Environment secretary George Eustice wants to tear up a key piece of European law that environmentalists say protects cherished habitats in the UK.
Eustice told MPs the Habitats Directive was in a list of laws he wanted to amend in the forthcoming Brexit freedoms bill designed to cut red tape, saying it was bureaucratic and fundamentally flawed on multiple levels.
The directive has provided protections for UK habitats since 1992. It supports a network of areas – known as Natura 2000 sites – where special habitats are protected. There are more than 320 Natura 2000 sites in England, nearly 900 in the UK and more than 25,000 throughout Europe.
The sites offer more protection than the domestic designations, sites of special scientific interest (SSSIs). The regulations have been used in numerous cases to provide more protection for habitats and species. They also force developers who are allowed to go ahead with work to replace habitats under a legally binding compensation scheme. In Somerset the Steart Marshes, a £20.7m wetland reserve, was created to compensate for the loss of habitat on the Severn estuary, a Natura 2000 site, as a result of flood defense work.
Eustice, however, told MPs on the environmental audit committee that the habitats regulations would be on a list of laws he wanted to alter once given legal powers to do so under the freedoms bill.
“The more we have looked at this body of law, the more clear it has become that it is quite fundamentally flawed. It only engages when an activity is defined as a plan or a project, so if something needs a permit, or a license or planning permission the habitat regulations engage and start to require an assessment.
“An activity that is unlicensed in some way suddenly falls outside of scope and doesn’t engage the process,” he said.
He went on to say the regulations were “very ambiguous” and bureaucratic, requiring “lots of impact assessments to be drafted”. They contained “well-meaning ambitions to protect the environment” but did not do so, he said.
The nature green paper published by Eustice’s department argues that wiping the slate clean and ditching habitats regulation case law and rules would help to simplify the planning process.
Richard Benwell, chief executive of Wildlife and Countryside Link, criticized what he said was a retrograde and deregulatory direction that Eustice was taking.
“The habitats regulations are not some nuisance layer of legal process for the chop, nor some costly red tape that can simply be cut away,” he said.
“They remain the most effective protection for nature on the UK statute book, providing a rigorous defense for internationally important wildlife, in a way that gives certainty and confidence to businesses and ecologists alike.”
Benwell said there were ways in which the regulations could be improved, including more flexibility for climate change, wider application to harmful projects and even stronger protection from damaging developments.
“But simply stripping away the habitats regulations on the misguided assumption that other domestic laws can do the job alone would be a serious step backward in nature protection, as well as creating costly delay and uncertainty,” he said.
“The most important thing that Defra could do for our network of nature sites is to get on and designate more, and invest properly in their recovery.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism