A situation that is often highlighted in the mainstream news reveals itself again. The filler of modern history archives. A quintessential dilemma, forged by modern life, a challenge to our society and a question upon ourselves — What do we value? Natural landscape or economy? Environment or development?
In Southern Yorkshire, ancient woodland stands head on, at loggerheads to an artifice of the neoliberal age; a motorway service station. Over the past many decades, conflicts like this have come and gone; depending on your standpoint — some won, some lost. Now, a possible solution looms; progress at least but perhaps reconciliation for all?
Smithy Wood, Sheffield.
The name was born in antiquity; a coppiced wood resource for the blacksmiths. After the Norman conquest, the monasteries took management of the land by developing a grange. Following that, the landed gentry took the deeds for deer. Human interaction with the wood is ever present and in the 1950’s, the M1 was rolled out; dividing the wood in two. Since, and has been the case for woodland over many decades, the boundaries are chipped away by industrial estates, smaller roads; development.
Planning applications are repeatedly delayed while local communities and developers collide. Conservationists and ramblers highlight the ecosystem and recreational services that this wood provides. Developers note the economic and employment gain of a region in need. A scenario of modern life unfolds; the flex of capitalist growth versus the environment’s ability to absorb.
However, this story has a new twist, something different than before. Incorporated within the proposed planning application, the developer has offered an incentive, an offer to replant the lost woodland in a new location (60,000 trees on 16 hectares) while investing into the recreational management of nearby land; ‘Biodiversity Offsetting’. The developer’s strategy is to push through planning applications by compensating for the loss of the environment. As the fight for the future of Smithy Wood draws to a close, a bell can be heard announcing the start of the final round. Timely and due as in the Spring of this year, Defra completed its review of Biodiversity Offsetting; they concluded it risky.
What is Biodiversity Offsetting?
Biodiversity is the spectrum of life within the ecosystem. The connectivity between all species is unique and in sync to itself, it is self-supportive. Diversity is greater than the sum of its parts: as diversity increases, the ecosystem’s fragility declines. It is important, therefore, to maintain good health. Biodiversity conservation is a matter of survival for all species, including ours.
A merger of ecological and economic understanding has begun to materialise in the form of the “biodiversity economy”. Human productivity is reliant on the Earth’s ecosystems, it is essential that bioproductivity remains. Billions of consumers are receiving the benefits of biodiversity in the form of medicines, food, clothing, housing and furnishings. In addition, biological organisms are innovative; a source of inspiration and information that rivals all known anthropocentric technologies.
Since finding a profit in the old industries has become harder to attain, the boundaries of economic growth are pushed into new frontiers. New methods of capital accumulation are to be found. Profit and nature are becoming connected, which wasn’t the case a decade ago. Biodiversity has a value, albeit not easily quantified.
Biodiversity offsetting claims to be a rational solution to the jostling over land use. State officials and consultants express a view that planning systems need a tool like this to speed up delivery and developers are now desired by the public to uphold a regard to the environment. Construction is an expensive business, loss and risk are always under mitigation; time spent dealing with the delay to a planning application is unprofitable.
Offsetting is designed as a solution and an opportunity to fund restoration projects. Wildlife charities are often seen searching for revenue to accomplish the next big project and this type of financing can be applied at any scale. Offset supporters highlight that the extra monetary hurdle put-off developers, a championing stand that nature cannot be traded.
However, trading is exactly what’s served; that is the nature of offsetting. Many conservationists and ‘in the know’ public are suspicious of the strategy. Ecosystems are specific to the site, evolving over millennia from the contributing factors that influenced it. The sculpting of an ecosystem cannot be easily replicated due to its natural complexity; the time between the destruction of the old and creation of the new can be measured in generations.
The public outcry is that communities will be impoverished as the benefits of the schemes will not be received by those who lost the value of the former site. Some call it a ‘licence to trash’, as those with big pockets pay the necessary ‘fine’ to get the bulldozers rolling.
Scientists are also sceptical of Offsetting. The method of understanding the ecology of an existing site takes a certain level of skill. In Biodiversity Offsetting, two sites are to be changed, the development and the offset. Measuring the relationships of all species, collecting and analysing data, and then developing a plan that recreates equal value, is one heck of a lot of work; and all before organising a monetary system that brokers an exchange. If data is not well collected or understood, the intended outcome may have sincere negative ramifications for the ecosystem of the immediate site and surrounding area. How many local councils have that number or level of ecologists to hand?
