Government plans to weaken nature protections

George Eustice, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs & MP for Camborne and Redruth
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I’m not much a Zoom enthusiast but the invitation to listen to Defra secretary of state George Eustice give a “major” speech on the environment, via Green Alliance, seemed like too good an opportunity to miss. So, having finally got zoom to work on my computer, I sat and listened to him talk for 15 minutes or so. Gone was the verbal virtuosity, the jokes and the skilled delivery of Gove, replaced by a workaday trudge through a speech no doubt written by someone else, with the occasional stumble and a bizarre prounciation of plover (to rhyme with over).

Hidden amongst the greenwash/rhetoric (interestingly Defra trailed the big story of the speech as the tiny amount of money for Green Prescribing) were some big announcements though. As I didn’t take notes during the talk, I waited for the speech to be published before writing this. You can read it if you really want – here. This I think is the big one

“Later this autumn we will be launching a new consultation on changing our approach to environmental assessment and mitigation in the planning system. If we can front-load ecological considerations in the planning development process, we can protect more of what is precious.”

The EU’s Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Directive (from 1985) has been a cornerstone of UK environmental law for well over 30 years. While it has always been weak on things like Agriculture and Forestry, the EIA Directive and the Regulations which implemented it in UK law have shaped the way that built development of all kinds has impacted on the environment, not least through the Mitigation Hierarchy. This is an Environmental Principle akin to the Precautionary Principle. Simply put it says protect what needs to be protected, Minimise the impact of developments that have to happen, and compensate only as a last resort. Offsetting, of the kind being developed at breakneck speed in the “Net Gain” project, has been added onto the bottom of the Hierarchy. Take away 30 years of regulatory evolution and case law, and you blow a very large hole in the side of environmental protections, especially for internationally important species and habitats.

Eustice makes it sound like “Front-loading ecological considerations in the planning development process” is a new and exciting thing we can do once we’ve got rid of these pesky “spirit crushing” EU Directives. But this is what the Local Development Plan process is all about – identifying environmental features that need to be protected, restored or created, instead of having houses, roads of Free Ports built on them.

Far from protecting more of what is precious, stripping away the protections afforded via the EIA mechanisms will do precisely the opposite.

Early Gentian is one of a handful of British wild plants protected under the EU Habitats Directive. It is found in England and Wales, nowhere else. Photo by Miles KIng

Eustice indulged in some historical revisionism in his speech –

“while the environmental legislation we currently have is often credited to flagship EU directives like the Habitats Directive or the Birds Directive, these directives themselves were often principally about implementing at an EU level things that had already been agreed internationally through other international conventions like the Bern Convention. International conventions that the UK was always part of, will remain part of and where we will continue to drive international consensus for change and progress.”

This is an old canard and used to be wheeled out frequently, so it’s entertaining to see it again after all these years. It’s rubbish. When the UK made this claim as a way of avoiding having to do anything to implement the Habitats Directive in the early 90s, it was taken to the European Court and forced into action. It’s STILL failing to implement the Habitats Directive for some species and habitats 28 years later. The reason the Habitats Directive was created, was precisely because the Bern Convention had failed to arrest the decline of species like the err… very well-counted Great Crested Newt.

So the EIA framework is under threat. This has been on the cards since Brexit. What else isn’t new? Eustice also announced that he was overseeing a change in the way environmental data was going to be collected. To be honest I found his explanation in the Q and A very confusing. He talked about gathering better data from peri-urban areas, but then got distracted into talking about cauliflowers and broccoli (no really).

As a species protected by EU law, the Great Crested Newt has been derided by both former chancellor George Osborne and current PM Boris Johnson. Photo courtesy of Adrian Smith

It sounded like the old systems of Phase One Survey, National Vegetation Classification surveys; and Common Standards Monitoring for SSSIs are going to be abolished. Phase One is already on the way out, to be replaced by some new fangled system – called the Natural Capital and Ecosystem Assessment. If I were to be cynical I would conclude that a new system was going to be based on aggregate metrics, rather than data on individual species or habitats. That is after all where Net Gain has always been heading. Eustice says:

“If we can improve the baseline understanding of habitats and species abundance across the country in every planning authority, then we can make better decisions towards achieving our vision to leave the environment in a better state than we found it.”

Which begs the question what does Eustice think has been happening in planning authorities for the last 30 years and more? Or is he aware that thanks to cuts under this and previous Tory Governments, local planning authorities have almost all lost the expertise that held this knowledge, Local Record Centres have been cut to the bone, and nature NGOs which held this information have also been shutting projects through lack of support.

Eustice made mention of other things, not least redefining the Precautionary Principle to say more or less the opposite of what it actually says – so expect this to be incorporated into the new Environment Bill.

In conclusion, we can expect this Govt to continue its attack on all things EU-derived, and regulation more generally.

This article has been reproduced with permission from Miles King’s blog