Conservationists are defending vital environmental legislation which protects the UK’s most important wildlife sites.
The RSPB has learnt that a review of the Habitats Regulations is set to be announced as part of the chancellor’s Autumn budget statement today (Tuesday Nov 29).
The Habitats Regulations have been protecting wildlife rich habitats including estuaries, heathland and chalk downland since 1994. They were brought in to stem the ongoing loss of these wildlife habitats and make sure the necessary checks and balances are in place when deciding where housing, ports, major road projects and other developments should go.
The regulations came into force in 1994 as a direct result of the European Habitats Directive, a historic and groundbreaking piece of environmental legislation. They cover Special Protection Areas (SPAs) and Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) which support a significant proportion of the UK’s wildlife. The presence of an SPA or SAC signals that special care is needed to avoid harm to precious wildlife
Mike Clarke, RSPB Chief Executive, said: “If the Government are planning a wholesale review of the Habitats Regulation then that would be a shock.
“While there may be some smarter ways to implement the rules, they have done a brilliant job of ensuring a world-class environment alongside a world-class economy is created in the UK
“We have had 17 years of a system which has protected our best wildlife sites, and now that appears to be under threat. Weakening these regulations will lead to a reign of environmental destruction that we have not seen in a generation. The regulations provide a litmus test for sustainable development – damaging development can only go ahead where there is a genuine overriding public interest.
“The regulations came in during the 1990s after decades when unconstrained development had led to a spiral of decline in the environment.
“We thought those dark days were behind us, but short-term interests clearly have the ear of the current Treasury department. We have heard worrying comments from George Osborne recently about environmental regulations bankrupting Britain, but this review takes that rhetoric one step further.
“Instead of building up our natural capital – a fundamental component of the wealth of our children – the Government is accelerating its depletion for the sake of its short term, unsustainable growth strategy.
“There is absolutely no contradiction between environmental protection and economic growth. High environmental standards provide the ‘green foundations’ which are essential for the UK’s long-term economic competitiveness and a high quality of life.”
As a result of the Habitats Regulations developers, planners and conservationists have worked together for 17 years to find creative solutions to development which potentially damages protected areas. The real challenge for the Government’s review is to make sure these positive approaches become common practice, so that economic development can go ahead without causing unnecessary damage to wildlife.
Projects that have taken place, or are in development, with safeguards and mitigation for wildlife as a result of this legislation include the London Array offshore wind farm, container ports at Immingham (Humber), London Gateway (Thames) and Bathside Bay (Stour), as well as the dualling of the A11 near Thetford.
However environmentally damaging developments that were allowed to proceed before the regulations came into force include the loss of many of Dorset‘s heathlands around Poole and Bournemouth to housing, the destruction of almost all of the wildlife rich mud flats in the Tees estuary and the accelerated commercial extraction that was destroying supposedly protected lowland raised peatbogs.