The environment faces a forfeit in favour of short-term economic growth. Again.
In yesterday’s autumn budget statement the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, attacked the laws protecting important UK wildlife sites from destruction by major developments. The Chancellor described the Habitats Regulations as a ‘ridiculous cost on British business’, claiming they were just ‘gold plating’ on European legislation, and spoke of burdening businesses with ‘endless social and environmental goals – however worthy in their own right’.
His comments have not gone down well. The Habitats Regulations came into force in 1994 to implement two EU wildlife directives; the 1979 Birds Directive and the 1982 Habitats Directive. They help to protect some of our rare woodland bats, such as the Bechstein’s bat, amongst many other vulnerable and protected species. They link up other protective measures and regulations across Europe and the UK. Business lobbyists have long criticised the regulations, as the requirement of a full assessment of the impacts of any change can make it much more difficult for development to take place on valuable nature areas. So far, so good then!
Defra is to carry out a review of the way the regulations are implemented between now and next March. They cannot be rewritten without the permission of the EU, however the Government appears to be aiming to relax the regulations. This aligns with a slackening of England’s planning regulations through the forthcoming National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), which many of our supporters challenged earlier this year. The NPPF has come under fire from the Trust along with a wide range of NGOs and organisations, for its ‘presumption in favour of development’ and its ambiguous use of the term ‘sustainability’.
The scientific evidence is clear: we can no longer place monetary gain before the needs of nature. The Government’s own review of England’s wildlife sites and ecological network, ‘Making Space for Nature‘, states, ‘We will not achieve a step-change in nature conservation in England without society accepting it to be necessary, desirable, and achievable. This will require strong leadership from government’.
Comments like those made by the Chancellor yesterday, and draft documents like the NPPF, may be designed to send out solidarity signals with business – but there have been various environmental documents published by the Government this year which call for greater value and importance to be placed on the environment, such as Biodiversity 2020 and the Natural Environment White Paper. Time and again the Government’s actions go against the grain of its own words. The National Ecosystem Assessment, the Natural Capital Committee and the Ecosystem Markets Task Force recognise that our prosperity in the long term depends on a healthy natural environment. These activities are the real way forward for a Government that wants growth but also claims to aspire to be the ‘greenest government ever’. Environmental protection has never been so important.