I admit that the title to this post is somewhat over the top but it is the vision that springs to the minds of many people I have spoken to about UK Environment Secretary Owen Paterson’s plans to increase development in England’s ten National Parks including the Lake District, the Peak District and Dartmoor. Now I would always be one of the first people to stand up for people in rural areas to improve their lives, especially those who are struggling to run rural businesses. However, I take issue with the very philosophy behind Mr Paterson’s strategy – ‘biodiversity offsetting’.
How is it really possible to mitigate the effects of destroying a hedgerow that has taken hundreds of years to develop to a specific ecosystem by ‘constructing’ ‘similar’ habitat elsewhere? What’s done is done. When one creates a ‘new nature site’ one is doing just that, ‘creating a new nature site’, not offsetting the effects of having destroyed a habitat elsewhere. We need to get away from the paradigm of quick fixes in our environment and biodiversity offsetting will not go any closer towards this goal, indeed it is part of the same way of thinking.
One of the principle pull factors of National Park areas is their aesthetic value for tourists. Currently 110 million people visit parks each year. There are ways that money can be procured off tourists without having to destroy habitat. ‘Twitcher tourism’ for example can consist of camping and the construction of small bird hides in key places. Yes, these will have an effect on wildlife but there would be little need for mitigation on the level that Mr Paterson envisions. The impact would not be as large as the construction of new mega-dairy size buildings. Farmers could look to convert existing buildings to other use, rather than newly constructing them. There is less financial risk doing this also, something that is always at the forefront of farmers’ minds.
A key theme that I try to run through my posts is the need to respect and recognise ‘the aesthetic’ in nature. It should be a recognition in planning, in rural industry, in landscape management and in education. True, aesthetic is a subjective entity but that doesn’t mean that a diversity in opinion over aesthetic is not good for debate. If ‘England’s green and pleasant land’ is something that we truly value, on an aesthetic level, then why don’t we hold it dearly in our planning regulations?
Mr Paterson can only listen to the advice he receives from his advisers and implement what it is that he believes to be ‘the right thing’ to do. However, who would ‘biodiversity offsetting’ help in the long term? Yes, construction is almost always going to help the developer in the short term, at least it opens new opportunities. However, mitigating the loss in environmental value is not possible in many instances. Further, depending on the development project and the area in question, tourism income may actually deplete should the aesthetic, a key aspect for tourists to National Parks, diminish in personal value.
68,000 jobs are currently supported by tourists to National Parks. This income largely relies on a positive natural environment. I accept that our rural economy requires a diversity of interests and activities. It would death to an area that had to survive and rely on short term tourist income (evidence comes in the form of many seaside towns throughout the country, including some where I live in Essex). We can support manufacturing growth ‘in the right area’, but this does not affect the philosophy that one can mitigate the effects of an environmental destruction force through development simply by creating a new ‘similar’ habitat elsewhere. It is not ‘similar’ but extremely different in biotic make-up, in species number and diversity and in soil and ecological differentiation.
The Ministry’s ideas are currently going through a consultation phase. I hope that they will listen to all arguments on all sides and not simply plough this idea through without taking serious thought to the philosophical and ecological consequences. If accepted, it could have dangerous effects to planning rules throughout the country and further afield.