Wildlife charities with a combined membership of over a quarter of a million people in the south west have today called on the Chancellor, George Osborne MP, to put the region’s rich and iconic nature at the heart of economic development in the run up to what could be one of the most important budgets for the environment in decades.
In his Autumn Statement 2011, the Chancellor announced a review of the way that two important pieces of European wildlife law are put into practice in England. A weakening of these laws could see such iconic landscapes as Salisbury Plain, the Lizard, Dartmoor, the Severn Estuary and Poole Harbour, and the rich wildlife they support, at risk from inappropriate development.
The Habitats and Birds Directives have provided valuable protection for Europe's most threatened habitats and species for over 30 years; they are arguably the two most important mechanisms for embedding the value of nature in decision-making.
The coalition of wildlife groups is calling upon people and organisations to support their call by emailing or writing to the Chancellor and contacting their own MPs before the Budget on 21 March.
Tony Richardson, RSPB South West Regional Director, said: “The effective implementation of these directives provides a key test for sustainable development, of how we balance economic, social and environmental needs. They are fundamental to meeting our national and international biodiversity commitments.”
In the South West the Habitats and Birds Directives are responsible for the protection of much of the region’s precious wildlife through the designation of Special Areas of Conservation and Special Protection Areas.
Tony continued: “The Government in ordering the review is keen to establish if the Directives are a barrier to economic growth and if the UK is doing more than is required in their implementation – the oft repeated criticism is that they are “gold-plated”.
“First of all the vast majority of planning applications are unaffected by the Directives, and very few of those that are result in objections relating to them. For example, the RSPB has commented nationally on less than 0.04 per cent of all planning applications in England between 2001-2010 (c.217 per year), with very few of these resulting in us objecting.”
“Secondly the RSPB has found no evidence of gold-plating in English law, the same finding as that by the independent Davidson Review in 2006. Indeed, the lack of a coherent network of marine Special Protection Areas is evidence that in places the adoption of the Directives in the UK is actually incomplete.”
The region’s wildlife charities do however see areas where the Directives could be improved.
In a small proportion of cases there are flaws in putting the law into practice. Often this is associated with lack of scientific information on key habitats and species. In these cases the authorities responsible for ensuring the legality of decisions have to act using the “precautionary principle”. Wildlife charities would much rather decisions were based on evidence.
To ensure this happens, and to ensure developers get clear advice, society needs to invest in and support agencies such as Natural England and the Marine Management Organisation to ensure that they have the skills, resources and freedom to give impartial scientific advice to the government.
The charities are also keen to stress that it is vital that they continue to work with planners and industry. Where they have been doing this for many years the charities say there is a much improved understanding of the process and conflict is rare.
The wildlife charities are also concerned about potential “over-simplification” of guidance.
Tony Richardson; “Providing good guidance is vital. Sometimes it is complex but the danger of oversimplification is that it can lead to ambiguity. And this can lead to developments being bogged down in endless legal debate which is costly to both wildlife oragnisations and business and serves no-one.”
Quotes from County Wildlife Trust Chief Officers:
Steve Grainger, Chief Executive Officer of Avon Wildlife Trust: "The Directives protect some of England's most important conservation sites, locally including the Severn Estuary, Chew Valley, Avon Gorge, and a large area around Bath and Bradford on Avon which is a Special Area of Conservation for bats. Such sites across England are enjoyed by millions of people each year and are vital to the recovery of England's natural environment, as set out in last year's Natural Environment White Paper. Implementation of the Directives can no doubt be improved but any restriction on them will water down the protection of such sites and put them at increased risk."
Dr Gordon McGlone OBE, Chief Executive of Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust said: "Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust are concerned that the former Northern United Colliery - a major regeneration site in Gloucestershire which is home to three important species in the county - has not received the attention is it due in the Habitats Directive. Any further weakening of the planning regulation in respect of the Habitats Directive could lead to serious and irrecoverable loss of Gloucestershire's wildlife."
Harry Barton, Chief Executive of Devon Wildlife Trust said: “The Habitats Regulations safeguard the very best sites we have for our rarest wildlife, the cathedrals of our natural world. There is no convincing evidence that the regulations are hindering economic growth. The government should stick to its principles, and make sure our priceless, irreplaceable natural heritage is properly protected.”
Victoria Whitehouse, Head of Nature Conservation for Cornwall Wildlife Trust said: “Cornwall Wildlife Trust supports development done in the right way in the right place that doesn’t have negative consequences for wildlife. As a Wildlife Trust we cannot support policies that create short term profit at the expense of our countryside and wildlife. If our environmental laws are weakened, it would leave vital habitats open to development such as our nationally significant heathlands on The Lizard, the stunning north coast at St Agnes and the wet woodlands at Goss Moor. All are Special Areas of Conservation and are protected, for now. Nature is vital to our quality of life and at a time of economic recession, we must work together to get the best results for nature and the economy.”
Simon Cripps, Chief Executive of Dorset Wildlife Trust, said: “This legislation has been instrumental in protecting Dorset’s heaths from increasing urban pressures, for example in the recent decision by the Secretary of State to turn down development at Talbot Heath in Bournemouth. Far from putting a stop to all new homes, a planning framework has been put in place in Dorset to enable development, provided it takes steps to avoid harming heathland. Our heaths are still under huge pressure from disturbance and damage near surrounding houses, and any reduction in legal protection could cause irreparable harm to an invaluable green space that contributes to Dorset’s economy and to the wellbeing and health of its communities.”
Lisa Schneidau, Director of Conservation at Somerset Wildlife Trust, said: “Somerset Wildlife Trust believes that a healthy, flourishing natural environment is essential to the health of Somerset's economy and of its people. A progressive and intelligent system of regulation and planning for England must have environmental principles at its heart, together with the building blocks for economic and social investment. Somerset Wildlife Trust is very concerned at the short-sighted and irresponsible signals that have been coming from the Treasury about the environment, including threats to the current insufficient levels of environmental protection for Somerset's precious wildlife habitats and species. We call on the Government to show consistent leadership across all its departments, to demonstrate what we already know to be true: that a healthy economy and a healthy environment must go hand in hand.”
Dr Gary Mantle, Director of Wiltshire Wildlife Trust said: “Wiltshire is famous for its chalk rivers, chalk grasslands and meadows. The best of these in Wiltshire are of European importance and are designated as such under the Habitats Directive. These include sites like the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust’s wildflower meadows at Clattinger Farm. Salisbury Plain and the River Avon are other examples. The Habitats and Birds Directives have not inhibited the use of Salisbury Plain as the largest Military Training Area in the UK. The Directive has ensured a very constructive and positive dialogue between the MOD and conservation bodies enabling both military training objectives and conservation objectives to be met.”