I had a good morning with Biodiversity Minister, Richard Benyon, yesterday.  While the weather was a little disappointing, Old Hall Marshes was looking great, hooching with waders and marsh harriers.  We discussed some of the challenges we face on the site and set it into the wider Essex/national context.  The reserve provided a much better backdrop for our discussion compared to the usual office environment. 

Mr Benyon's attention, like all his parliamentary colleagues, will turn today to the Queen's Speech: a moment for pageant and political intent.  I'll offer a view on its content tomorrow. 

In the meantime, I promised to pick up the offsetting theme continued by Sam Vine yesterday.  Sam outlined some of the challenges they are dealing with as biodiversity offsets are rolled out at state and national level (link here).  Much of what Sam said resonates with the RSPB’s thoughts, particularly the need to adopt a principled, robust and pragmatic approach to the development of any offset system to ensure that nature does not lose out.

Our interest in offsets is not to facilitate economic growth per se, but to see if they offer a way to stem decades of gradual biodiversity loss to development that has gone on outside our protected areas, with little or no redress.  Our starting point is that compensation (or offsetting) is an absolute last resort, once all measures to avoid and reduce possible impacts have been taken, and there is a clear need for the development that justifies damage to our steadily eroding natural capital.  We are not alone in wanting to avoid short cuts being taken – the Government’s own National Planning Policy Framework agrees, as does its Natural Capital Committee.

A well regulated, mandatory national system of offsets could offer one possible way of making those fine words a reality.  This could ensure, as the NCC’s report suggests, that development no longer leads to the erosion of our natural capital.  Designed properly, it could offer more effective ways to provide habitat and species compensation when it is considered necessary, while complementing wider landscape scale conservation and lowering overall costs through economies of scale.  However, we do agree with the NCC this should not be rushed in to headlong – that it should be ‘carefully explored after a clear set of principles and a policy framework has been developed.’  Scratch the surface of the biodiversity offset issue and you reveal a complex web of interrelated issues that all need to be got right if the goal of no net loss of biodiversity is to be achieved for real, rather than on paper.  Careful thought and real political will, based on robust science, is needed to implement an offset system worthy of the lofty ambitions often claimed for it.

Comparing the situations here and in Australia reveals some interesting similarities and some real differences.  The first is that a successful offsets scheme relies upon there being the political and social will to meet no net loss of biodiversity.  This means having strict rules about what has to be offset, when, and how it is done. At the same time, accepting that it will often not be possible to replace a lost habitat or species, so damaging development in the wrong place should not proceed.

But there are real differences that, in some ways, makes developing and implementing offsets in here more complex.  For example, unlike Australia, we do not have significant areas of native vegetation where little intervention and cost would be required beyond getting the habitat to a point where it can be left alone.  Our rich heritage of semi-natural habitats means knowledge of how to restore or create the conditions required by many habitats and species is still in its infancy and largely experimental.  As in Australia, sound science is essential.  Simply increasing the area of replacement habitat by five or ten fold and hoping it will work cannot make up for the permanent loss of valued biodiversity.  Even where we do know how to guarantee success, there is normally a need for continuing active intervention which brings with it associated costs over the course of decades.

So, we wait to see how the Coalition Government wishes to take forward its current work on biodiversity offsets in England.  The RSPB will continue to give serious thought to this issue that at one and the same time offers real opportunity for, and considerable risk to, the conservation of the natural world around us.

  • One more thing: At the offset summit  I was at today, i was struck by how significant but overlooked was the capacity of the local planning and ecological community. Currently under huge pressure but potentially vital to any offsetting regime.

  • Thanks all for great comments.  It sounds as though we'll be getting a consultation this summer on the issue.  I just hope the principles outlined in your comments are the starting point for the question about how to do it well.  And Nightjar - we really are trying to prevent cuts to to core services but having traction with these arguments is proving incredibly difficult because of the wider spending environment. We have to do more to highlight jeopardy of underinvestment, highlight the returns on investment in nature and demonstrate wide public support for nature conservation.  The latest window for debate closes in one month.

  • Ancient woodland is probably the best example of an unprotected priority habitat - and it is also the best example of 'critical natural capital', an ecology that cannot be moved or re-created. In addition to this, and all too frequently ignored by nature conservationists, the setting & cultural context of ancient woodland in the landscape is crucial to its value. The cranes at Dibden Bay would not have harmed the Dartford Warblers or Smooth Snakes but they would have urbanised the landscape of half the New Forest.

    Whilst alternative, secure funding would be welcome it is a disastrous mistake for conservation to give up on the proper funding of publicly owned conservation resources. The Nature conservation movement has fumbled the whole forest sales fiasco; funding will be a crucial part of the next steps for the Forestry Commission forests and inevitably managers will be pushed towards areas they can resource - a cost-covering funding deal would dramatically improve the prospects for more open habitat restoration, whilst a further decline in funding for conservation will push the future in different directions - probably even further towards money-generating recreation. And every penny cut from FC's conservation resources is money lost to conservation as a whole, every bit as much as if it were cut from RSPB, NE or Buglife.

  • I fail to see how a trip to Australia adds anything to the Minister's knowledge in this area re UK with regard to to the problems of preserving European semi natural habitats which overall are rather degraded after 50 years of "intensification". I tend to go with the view that the uplands for example have to be re-imagined or re-wilded and that looking back is not an option.

  • oh and that's obviously a personal viewpoint not a Buglife position!