Some Sites Seem Irreplaceable, part 1

The report of the inquiry that has been carried out by Natural England (NE), at the instigation of the House of Commons HS2 Phase 1 Select Committee,  into the HS2 Phase 1 no net loss (NNL) calculation concludes that, for the purposes of biodiversity loss consideration, “protected habitats”, specifically sites of special scientific interest (SSSI), should be treated in the same way as irreplaceable habitats, i.e. “separately to avoid conflation with tradable habitats” (see footnote 1).

Now, it is my understanding that, whilst SSSIs may contain areas of irreplaceable habitat, this categorisation may by no means apply to all habitat within designated SSSIs, nor is irreplaceability of habitat a condition that must be satisfied to warrant the SSSI designation. It is, accordingly, not immediately apparent that SSSIs should be treated in the same way as irreplaceable habitat when considering biodiversity loss.

The NE report provides four grounds on which its conclusion is based.

For the first, the report cites a research paper by seven authors from institutions and organisations world-wide (see footnote 2), claiming that this paper suggests that “protected areas fall within the notion of irreplaceability, and as such are not tradable and, therefore, should not feature in biodiversity metrics” (see footnote 3). I have to say that I can find nothing in the paper to support NE’s claim: as far as I can see, the paper does not address the topic of whether “protected areas”, as it refers to sites such as SSSIs, should be treated as irreplaceable, and is actually concerned with proposing that offsetting money should be used to support the ongoing funding of such sites. Perhaps I am missing something.

The second ground contended in the NE report is that the NE position is “consistent with the Defra metric approach” (see footnote 3), which is supported by citing a Defra document that includes the following statement (see footnote 4):

“We would not normally expect the biodiversity offsetting mechanism to be used on designated sites and species protected under legislation. For such sites, existing policies and procedures will apply.”

Whilst this statement does indeed support the view that protected areas should not feature in biodiversity metrics, it does not explain why and does not specifically endorse regarding protected areas as irreplaceable.

The third ground is the claim that the exclusion of SSSIs from the offsetting metric is consistent “with the European Commission’s approach to NNL, which identifies NNL as a requirement for biodiversity compensation outside that which is covered by EU Directives” (see footnote 3). In this case the reference provided includes the following “preliminary definition of the No Net Loss principle” (see footnote 5):

“that conservation/biodiversity losses in one geographically or otherwise defined area are balanced by a gain elsewhere provided that this principle does not entail any impairment of existing biodiversity as protected by EU nature legislation.”

This citation, which is arguably the most helpful of the three that I have identified thus far, appears to be saying that, when considering biodiversity offsetting, protected areas should be regarded as non-tradeable, in view of the high level of legal protection afforded to them (see footnote 6). It is this factor that appears to be influencing the policy of excluding them from the offsetting metric, rather than any “notion of irreplaceability” – this interpretation also appears to be consistent with the Defra approach reported above.

The final ground offered in the NE report is that its review “has not been able to identify an ecological rationale to support the assumption for including SSSIs in the metric” (see footnote 7). Whilst this verges on opinion rather than evidence, it does add some support to the stance taken by Defra and the EU.

The NE report concludes that the “inclusion [of SSSIs] within the metric presents a risk of conflation and potentially setting an undesirable precedent” (see footnote 7).

The letter that HS2 Ltd sent to the Woodland Trust and The Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts, which I referred to in Cutting out the old wood, part 1 (posted 10 Dec 2016), rejects the NE recommendation, opining that “the logic of removing SSSI habitat [from the offsetting metric] is not as clear [as is the case for doing so for irreplaceable habitats]”. The HS2 Ltd is stated to be (see footnote 8):

“Whilst irreplaceable habitat within SSSIs will be removed from the [no net loss] calculation, we believe those habitats that are replaceable should remain, in order to continue to account for all losses and gains of the proposed Scheme.”

This offers no further concessions than those given in respect of irreplaceable habitats and, if the interpretation of the NE report that I have given above is correct, entirely misses the point that the recommendation that SSSIs are excluded from the no net loss metric is on the grounds of non-tradability, rather than irreplaceability.

In the light of this fundamental difference between developer and environmentalists, it came as no surprise that the Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts chose to raise this topic when it appeared before the House of Lords HS2 Phase 1 Select Committee in November 2016 to have its petition against HS2 heard: but, my report of that hearing will have to wait until my next posting.

(To be concluded …)


  1. See paragraph 3.20 in the report Review of the High Speed 2 No Net Loss in Biodiversity Metric, Natural England, November 2016.
  2. The paper is Githiru M, King M W, Bauche P, Simon C. Boles J, Rindt C, and Victurine R. Should biodiversity offsets help finance underfunded Protected Areas?, Biological Conservation 191 pp819-826, November 2015.
  3. See paragraph 3.15 in Review of the High Speed 2 No Net Loss in Biodiversity Metric.
  4. See paragraph 9 in the paper Biodiversity Offsetting Pilots. Information note for Local Authorities, Defra, March 2012.
  5. See under the sub-heading Reactions of the other institutions on the webpage No Net Loss, European Commission.
  6. Sadly, this is apparently not true in the case of HS2 and its impacts upon SSSIs.
  7. See paragraph 3.16 in Review of the High Speed 2 No Net Loss in Biodiversity Metric.
  8. See the first paragraph of the section Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) in the letter of 22ndNovember 2016 from HS2 Ltd (R Hargreaves) to the Woodland Trust (V Bankes-Price).

Acknowledgement: The HS2 Ltd letter of 22nd November 2016 is exhibits P5696(1) to P5696(7) on pages 362 to 368 in the Promoter’s bundle of evidence submitted to the Lords HS2 Select Committee in connection with the petition submitted by the Woodland Trust.




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