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Developers to be forced to help biodiversity, but not necessarily where they build

Written by on 12 May 2021

Landowners in England are preparing to accept payments from developers who could be permitted to offset damage to green spaces by funding improvements to the wildlife habitats somewhere else.

Charlie Forbes Adam, owner of the 8,000-acre Escrick Park estate near Selby in North Yorkshire, is one of 12 newly titled biodiversity compensation providers in a pilot scheme for a proposed law that would force developers to increase the variety of plants and animals found on each development site by 10%.

The biodiversity net gain (BNG) proposals are part of the Environment Bill and state that where biodiversity cannot be improved on the development site it can be created elsewhere, a concept known as offsetting.

Charlie Forbes Adam, owner of the 8,000 acre Escrick Park estate near Selby in North Yorkshire Image: Charlie Forbes Adam owns the Escrick Park estate near Selby

“I think there are fantastic possibilities,” Mr Forbes Adam said.

“We can provide improved habitats for wildlife of all sorts to compensate for what’s been taken away by development.”

He hopes developers offsetting cash will help him realise a £2m scheme to link the wildlife habitats of the River Ouse and the River Derwent on his sprawling estate.

But he recognises that reducing greenspace elsewhere would be controversial.

“At least people who are living in new housing estates or occupying new offices will know that somewhere, hopefully close by, there’s a really flourishing new wildlife habitat to compensate for that,” he said.

The 8,000 acre Escrick Park estate near Selby in North Yorkshire Image: The 8,000 acre Escrick Park estate near Selby in North Yorkshire

Many local planning authorities are already implementing the proposals in the expectation that the Environment Bill will be passed.

In Hoyland, on the outskirts of Barnsley in West Yorkshire, a multi-million pound housing and industrial development on former greenbelt land will achieve BNG conditions in part by offsetting to farmland six miles away.

Some local campaigners are objecting, saying they don’t want their greenspace recreated on the other side of town.

“You cannot offset nature from a community which is dependent upon it,” said Ci Davis, from a group called Rebuilding Environment and Community in Hoyland.

In Hoyland, on the outskirts of Barnsley in West Yorkshire, a multi-million pound housing and industrial development on former greenbelt land will achieve BNG conditions in part by offsetting to farmland six miles away. Image: A multi-million pound development on the outskirts of Barnsley shows the scheme can cause anger

“We’re wanting to see more nature brought back to this footprint, for some of this land which is going to be car parks, some of the land which will be lorry parks, to be converted into green space which the community can use and utilise for their health and wellbeing,” he said.

Biodiversity is divided into units using a calculator called the biodiversity metric, with each unit initially priced at £11,000, potentially valuing an acre of farm grassland at £10,000 and a mile of hedgerow at £60,000.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs says the system will be set up to incentivise developers to improve habitats on site or in the local area, while the calculator will make it more expensive to offset habit loss in a different local authority area.

In a statement a spokesperson said: “We are leading the world by setting ambitious goals for nature and biodiversity in our landmark Environment Bill – as well as introducing new ways to reward farmers for protecting the environment.”

Faye Durkin, head of ecology at Ecus environmental consultancy, which is conducting the national pilot study for Natural England, is enthusiastic about the potential for BNG.

“We’ve been working with the biodiversity metric for a couple of years now with some of our clients and the system is working,” she said

Professor Alistair Fitter, an ecologist and fellow of the Royal Society, welcomes the idea of BNG, but worries the system could be open to manipulation.

“It has potential, and very obvious benefits. If you’re going to get development then this is a possible way of ensuring that the loss of biodiversity is less than it otherwise would be,” he said.

“The risk is that developments will take place that might not otherwise have taken place and that the biodiversity offsetting may or may not be sustained, so you can have new sites, new woodlands or whatever developed somewhere but are they going to be looked after? Will they still be there in 20 years’ time?”

Ci Davis, from a group called Rebuilding Environment and Community in Hoyland. Image: Ci Davis, from a group called Rebuilding Environment and Community in Hoyland

A government impact assessment states that a market will eventually be created in England for biodiversity credits to be bought and sold, “which will enable developers to source offsite enhancements themselves directly from the market”.

Mr Forbes Adam said he has concerns about the marketplace setting a price on nature.

“I think there could be over-emphasis on creating a free market and quite frankly if the price is not right farmers won’t take it up,” he said.

“There’s concern that the price in one local planning authority area might be a lot higher than in another, so developers developing in that local authority go elsewhere [to offset] or even hundreds of miles elsewhere so there’s no benefit at all to local wildlife or local residents.”

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