This post is by Kate Jennings, head of site conservation policy at RSPB
When it comes to how we protect nature one thing is absolutely clear: we need to do more. As the State of nature report says, the UK is one of the most nature depleted countries on earth, and the steps taken to protect the best and to restore the rest have simply failed to address the problem at anything like the scale needed.
In his speech on 20 July, Environment Secretary George Eustice appeared to signal a genuine desire to do better for nature. But it left NGOs distinctly underwhelmed, with hints at yet another attack on laws which have long been relied upon to protect our finest sites and most vulnerable species.
This speech was followed a few days ago by Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick trailing forthcoming proposals for a fundamental reform of the planning system in England, expected later this week. His plans suggest that land will be divided into three categories: for protection (where areas such as ‘Green Belt’ and ‘Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty’ will be protected), renewal (where there will be a quicker ‘permission in principle’ approach to development), and growth (where new homes, hospitals, schools, shops and offices will be built without the need for permission).
The problem isn’t the law it’s the implementation
It is worth remembering that past reviews of nature protection laws have repeatedly found that they generally work well for nature and business, and that issues arise due to how those laws are implemented, rather than the laws themselves. There is also clear evidence that planning requirements are far from the main barrier to meeting the government’s targets for house building.
There is no appetite amongst the electorate for watering down these environmental protections. In fact, there is substantial support for strengthening them: polling by Bright Blue found that an astonishing 93 per cent of Conservative voters want to maintain or strengthen protections for habitats and wildlife.
The immediate question is to what extent weakening current protections and proposed planning reforms might be compatible with the government’s national and international commitments to deliver better outcomes for nature? Without seeing the detail of what is proposed there are of course more questions than answers, but some things are clear.
Better data on nature is vital
First, if nature is to be protected, we need to know where it is, through better spatial planning informed by better data. This has been a recommendation of successive previous reviews of the laws that protect nature in England, supported by NGOs and businesses alike. Until now, this has been ignored by successive governments.
Robert Jenrick’s speech made no mention of nature, so it is unclear whether all protected nature sites (Sites of Special Scientific Interest, Special Protection Areas, Special Areas of Conservation, Ramsar sites and Local Wildlife Sites), and those identified as needing such protection, will be included in the ‘protected’ category. An approach which only includes protected such sites is also far from enough to halt and reverse the loss of biodiversity and could open up much of the rest of the countryside for development.
The government has pledged to establish a Nature Recovery Network to restore habitats but this is yet to be mapped and must be a priority for resourcing in the forthcoming spending review.
Boris Johnson’s reference to “newt-counting delays”, in his ‘Build, Build, Build’ speech, masked a misunderstanding of the one area in which substantial progress has been made. Newts favour ephemeral habitats which are easy to create, and amenable to relocation. That is why a District Level Licensing approach is being rolled out, with strategic habitat creation and management in some areas freeing up development in others. If robustly implemented, this could work well for newts as well as developers. But while such an approach could work well for newts, it is not easily transferable to other species, many of which are longer lived, have more exacting habitat requirements or are site specific.
To be clear, if any protected sites, priority habitats or vulnerable species were to be missed and end up in either ‘growth’ or ‘renewal’ areas then, without the checks and balances provided by the current system (essential in the absence of comprehensive baseline data to identify where they are), there would appear to be no means to identify their presence and to prevent their loss, locking in far worse outcomes for nature than those provided by the current system.
We must avoid the scandal of development that destroys irreplaceable nature
The government is committed to the requirement that all development must lead to a net gain in biodiversity as proposed in the Environment Bill. This adds to the need for improvements in data and monitoring as, without a robust evidence base, it will be hard to know whether gains are being made and the end goal of improving nature is achieved.
The process of seeking planning permission also provides opportunities for developers to plan and manage for access to green spaces, which are essential for our health and wellbeing.
There is a risk that, if not properly thought through, planning reforms could result in a scandal of developments that destroy nature or result in its ongoing loss. Understanding the impacts, taking steps to avoid or to mitigate them where possible, and saying no to development where it is not, should remain an important foundation for planning, applying to individual developments but also at a more strategic scale.
If the government puts in place the systems and resources to allow for high quality, comprehensive data on the locations, extent and populations of wildlife, and the condition of habitats and species, it would significantly improve strategic spatial planning, and be a real win for nature and for development.
If it doesn’t, these proposals will be a missed opportunity and an accidental recipe for accelerating the decline of nature.
[Photo source: Pikist.com]