NEW environmental laws are leading to good agricultural land in Torridge being bought by developers for tree planting so they can meet their biodiversity requirements, councillors have claimed. 

Under the Environment Act 2021 which became law this year, all new development has to enhance nature by 10 per cent, but if it can’t be achieved on site it must be created somewhere else, and that could be anywhere in the UK. 

With 77 per cent of Torridge being farmland, councillors say large housebuilders and businesses especially in large cities are offsetting developments by creating nature havens on land in rural areas which traditionally has produced food. These offsets are known as biodiversity credits. 

The nature sites such as grassland, wetland or woodland have to be maintained for 30 years. 

Cllr Robert Hicks (Ind, Monkleigh and Torridge) said at a meeting of Torridge District Council’s community and resources committee that residents had “better stock up on baked beans.” 

“It’s the economics of the madhouse,” he said. “It’s destroying good agricultural land. The better the land, the keener the companies are to acquire it because they get more points. 

“We are losing land to Network Rail, HS2, every supermarket you can think of for 30 years to replant trees which will then go back into firewood and the land reclaimed …in the meantime members of the public in Torridge will go hungry.” 

Cllr Rosemary Lock (Con, Two Rivers and Three Moors) said by buying fields which local farmers couldn’t afford, big companies were making themselves look good when it came to climate change.” 

“It’s the new business deal. First it was carbon credits, now it’s this one and no wonder landowners want to get involved as there is money to be made,” said Cllr Chris Leather (Ind, Northam). 

He added that the council had been achieving biodiversity net gain for some time without the new legislation and had been “ahead of the game”. 

“Biodiversity should be provided on the site that is being developed. If not possible, it should be nearby. It sticks in my throat that companies from outside the area can come in and plant trees or create wetland here. It’s a right racket. It opens the gates to everyone.” 

Officers said buyers and sellers could find each other through the private market place but the council could facilitate the delivery of these ‘habitat banks’ and “have some control”. 

Through a special legal agreement, the council would monitor the sites for fees ranging from £4,000 to £6,000 and make sure they delivered over the 30 years. 

There are currently no habitat banks in Torridge, but the district council is beginning to get enquiries from interested landowners, the committee was told. 

Natural England will operate a statutory national register of habitat banks. 

Cllr Lydon Piper (Lib Dem, Holsworthy) said this is the best chance of the council having a level of control, as private companies “might take up the industry” otherwise. 

By Alison Stephenson