Offputting offsetting

Trish Steel, via Wikimedia Commons
Trish Steel, via Wikimedia Commons

Our main wildlife conservation organisations seem to have swallowed the idea of biodiversity offsetting and are all at pains to point out that it might work (RSPB, Wildlife Trusts and the Woodland Trust (which isn’t really a main wildlife conservation organisation (but let’s just pretend it is)).

It is perhaps a mean thought to imagine that these three organisations might be thinking that they might get their hands on some offsetting benefits ( a re-run of the way some wildlife conservation organisations appeared to look at the forestry sell-off issue?) so we won’t think that at all.

I think, there are two reasons, both very good reasons, to oppose biodiversity offsetting.

Reason 1: we can’t trust this government.

That’s quite a bald statement but that’s what I mean.

Trish Steel, via Wikimedia Commons
Trish Steel, via Wikimedia Commons

If you were considering entrusting your children to a nursery which had a record of mistreatment of children, sometimes leading to death, and where the senior managers were on the record as saying that they didn’t like kids anyway, then you might pause before handing over your little loved ones.

This is the government which has done nature no favours whatsoever and whose PM apparently talks about ‘green cr*p’, whose Chancellor attacks the environment for getting in the way of economic growth, and whose Secretary of State for the Environment wants rid of thousands of badgers.  I don’t trust them on environmental issues and I don’t trust their motives on this issue.  Why would you?  One shouldn’t think the worst of people, I know, but if they keep behaving badly then it is simply crazy to think the best of them.

And Owen Paterson actually talks to The Times about offsetting ancient woodland – an example which shows that the very man who is responsible for taking this tricky policy forward can’t even come up with a plausible example to illustrate how it might work?

Trish Steel, via Wikimedia Commons
Trish Steel, via Wikimedia Commons

If a Labour government suggested offsetting then I wouldn’t like it, but I might be prepared to cut them some slack as far as their motives were concerned (only a little slack, but I am not entirely unreasonable), but this lot? You must be having a laugh!  Would you trust your beloved biodiversity to a bunch of biodiversity-haters?

Reason 2: it’s not likely to work anyway!

There is a big trap into which people interested in policy often fall when considering potential new policies.  They hope for the best.  By which, I mean that they think of how a complicated policy might work and then assume that it will work like that.  It’s been done with biofuels, agri-environment schemes and elsewhere.

It’s like standing in front of a fruit machine (which I never have) and thinking ‘because I might get six cherries in a row – I will get six cherries in a row and I’ll be rich! Yippee!’. No you won’t – because it’s very, very unlikely.

Trish Steel, via Wikimedia Commons
Trish Steel, via Wikimedia Commons

You need to measure the biodiversity value, turn it into the right amount of money, spend the money in the right way and in the right place, and for everything to work.  If all those (and other things) happen then offsetting could work.  But it’s so difficult (and it’s in the hands of biodiversity haters anyway) that it won’t work.

The RSPB seems to be bending over backwards to find a way of being nice about offsetting and the analogy with the Habitats Directive is a poor one.  The Habitats Directive is designed as a policy measure to protect existing natural riches – and it does.  Only under the most pressing of needs can it be overridden and then compensatory habitat must be produced.  Off-setting is an idea to make it easier for a developer to get his (let’s assume it’s a nasty man) way and then fork out a bit of money for some good possibly to be done somewhere else if everything works.  The two things aren’t very similar really are they?  One is an effective measure to protect, the other is a measure to weaken protection with the promise of jam tomorrow.

The proposal for biodiversity offsetting is driven by two things – a belief that economic development is of paramount importance and nothing should stand in its way, and a belief that markets can deliver.  I don’t share either view.   But our wildlife NGOS are adding credibility to offsetting by saying that it could work. Pigs might fly.



39 Replies to “Offputting offsetting”

  1. My interpretation of the comments of the Woodland Trust , Wildlife Trusts, RSPB and others is that they’ve been fairly sceptical of the whole idea, saying that a long list of criteria would need to be satisfied for the idea to work. That’s a bit different to your interpretation, but possibly you’ve seen something I haven’t?