Defra asked the scientific community for submissions that express their individual views. Over 400 responded and half wished to introduce offsetting. However, concerns were raised across the board. Currently, biodiversity loss goes through a mitigation hierarchy; it should be at first, avoided and then if unavoidable, mitigated. With the introduction of Offsetting, scientists felt that this would be undermined.
Capitalism cloaked as conservation
Activists view Offsetting as another attempt to impose the neo-liberal environmental agenda upon our natural world. One that has coerced our public green spaces, privatised natural assets, deregulated environmental laws and cut government spending for conservation.
Landowners are generally the elite class, for whom, Offsetting deals may be brokered that work in favour of their hand. The ecology of the land that they own has the potential to become a financial asset, traded in agreements that profit themselves and partners over the environment and immediate benefactors. Otherwise termed ‘perverting the system’.
Financiers look at the world from the perspective of monetary value. Money is their measurement tool, like a ruler for a carpenter. When this ruler is leant against a commodity, it has ‘x’ value, when leant against conservation, the ruler shows zero or minus. Offsetting and ‘Conservation Banking’ creates an increase in that value; even a small increment gains attention.
Although this method of comprehension is wrong in the eyes of those who measure nature with a non-monetary standpoint, it is what currently runs big industry and Governments. Working with them on conservation is the only way to achieve success. Therefore Biodiversity Offsetting has an integral duty not in what it achieves ecologically but how to get the eyes of the world’s big players interested in securing an ecological future — by the carrot, not the stick.
The government is keen to get Biodiversity Offsetting off the ground running as it rescales decision-making to the local level. In an age of austerity, Biodiversity Offsetting shows entrepreneurial character.
Defra studied several pilot areas throughout the UK that analysed the effectiveness of Offsetting, partnerships were formed with various industries, governmental departments, environmental brokers, consultants, investors, local governments, and environmental NGOs with a view to creating new business opportunities. The trade became dubious as quantifying and increasing Biodiversity changed character from ecology to commodities. The financial expertise of brokering an exchange convoluted and commanded the trade.
Losing justice, gaining isolation
Justice originally formed Biodiversity Offsetting as a method of compensation for the loss. A system that is flexible and acceptance of change. However, justice can also be abused.
Offsetting is a tool of great use and benefit but with dangerous potential. An extreme viewpoint may foretell of a natural landscape orchestrated by financial markets, scarcities manipulated and controlled, rights benefitting the controlling few.
The admittance of the private sector with their expertise and wealth excludes the local community; a thread that runs through all the tales of development versus environment. The local community, unable to involve themselves scientifically or financially is sidelined while big institutions take on the power through secret decisions with consultants, brokers and banks.
Conservation in action turns into a confidential commercial exchange. Removing the ‘blockages’ from the planning application process, the locked out community is powerless to the consequences of temporal/spatial relocation and the environmental gain/loss. They become affronted and hopeless.
The case at Smithy Wood is not a focal point in the eyes of the media, it is not the focal point of the ecological community. In the eyes of governance, it is in essence, just another obstructed planning application. Smithy Wood is no longer a pristine remote location, it is a collective of rugged old trees bordered by industry or housing at all sides; a mere remnant of former glory, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Imagine the ecosystem as a large net, degraded islands such as these are the fraying cross sections. Each, a habitat for local wildlife, a microcosm of biodiversity. It would only need a number of these strategic cross sections to tear for the net to fail; both Ecologists and Economists understand this.
What fascinates me about this situation is that the M1 is a long motorway with more than one potential development location. The developers chose a site, which from their standpoint, has no formal monetary value. They put their ruler against the land and saw it as worthless, an easy target. An adjacent brownfield site or farmland further along the M1 has a compensation value due to it having a nature of business ownership. Both have little community involvement. Loosely speaking, surely business to business is far easier to compensate than business to conservation?
If you are interested in the plight of Smithy Wood, please visit the Woodland Trust or Friends of the Earth Sheffield for conservation updates and also Sheffield Council itself for any updates (and public response) to the planning application.
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