ENVIRONMENT Secretary Owen Paterson today (Wednesday, September 25) suggested any potential damage to the landscape of a national park caused by a £1.5bn potash mine could be off-set elsewhere.

He visited the North York Moors National Park, where debate continues to rage about whether to allow the mine within its boundaries, near Sneaton, Whitby.

He was in the area to open a three-day conference in Easingwold on reaffirming the importance of landscape, and hand out awards to park apprentices.

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Ahead of the conference he said he wanted to emphasise the crucial role national parks play in conserving beautiful landscapes and the significant economic benefits they bring to the country.

He said the Government was  consulting on the idea of “biodiversity off-setting”, in which developers make up for the damage done to national areas by creating or enhancing habitats elsewhere in order to keep parks economically vibrant.

He said this could provide opportunities in national parks to boost growth.

The proposal is currently at consultation stage, but Mr Paterson said the Government was planning legislation.

The North York Moors National Park has spent much of this year processing proposals for the potash mine.

Earlier this year, planners for the park discussed the main issues of York Potash’s proposals, and committee members were told major developments likely to “result in harm to national parks” should be “refused in all but exceptional cases” but that potential jobs and wealth creation also had to be considered.

The decision will now be made at the end of 2014, when York Potash has resubmitted its plans.

When asked by The Northern Echo about the proposals for the £1.5bn potash mine, Mr Paterson said he was not aware of the details, but said any wealth-generating project’s cost to the environment could be off-set elsewhere in the park.

Speaking ahead of the conference this morning, he said: “I have no idea of what the detail is. If there’s a big economic project which brings jobs and wealth and keeps people working in parks, perhaps that’s something that off-setting could help.

“If potash is going to generate a lot of wealth, then something could be found in practice to bring in environmental benefit.

“Economic worth and environmental practice aren’t mutually exclusive. You can’t have one without the other.”

But after his speech at the Association of National Park Authorities' annual conference, countryside campaigners criticised the idea of off-setting environmental damage, saying some habitats were ''irreplaceable'' and part of the landscape.

A spokeswoman for the Campaign to Protect Rural England said: ''Exactly how would it be possible for a developer to replace, for example, ancient hedgerows by way of mitigation?

''Some habitats, particularly sensitive ones, are irreplaceable and thoroughly integral to the landscape's character because it's taken centuries to evolve - you can't just order a new one to be delivered somewhere else like it's an Amazon purchase.”