    1. Ian – my interpretation is that they might not believe that offsetting will work but are going along with it through not wanting to rock the boat, sheer exhaustion at having to argue the toss over everything, naive wishful thinking or the hope that some crumbs might fall in their direction.

  2. Biodiversity offsetting is supposed to be one part of the so-called mitigation hierarchy. Do the other steps of the biodiversity mitigation hierarchy work in the UK? Is it carried out effectively during any development? What are the reasons your govt wants the offsetting scheme so desperately?

  3. I bet the members of the NGOs want them to leap up and down and shout VERY loudly on behalf of wildlife and he countryside and against offsetting. That is why they pay their membership. Recruiting members is difficult these days and perhaps the NGOs should consider the views of the members they have.

  4. Biodiversity Offsetting is that dangerous point where the economics of greed start to dominate science. I find the concept shameful.
    We really don’t have very much semi-natural habitat left….when its gone…its gone.

  5. “It is perhaps a mean thought”

    No it isn’t. If there’s a new teat, they want to be first in the farrowing crate

  6. I have no doubt that there are circumstances where it would work, to some extent there are even circumstances where it could be beneficial (unsustainable fragmented communities) So I don’t think you can rule out the possibility, but it HAS to be a bottom of the menu last resort rather than an easy get out from inconvenient problems.

    I do find it hard not to wonder if some of the acceptance by these organisations is not funding led – but then funding driving policy is hardly a new problem in the charity field, so I wonder ‘why now?’

  7. I am of the opinion that small-scale BO could work for say one or two ponds. Indeed has. Ancient woodland no, no, no! I was surprised to see a previously reputable company like The Ecology Consultancy prepared to sell themselves and ancient woodland down the tubes for the HS2 project! Disreputable!

    incidentally Mark, you really should NOT delete and kill comments that you do not agree with – that could be termed “Pattersonism”!

    1. John – welcome and thank you for your comment.

      I’m puzzled by your allegation that I delete comments with which I disagree. I really do not know what you mean. The only comment that I can recall publishing and then deleting (if that is what you mean) is one which I published in error, containing a derogatory remark which I had not understood (I didn’t realise I’d led a sheltered life) but when a reader of this blog pointed it out to me I then deleted it. The comment appeared quite late one evening and was deleted the next morning. I’m guessing that isn’t what you mean so I don’t understand what you are talking about. Would you like to explain?

  8. When you are destroying very old complex ecosystems it’s hard to see how you could replace them somewhere else. You can’t just create ancient woodland for example.

  9. In response to the offsetting initiative the RSPB responded “we’re in the “yes if” camp. Yes, if… the government listens to our concerns and designs the best scheme for wildlife in this country.” I replied “yes if” be substituted by “no, unless”. On reflection a qualified NO is not strong enough and I think the RSPB is walking a highly precarious political tightrope on this issue. The government will, inevitably, at some point, quote the RSPB and Wildlife Trusts as supporting the offsetting objectives and they will be in great danger of losing credibility in the debate!

    What I also find disturbing is the very few comments on Martin Harper’s blog concerning this issue (only three and all against). Why aren’t all you respondents to this blog having a go at the RSPB! I seem to remember you had your fair share, Mark, when you were in the same chair!

    1. Mark had the balls to publish all the comments that were posted on his RSPB blog, I gather this is no longer the case.

      1. Ernest – then you are misinformed. There have been about five comments that have been submitted to this blog and not published – two were a bit over the top and I contacted the commenters and I think they were quite relieved that they could withdraw remarks that maybe they had written late at night and might have regretted in the morning. And a couple of simply personal remarks weren’t published. That’s all I can recall on this blog where there have been 1099 blogs and 15,771 comments since it started.

        There have been a few cases where comments have disappeared into the spam folder and I have not moderated them. This blog receives hundreds of spam comments a day – sad to say. These are mostly people trying to advertise cheap clothing, medicines and other products. I could check every one but I tend to have a quick look and then delete them all. This blog has received 151,605 spam comments in its lifetime. I delete the contents of the folder several times a day and I guess that there may be as many as a thousand comments on some days. I know that I have sometimes found a ‘real’ comment in the ‘spam’ folder so some way occasionally be deleted through that method.

        So I still have the same number of balls thank you.

        Having said that, I reserve the right to delete or not publish comments if I see fit. This is my blog and you are all welcome as guests – very welcome! But you aren’t paying customers, you haven’t bought a service, and you have no automatic right to post comments here. I’m pleased that so many people do post comments though.

        1. Mark, I read Ernest’s reply as relating to blogs on the RSPB website (yours and Martin Harper’s) not this one! I see no evidence that replies are suppressed, just a lot of apathy.

          1. Richard, Ernest – ahhh! I see. In that case I misunderstood. I probably misunderstood because Ernest’s comment followed an earlier one today (John Goldsmith) suggesting that I deleted comments with which I disagreed. i don’t. I hope nobodythinks i agree with all the comments on ehre – I would be a terribly confused person if that were the case.

        2. Mark,

          I can see that I should have made myself clearer and I can see how you will have misinterpreted my comment. I wasn’t referring to your blog but the one now operated by your successor at the lodge – where these days I am given to understand that only a select few comments are published. I gather even amiable Mr Ames has been barred from posting any comments.

          One of the things I like about this blog is your willingness to publish all comments, even those containining the bitterest of ad-hom vitriol.

          I apologise for any offence inadvertently caused and I am pleased to know that all is as it should be in the scrotum department – I never doubted that it it was!

          Keep up the good work.


          1. Ernest – and I am sorry to have misinterpreted your comment. I am glad we are still friends – though not such good friends that we should prolong this cojones conversation.

  10. Mark – many thanks for bringing the views of the blog by Martin Harper and the statement by the Wildlife Trusts to my attention (I didn’t bother to follow the Woodland Trust link). The views of both organisations are cause for grave concern and I almost completely agree with your analysis.
    My heart would like to believe that both organisations are guilty of naivety and nothing more, but my head cannot believe that so both organisations would quite be so gullible. I also cannot ignore the distinct mephitic whiff of self-interest thats emanates from this, suggestive of a policy of ‘funding first – questions later’. Have the Wildlife Trusts been seduced by the potentially substantial income that BO could bring to their consultancy arm ? What about the RSPB, what is it in for them ?

  11. The bottom line is the spirit in which offsetting is undertaken. Trees moved off heathland into urban fringe woodland that means kids can get outdoors on their doorstep would be great – and I could see how that could happen if we, say, insisted on 9 has of new habitat for every ha of greenbelt developed.

    Mark’s analogy sums up what is exactly the opposite situation, the wolf of this Government failing in every respect to hide in sheep’s clothing. This is all about a clever wheeze to destroy wildlife whenever and wherever it gets in the way of short term gain. And to top it off, with the utter incompetence for which this Government will be long remembered Owen Paterson goes and blows it completely by using the worst possible example, Ancient Woodland, when he could have used something like reedbed where re-creation is proven to be possible and successful.

    I don’t think the NGOs have totally come to terms with the tent they want to be in no longer providing the shelter it once did – and I would say that in the case of Ancient Woodland the Woodland Trust does very much have the credentials of a nature conservation organisation, being by far the strongest defender of AW from development in recent times when the other conservation NGOs have largely lost interest in woodland as a key issue.

    1. ‘Trees moved off heathland into urban fringe woodland that means kids can get outdoors on their doorstep would be great ‘

      Roderick, Have I understood this incorrectly but surely that means heathland is built on and totally lost. That does seem like another ‘ancient woodland’ example.

  12. Yes, Bob, you have misunderstood me – but in the context, I understand why. I was talking about exactly what I said – and it is a form of biodiversity offsetting, and a particularly good one because I believe there is a real potential for actually increasing the benefits our environment delivers to both people and wildlife – and this is an example. But I realise its quite a different issue from what we are arguing about ! If we have to develop on greenbelt (and I’m not accepting we do) I’m assuming improved land or brown field land (there is lots and lots and lots in some greenbelts !) #. Heathland is like Ancient Woodland – critical natural capital which simply cannot be replaced and should NEVER be developed.

    1. Roderick, Thanks for explaining that. I thought we were in a heathland versus woodland argument for some reason.

      I do have a problem with offsetting, there does seem to be a presumption that the land you are using to offset has no biodiversity value in the first place, which is extremely unlikely.

  13. Yes It was made so that I could not comment on Martin Harpers blog and for sure I feel it was no coincidence that for several days I could not get a comment accepted while probably 2 or 3 regular commenters who always seem to agree and praise him still could comment.
    The rspb unfortunately have me down as having a agenda against them,completely untrue as I am on record as saying that almost all the time they do a great job.
    They do seem to have a problem particularly with me that any criticism means you get reprimanded.
    One case being that one rspb person said the way to manage Ivy was to go to the crown of a tree and cut it off up there,my response of I could not see that happening in general busy people would cut it off at ground level,that was a serious reprimand.They are really a joke as far as criticism goes,why surely as we are supporters even if they think it is not valid criticism can they not think about it and move on.In general they need to realise that members will not be critical unless they believe in what they say.
    I have commented on Mark’s rspb blog and this one and have been pleasantly surprised that as far as I can tell he has never stopped a comment from being published,of course during that time some of us have put very hard hitting comments which he has defended his view vigorously and I would guess made us respect him immensely.

    1. Can you get a reply posted or can’t you? You created the impression on here that you’ve been barred but in this comment you say you couldn’t get one accepted for several days and that’s not quite the same thing. I think we need to be told!

  14. Paterson’s use of Ancient Woodland as an e.g. of offsetting illustrates that he has not considered the meaning of the word ‘ancient’ – he probably also thinks that the sea is blue. Even more worrying is that he thinks ancient woodlands can be replaced by arboretums.
    Regardless of which habitat it is, I don’t think it is possible to ‘recreate’. You can create a reedbed or a wet meadow but you are not recreating the one you just destroyed. Ecology doesn’t work like this. This government seems to think they can move the natural [semi-natural] world around at will, that everything is re-introducible, recreatable and/or replaceable – it isn’t. And if NGO’s think that the Habitats Directive is a save-all, they are wrong. If the Government decide that x development is of over-riding national importance, then the HD stands only to cost the developer and the NGO’s a heap of money in fighting a case the outcome of which has already been decided.
    There will soon be no protection for wildlife and countryside. All I can say is that most of these developer led policies would appear likely to most upset core conservative voters. A good example of shooting oneself in the foot?

  15. In my experience, the off-setting metric requires more mitigation than the amount currently offered by developers and accepted by planning authorities. It also only applies outside protected sites but, by applying the off-setting metric retrospectively, would have provided more mitigation than on those occasions when development was permitted that damaged protected sites. In theory, it should always result in environmental gain. The concern is that, once in place, the goal posts might be shifted to simply allow more development, rather than just sustainable development. If mustelids can do it then presumably so can an Environment Secretary.

  16. Ian,the fact is others were posting and I who had been a regular poster when Mark was there(in fact the most regular poster I believe)and a quite regular poster when Martin took over I then found others could post and after several attempts to post found my posts not being accepted thought it a waste of time continuing trying to post,if you would rather me say I was stopped for several days so gave up and you consider that a more accurate description then so be it,if you think I am making it up then that is your choice.
    Surely you do not think it coincidence that others could post and myself who had never encountered a problem suddenly was not able to.
    The rspb has a big problem I can promise you with in particular Hen Harrier criticism.

    1. It’s not that I don’t believe you, more that you’ve created the impression that you’d been banned and can no longer post. It’s obvious that people, including me, have taken this at face value. Then you posted a comment yesterday, in response to someone who repeated the assumption of your “ban”, that implied that you were simply unable to post comments for a few days. I put it to you that there could have been other reasons for that than the one you have assumed. A technical problem, for instance? Then you wonder why people think you have a grudge against the RSPB! Of course they will think that if you instantly jump to such conclusions without ever assuming any positive intent.

      I don’t care either way if you have a grudge against the RSPB or not but I do think people should be accountable for things they post online. It’s no better than a school playground otherwise. But it’s worth noting that spreading inaccurate or misleading information is legally a bit dubious and I don’t think Mark would thank you for that!

      1. Well two people have been banned from posting here and the suggestion that the comments disappear into the spam folder is tosh, but I guess Paul/Phil Davis can’t comment to support that fact

        1. James- what an interesting first comment.

          One person has been banned from commenting here, although that ban ended on 31 December, so, actually, no-one is banned.

          That person also attempted to comment under several personas to ‘agree’ with themselves which is just silly.

          It is certainly the case that a very few comments get classified as spam by the spam filter – I’ve seen it, it happens. Thank you for your first comment here being one that doubts my honesty. Really good start.

          If you don’t like the way that this blog is run – just go away! Reading and commenting is not compulsory. You aren’t paying for it.

          As I say, an interesting first comment.

  17. I’d like to offer a personal view on this as someone who works for the Wildlife Trusts.

    I think The Wildlife Trusts are sceptical and do have some serious concerns that you and others have raised Mark. I certainly don’t think it’s a case of having swallowed the idea whole as you suggest. Any new proposals for compensation through development should be critically examined – given we already have a compensation system in operation and it is not working very well. At present the majority of Local Planning Authorities fail to secure off-site compensation with long-term management commitments for habitat loss through development. Whether that examination is ‘yes if’ or ‘only unless’ is a good point and well made by Richard above.

    Finding ways to build and live smarter and travel more sustainably will help us to reduce our impact on nature but at the moment not all forms of development are immediately avoidable. There is and will be a demand for creating housing for people (including our own friends and families) and there are some big (and prickly) questions for conservation organisations and wider society here.

    Wildlife is not always adequately protected and compensated for in planning and development and as a result there is a constant erosion of nature in our lives (see the fight to save The Sanctuary bird reserve in Derby covered recently here for a good example of this). The Wildlife Trusts have been clear that the hierarchy should be avoid, mitigate, compensate (with compensation as a last resort) – and that some habitats like ancient woodland are irreplaceable. The purpose for any compensation system should be to restore and strengthen local ecological networks (the wild places and wild bits we know, love and depend on) – it should maximise opportunities and mustn’t undermine existing protections.

    OP’s recent comments about ancient woodland have highlighted some of the major pitfalls that we need to overcome if we are going to make any genuine headway. We need to examine proposals like BO and critically assess them – but I don’t think that means we should adopt a defeatist mindset. Wildlife Trusts do a lot of important work protecting wildlife through the planning system (checking and commenting on applications, maintaining registers of Local Sites etc) and there are lots of people who volunteer and work for the Trusts who care deeply about nature. If we don’t engage with proposals for new ways to compensate for damage to nature (especially when current compensation is inadequate and there is at least some unavoidable development to contend with) we will only have ourselves to blame if what we end up with is even worse and nature continues to get destroyed unacceptably.

    All this said, I acknowledge that some of the recent comments on BO do make it difficult to approach the subject of compensation objectively (but I still think there is some value in trying to do so!).

    As a final thought, maybe we should also be talking about the work of charities like Empty Homes as part of a rounder view of the problem and the solutions available (although the environmental standards of some empty housing stock could be an issue).

  18. Ian,think Mark knows me well enough that I would not spread innacurate or misleading information.I have no grudge against rspb just think in several things they are up a creek.
    I would guess I had commented on the blog by conservation director probably 500 times(that is a complete guess)and I would guess while Mark held that position I was the most regular person to comment.It therefor seems logical that never having encountered any problem with all those comments and comments from others going on those days in question that if some objection came on the screen when trying to submit the logical thought is that I was banned(even if it was only for a short time).I think you are being picky about my comment for some reason(perhaps you think the rspb is perfect or have some connection with them)and are making a mountain out of a molehill.
    I know from experience if Mark thought there was anything wrong that might have brought legal issues into this then he would have edited and explained why.
    I do of course accept I make mistakes but never intentional and in the case explained it is surely the logical explanation.

