Offsetting Nature?: Habitat Banking and Biodiversity Offsets in the English Land Use Planning System

Hannis and Sullivan argue that by encouraging us to think that one bit of nature is much like another, biodiversity offsetting undermines the unique place-based relationships between people and nature, moving us further away from ecological sustainability.

New planning rules, currently being piloted, allow the environmental impacts of increased development to be offset by purchasing conservation credits from habitat banks. This ‘green economy’ measure is presented as reconciling economic growth with environmental protection. Mike Hannis and Sian Sullivan explain where this controversial idea has come from, before asking what effects it might have and who stands to gain from it.

Land use planning is a key arena for the spectacles of localism and marketisation being staged by our self-proclaimed greenest government ever. A new “presumption in favour of sustainable development” aims to encourage housebuilding and other development by simplifying and decentralising the planning system, while protecting the natural environment. This protection is in part to be achieved through a new market in off-site mitigation, supplementing existing policies which (can) require on-site mitigation of habitat degradation. The proposed system allows developers to offset deleterious impacts on biodiversity in one place by paying for improvements somewhere else, at a market rate.

The message is that this “habitat banking” system will not only aggregate small habitats into ecologically significant reserves, while facilitating the ‘development’ we allegedly need to escape financial crisis, but also open up new income streams for landowners and reserve managers to spend on habitat conservation. By moving mitigation somewhere else, however, it will also reinforce the message that humans and other species live in separate places, that the non-human is not present in everyday life, but inhabits a separate world, which is fragile and in need of protection. This paper argues that displacing and marketizing the mitigation of habitat degradation may serve to entrench this separation, thus retarding rather than facilitating the emergence of ecologically sustainable human settlements. It examines the use of habitat banking and biodiversity offsetting in the English planning system, and situates this in an international context, before offering some brief reflections on its likely effects and broader implications.

Image of the Green House Think Tank