development. She added it was "quite mad" that even SSSI could be subject to offsetting which the Friends say is "not agreed policy".

Supporters of the proposals claim they could see hundreds of millions of pounds spent on environmental projects every year and even help to protect wildlife. But according to the campaign groups, there is currently little monitoring to ensure new habitats adequately replace those lost and continue to exist in the long term.

Tom Tew, chief executive of the Environment Bank, a private company set up to broker offsetting deals, admitted if it was "done very badly, in a completely unregulated way, there is a potential for it to go wrong". He said: "What we don't want is a sort of unregulated Wild West where a bunch of cowboys ride into town and say 'we can do it quicker and cheaper'. We understand people's concerns and we welcome oversight and regulation."

Mr Tew said the Environment Bank would monitor its own schemes, but expected the Government to set up a regulatory framework. He said offsetting was a "fantastic opportunity to get large sums of money put into habitat creation exercises", potentially as much as £500m a year nationwide.

"I'm an environmentalist," he said. "I want this system in place because it's going to conserve the environment, not the opposite."

A DCLG spokesman stressed development on SSSIs was allowed only in "exceptional circumstances", with "strong planning protections" in place. He added: "Biodiversity offsetting cannot be used to get around these existing legal protections."

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Environmental Adviser - Maternity Cover

£37040 - £43600 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The UK's export credit agency a...

Recruitment Genius: CBM & Lubrication Technician

£25000 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides a compreh...

Recruitment Genius: Care Worker - Residential Emergency Service

£16800 - £19500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to join an organ...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Landscaper

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: In the last five years this com...

Day In a Page

Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones