Compensation culture, part 3

(… continued from Compensation culture, part 2, posted on 20 Feb 2017).

The Government’s attitude to environmental protection appears to be very much a Jekyll and Hyde act. In the guise of the good Dr Jekyll it publishes well-meaning policy documents, but the evil Mr Hyde, in the guise of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), is out to ride roughshod over this good intention and, as is usually the case, evil seems to be triumphing over good.

Take, for example, the joint Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and Forestry Commission publication Keepers of Time. This is clearly the Government’s Dr Jekyll personality at work because one of the stated policy aims of this document is that the “existing area of ancient woodland” – which is described as a “living cultural heritage, a natural equivalent to our great churches and castles” – “should be maintained”. In pursuance of this policy aim, the document sets a strategic object to take “steps to avoid losses of ancient woodland and of ancient and veteran trees” (see footnote 1).

But, the malevolence of Mr Hyde won’t let this good intention go unchallenged, and has spawned a paragraph in the National Planning Policy Framework that permits a developer to destroy ancient woodland and veteran trees where the “need for, and benefits of, the development in that location clearly outweigh the loss” (see footnote 2). I’m not sure how you can possibly demonstrate this justification and, in the case of the HS2 project, I have never seen any attempt being made; it just seems to be assumed that the loss of ancient woodland is an acceptable price to pay for HS2.

The influence of the Government’s superego is also evident in its Biodiversity 2020 strategy document. This strategy identifies a “mission” to be achieved by the year 2020 that includes as a target “to halt overall biodiversity loss” (see footnote 3). The document claims that the Making Space for Nature review – known commonly as “The Lawton Report” – concludes that “the first priority is to protect and enhance the quality of existing priority habitat” (see footnote 4 and footnote 5), and adds the undeniably true observation that it “is much harder, more expensive and not always possible to re-create habitat than it is to look after what we currently have” (see footnote 6).

Biodiversity 2020, whilst generally following the Lawtonian tenet of “protect and enhance”, is not totally unwavering in its faith, conceding, as it does, that “in some cases, biodiversity losses may be inevitable”. In such circumstances, Biodiversity 2020 requires that those losses are made up for balancing gains elsewhere – the principle of “no net loss” (NNL). Notwithstanding, Government policy, as expressed in Biodiversity 2020 is that, whilst ideally the loss and the gain should involve the same habitat type, pragmatism may require that this need not necessarily be the case, but that “replacing the rare and threatened with the commonplace” should not be acceptable (see footnote 7).

This general outline of the application of the NNL principle in Biodiversity 2020 raises important questions in two associated areas that have direct implications for the HS2 project: under what circumstances the loss of priority habitat to development might be acceptable, and how far the creation or improvement of other habitat can satisfy the NNL requirement. In the remaining parts of this series I will discuss these two areas, both in general terms and their specific relevance to the HS2 project.

But, before moving on to these discussions, we need to recognise that the dastardly Mr Hyde and his instrument of darkness, the NPPF, appear set to thwart the good intentions of Biodiversity 2020. The same paragraph as appears to give a developer an easy justification for destroying ancient woodland and veteran trees, provides the same defence to allow him to cause an “adverse effect” on a Site of Special Scientific Interest (see footnote 8).

I find this all extremely frustrating. It is really not enough for the Government to publish, from time to time, a glossy policy document, launched with a speech from a minister crammed full of meaningless platitudes. The fine words in such documents, it would appear from what is actually happening to our natural environment, butter no parsnips, they merely serve, it seems, to salve the conscience of successive governments.

(To be continued …)


  1. See pages 10 and 11 of the publication Keepers of Time: A statement of policy for England’s ancient and native woodland, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and Forestry Commission, 2005.
  2. See the fifth bullet point of paragraph 118 of the document National Planning Policy Framework, Department for Communities and Local Government, March 2012. For more on this clash of policies, please see my blog A truth universally acknowledged (posted 3 Nov 2014).
  3. See 2020 Mission on page 12 of the publication Biodiversity 2020: A strategy for England’s wildlife and ecosystem services, Defra, August 2011.
  4. I have been unable to locate this conclusion, expressed in the precise terms used in Biodiversity 2020, in the report Lawton, J H, et al, Making Space for Nature: a review of England’s wildlife sites and ecological network, report to Defra, September 2010. Nevertheless, the prioritising of the protection and enhancement of the quality of existing priority habitat would be consistent with the recommendations of the Lawton Report.
  5. A list of priority habitat types may be found on the webpage, UK BAP list of priority habitats, Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC).
  6. See paragraph 2.5 of Biodiversity 2020: A strategy for England’s wildlife and ecosystem services.
  7. See paragraph 3.10 of Biodiversity 2020: A strategy for England’s wildlife and ecosystem services. It is, perhaps, significant that the example given in Biodiversity 2020 of a circumstance that might make biodiversity losses inevitable, “unavoidable climate change”, is not one that could be laid at the door of any one particular project: it is not clear how far Biodiversity 2020 would go in classifying specific developer activities that lead directly to biodiversity losses as “unavoidable”.
  8. See the second bullet point of paragraph 118 of National Planning Policy Framework.

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