Only a fool would deny that there is a housing crisis, but alleviating it doesn’t have to involve bulldozing ancient woods
No-one can doubt that the UK is in the grip of a chronic housing shortage. But can the desperate need for new housing be met without loss to the environment? Remarkably, the government says it can.
Their silver bullet solution is biodiversity offsetting: a market mechanism that will allow developments to flourish while protecting the environment. In simple terms, if you destroy ancient woodlands, wildlife and vital habitats in one place, you have to pay to create it in another. Or, as environment Secretary Owen Paterson said recently in the clearest signal yet of the government’s determination to push ahead with this policy: “For every tree that falls a hundred should bloom elsewhere”.
Who could object?
The answer is activists and NGOs the length and breadth of Britain who see biodiversity offsetting as a license to trash national parks, ancient woods, village greens and the last bit of green space in your city. The government has made plain that it sees the policy as offering a “simpler, faster way through the planning system.” But by loosening planning laws, biodiversity offsetting becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. As development projects increase, so biodiversity decreases – and becomes more important.
If biodiversity offsetting is going to legitimise biodiversity destruction, you would at least hope that offsetting does what it says on the tin, and that developers actually replace what they ruined. So what’s the track record?
Though new to Europe, offsetting nature has been done for decades in Australia, the US and Canada. And their experience is predominantly one of failure. In Canada, for instance, in projects that offset fish habitat loss, researchers found that 63% of projects failed to achieve the stated target of no net loss. In another study looking at a broad range of restoration projects around the world, the research shows that less than a third of restoration offsets succeeded. This doesn’t mean that restoring brown field sites is a bad idea – on the contrary – but it should not be at the expense of destroying existing biodiversity.
Biodiversity is unique, mysterious, wild and dynamic. We actually know very little about most biodiversity. It’s estimated that anywhere between 10 million and 100 million species still await discovery. Biodiversity in a particular site differs from season to season, so capturing an accurate picture of the state of biodiversity can take years, far more than the 20 minutes the government’s Green Paper suggests an assessment will take.
Sometimes biodiversity can return, but it can take tens, hundreds or thousands of years to replace. Paterson himself admitted that ancient woodland took centuries to form. So what would he and the government have the birds, bugs and plants do in the meantime?
And what about local communities? Where should locals go for a walk once their local woodland has been destroyed? According to Paterson, driving for an hour is considered a "local offset." That’s an exceptional day out for most.
Biodiversity offsetting smacks of middle class environmentalism and could drive an even bigger wedge between our precious, protected landscapes and our undervalued, quietly nurturing, everyday natural spaces. Our parks and local fields may not have exceptional and rare biodiversity but they are fundamental to our wellbeing. It’s easy to forget that for every offset site there is an area of green space being destroyed.
Forest NGO Fern visited an offset site in the south of France that was restoring rare habitat for two iconic bird species. To all intents and purposes, it was a rare example of successful restoration. The bird species had settled, admittedly an impressive sight to a bird spotter such as myself, but the restored site felt sterile and soulless, with no sense of place. It was as wild as a zoo, like a biodiversity amusement park, unconnected to the rest of the world.
Given the growing climate and biodiversity crisis, we should be working around nature, not the other way round. This doesn’t mean no development. Only a fool would deny that there is a housing crisis, but alleviating it doesn’t have to involve bulldozing ancient woods.
In 2011, the government was forced into a u-turn on its plan to privatise England's forests. With concerted opposition, it can also be forced to reverse its similarly disastrous plans to enable the destruction of some of our most precious nature.