Changes to the Habitats Regulations: will they truly deliver a brighter future for wildlife?

Our most threatened wildlife and important wild places are at risk. Don’t mess with the crown jewels - aka Habitats Regulations, writes Joan Edwards.

Yesterday the Environment Secretary, George Eustice, made a series of announcements that sowed seeds of hope for nature lovers.  From pledging to add a legally-binding target for ‘more’ wildlife (species abundance) by 2030 into the upcoming Environment Bill to committing to a consultation on banning the sale of peat products in garden centres and other retail outlets; the Secretary of State’s speech was the first step on a long journey towards nature’s recovery. 

Amongst a plethora of new targets and taskforces was an announcement that the Habitats Regulations in England would be “re-focused” to ensure they support the Government’s stated ambitions for nature. Whilst on the surface this may sound positive, it could be cause for alarm...

After his speech yesterday, the Secretary of State offered a firm guarantee that changes to these important nature protections would not mean any weakening or undermining of them.

He said that any amendments would be to ‘to maintain or to enhance the protections that we have.’  

It is absolutely vital that he sticks to his word because these regulations are there to protect our most valuable wild places and most threatened wildlife; they protect species and habitats of importance not just on a UK-scale, but on a European-scale, including otters and harbour porpoises, as well as land recognised as Special Areas of Conservation.

Politicians have tried for years to water-down these protections – even though we live in one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world and wildlife is more threatened than ever before. The Habitat Regulations are not just another piece of dull technical planning legislation – they are absolutely vital protections for wildlife, helping nature to survive in our increasingly developed land and seas. With almost half of UK wildlife in long term decline and 15% of species at risk of extinction, these regulations are more important now than ever.

This certainly isn’t the first time the Government has sought to review the Habitats Regulations in recent years. In fact, I have personally been involved in both the 2012 and 2016 reviews of the legislation on behalf of The Wildlife Trusts.

The 2012 review was demanded by George Osborne when he was Chancellor and sought to reduce the restrictions the Habitats Regulations placed on major infrastructure projects. Osborne was looking to cut red tape, save industry money and speed up development – yet the review from Natural England ultimately found that just a handful of land use consultations for infrastructure projects ended in rejections on environmental grounds.

In 2016, the EU Commission undertook a ‘fitness check’ of its Birds and Habitats Directives from which the Habitats Regulations derive; it found them “fit for purpose” after a consultation participated in by more than half a million EU citizens, fuelling demands for them not to be reformed. Time and time again the Habitats Regulations have been reviewed and ultimately found to be doing their job well.

We already know that the Secretary of State is not the Habitats Regulations biggest fan.

During the EU referendum he described the Birds and Habitats Directives as “spirit crushing”, suggesting that after Brexit the UK should take a more flexible approach to how it protects the environment.

But, when questioned by Craig Bennett, The Wildlife Trusts’ Chief Executive, after yesterday’s speech, George Eustice said, “the amendment can only be used providing it is either to maintain or to enhance the protections that we have”. The purpose of the amendment to the regulations, Eustice said, is to “hard wire” in the new 2030 species abundance target to the process of assessing habitats.

Defra’s new Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Lord Benyon, will chair a small working group on the new regulations, working with Natural England Chair Tony Juniper, Environment Minister Rebecca Pow and Christopher Katkowski QC. A Green Paper setting out early plans for the changes to the Habitats Regulations is expected this autumn.

We at The Wildlife Trusts will be holding the Secretary of State to his word and I will be working with Defra to make sure these amendments to the Habitats Regulations really do deliver a brighter future for wildlife and nature.