Britain's wildlife could be boosted by the introduction of a conversation credit scheme proposed today by Tory leader David Cameron.
A fresh wave of community-driven country parks and other large-scale projects could balance the drive for development with protecting biodiversity.
The Opposition leader said a more lateral approach was needed to promote conservation without adding cost and red tape.
He explained how his party was considering the introduction of “conservation credits” that could be pooled by communities to create large-scale projects rather than token efforts to 'green' individual new buildings.
Speaking as he toured Chimney Meadows Nature Reserve in Bampton, Oxon, Cameron said more imaginative approaches were needed to protect and promote Britain's natural heritage.
“We have to make sure that our approach to development is consistent with developing biodiversity,” he explained. “We have to find a way to build the houses we need and the infrastructure our communities require whilst preserving the parts of nature that can so easily be destroyed in the name of progress.
“At the moment we have a pretty unimaginative system where every new development has to tick boxes in terms of protecting habitats and wildlife. Yes, some of those boxes must be ticked, but there are no real incentives for conservation. It’s time to be more imaginative.
“Instead of regulation alone, it would be better to give communities and businesses the incentives to do the right thing and pool the resources from development to create larger conservation projects that can benefit everybody.
“We should look at international examples of systems of conservation credits to see if we can establish a new approach here that helps communities take action to improve biodiversity when development takes place. In the same way in which we are now recognising the importance of putting a price on carbon, society needs to recognise the significance of attributing a value to biodiversity.”
Likening it to the accepted systems of "credits" for carbon emissions, he said: “The idea, to put it simply, is that any cost to biodiversity, through something like development, is compensated for by at least an equivalent investment in biodiversity elsewhere. So instead of simply planting trees on a small patch of land on the edge of a new housing development, for example, conservation credits would allow several developments in one area to be pooled to create large habitat projects.
“This could be a new country park or community woodland, so there was somewhere for local children to play and learn about their environment. It could be new wetlands, or a new wildlife reserve. These projects would not only provide significant enjoyment to people, they would also create new habitats in which nature can survive and thrive.
“Conservation credits are about placing a value on biodiversity for the first time, because only if you place a value on something can you truly compensate for loss. This is potentially an incredibly exciting idea to enhance biodiversity, but the practicalities need careful consideration. Any system must be consistent with our local objectives.”
Cameron explained that it was essential the scheme would not create a financial burden on the property market or add to bureaucratic red tape.
“We must take care not to put unaffordable burdens on home ownership,” he added. “It will have to be fully consistent with our plans to expand the number of affordable homes.
“The system mustn’t make it more difficult for responsible businesses to make green choices and invest in local conservation projects. And it mustn’t create a new bureaucracy - in fact, it should do the opposite the aim should be to give companies and voluntary organisations a new way of engaging in enhancing biodiversity, without a complex apparatus of state regulation.
“We also need to find ways to make it easier for local people to create wildlife habitats close to home which families can enjoy. I’m confident these details can be worked out – I want them to be worked out.”
Shadow Environment secretary Nick Herbert will head a review into introducing the system of conservation credits in England.