• Env Sec to give green light to destroy ancient woodland for profit

    4th January 2014 | News | Claire
  • Developers could be allowed to destroy ancient woodland if they agreed to plant many more trees elsewhere, the environment secretary has suggested.

    Owen Paterson told the Times “biodiversity offsetting” could give “a better environment over the long term”.

    Critics have called such plans a licence “to trash nature”.

    The Department for the Environment stressed it was “extremely unlikely” planning permission would be granted on land covered by ancient woodland.

    And if it was, it would be only for major infrastructure projects, it added.

    BBC News political correspondent Chris Mason said Mr Paterson had long made it clear that his priority as environment secretary was growing the economy as well as improving the natural environment.

    Mr Paterson has previously expressed frustration with the planning system, which he has claimed can approach environmental concerns in an “expensive and inefficient” manner.

    He sees offsetting as a measurable way to ensure environmental improvements are made elsewhere when development that cannot be avoided causes damage, our correspondent added.

    ‘Huge offset’
    In his interview with the Times, the environment secretary acknowledged that the scale of ancient woodlands would not be able to be recreated immediately.

    But he told the newspaper it could be mitigated by “a huge offset” of additional trees elsewhere.

    He cited the construction of the M6 toll road around Birmingham, saying 10,000 mature trees had been lost but a million young trees planted.

    “Now people will say that’s no good for our generation but, over the long term, that is an enormous increase in the number of trees.”

    He said it was “a practical example of a high amount of planting following a tragic loss of some wonderful trees”.

    And he added that it would be appropriate for a replacement site to be “about an hour away by car”.

    ‘Bigger sites’
    Six areas of England are taking part in a two-year pilot of biodiversity offsetting, which began in April 2012.

    The scheme aims to ensure that when a development causes unavoidable damage to biodiversity, “new, bigger or better nature sites will be created”.

    A consultation on how the scheme could be rolled out across England closed in November,

    A week later, the Environmental Audit Committee of MPs said plans outlined by the government must be strengthened if they were to “properly protect Britain’s wildlife”.

    The MPs said an assessment proposed by the government appeared to be “little more than a 20-minute box-ticking exercise that is simply not adequate to assess a site’s year-round biodiversity”.

    The Woodland Trust has campaigned against the inclusion of ancient woodlands in any offsetting scheme and it rejects the suggestion that the future of these habitats should rest on the proposed economic benefit of a given development.

    It has said offsetting should “only ever be a last resort when all other avenues have been explored to avoid loss or damage”.

    Friends of the Earth has said that instead of putting nature “up for sale”, the government should strengthen wildlife protection through the planning system.