    1. Perhaps I do have links with the RSPB but then, perhaps, I don’t. In fact, I don’t have any connection with them, though interestingly I do have a connection with the law. I don’t mind opinion, but have a deep dislike of opinion masquerading as fact. That’s part of the problem with the current government – they present anecdote as evidence. All I’m saying is, don’t state that you are being victimised or gagged by the RSPB as a fact until you have established it as such. That really is making a mountain out of a molehill because you may be defaming them. It may be true – so why not just email the RSPB and ask them? Do you want to have a rational debate with them or would you just prefer to play the victim ?

      1. “That’s part of the problem with the current government”

        It’s not exclusive to them, and it doesn’t have to be anecdote or opinion. Iraq, WMD, Straw, dossier, dodgy, Campbell, Blurr – arrange in any order.

  19. Ian,I take the points you have mentioned but it is not as simple as you make it sound.Firstly it would have been better as they definitely did something if instead they had emailed me and simply said we do not want or will not allow you to comment,really if they do not want me to that is no problem as I have no wish to comment in that case.
    The other problem which you do not see and it is a fact proven to me is that they have not in the past given me a straight answer,in fact they have said things they would do and never carried it out.
    Have you a suggestion of how 2 others with sugary comments could comment whereas myself with a critical comment could not when experiencing no problems for several years I would guess.
    Think my reasoning was reasonable.
    I am quite happy to have a debate(the rspb doubt the reasonable part)but will not waste time doing a comment and then finding when trying to submit something on the screen denying access.

  20. Hi Mark, as I understand it biodiversity offsetting is a ‘new’ way of delivering ecological compensation; compensation being the final stage in the mitigation hierarchy, and only adopted once avoidance and mitigation measures have been put in place; in that respect the notion that one habitat can be destroyed to make way for a development and replaced by a new area of habitat somewhere else, paid for by the developer, is not somehow unique to offsetting – this sort of thing currently goes on. This often appears to be overlooked in the offsetting debate.

    To my mind, it’s the application of the mitigation hierarchy which is more important than the mechanism by which any compensation is delivered (i.e. be it ‘traditional’ or through offsetting). The NPPF (in paragraph 117) is actually pretty clear on this, and even goes so far as to say that if adequate mitigation and compensation cannot be provided, then planning permission should be refused – surprisingly strong stuff.

    But how often does this actually happen in practice? Not often at all, in my experience. Part of the problem here is that it is often difficult to clearly demonstrate whether or not ‘enough’ mitigation or compensation has been provided by a development, with the importance of sites being consistently undervalued. Needless to say, the developer and their ecologist normally feel they have provided enough, whilst those on the other side of the table often do not (with the planning officer stuck in the middle). I wonder if the metric which forms part of the biodiversity offsetting approach (whilst not without problems) may help in this respect by removing much of the subjectivity which currently comes into place when ‘valuing’ a site – although I know that many people hate the idea that biodiversity, in all its intricacies, can reduced to numbers fed into an equation.

    One of my main concerns with offsetting is that it will be too easy for planning authorities to fall into the trap of jumping straight to the ‘compensate’ stage of the mitigation hierarchy (as offsetting may provide a means of delivering compensation in instances where it had not been possible using ‘traditional’ compensation), without it being properly demonstrated that impacts can be avoided (by locating the development elsewhere), or mitigated against (e.g. by altering the size or layout of a development). I’m not sure how this will be prevented, or how the mitigation hierarchy will be rigorously and consistently applied by planning authorities, especially those that lack in-house ecological expertise. But what I do know is that the planning system currently doesn’t work for biodiversity. The NPPF talks about delivering no net loss and moving towards net gain, but really, when the costs and benefits of a development are weighed up, wildlife almost often always loses out to houses and jobs. Somehow we need to redress this balance.

    Finally, like it or not, there will continue to be instances where areas of habitat are lost to facilitate development (unless something really radical happens to the planning system). However, we should strive to ensure that these instances are exceptional, rather than the norm. But where these instances do occur, and where there really is no alternative and mitigation measures have been exhausted (yet a residual impact remains), the compensation needs to be adequate. Whether or not we can ever adequately compensate for the loss of an irreplaceable habitat like an ancient woodland is highly debateable – but to finish as I began, this is not an issue which is unique to biodiversity offsetting.

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