Building Back Greener – Defra’s Eustice announces Govt plans to weaken nature protections

 

George Eustice – hard Brexite and Environment Secretary

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 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.

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 per-urban areas, but then got distracted into talking about Cauliflowers and Broccoli (no really).

It sounded like the old systems of Phase One Survey, NVC 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.

 

About Miles King

UK conservation professional, writing about nature, politics, life. All views are my own and not my employers. I don't write on behalf of anybody else.
This entry was posted in Brexit, EIA, George Eustice, regulation and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to Building Back Greener – Defra’s Eustice announces Govt plans to weaken nature protections

  1. nirgunapa says:

    I think I need to read the Conservative Party manifesto – I’m sure that much of this is at odds with it.

    • Nimby says:

      I seem to recall something about not having to stick to their manifesto promises (sorry can’t locate it at the moment). Sadly, rather like voluntary guidelines politicians prefer they aren’t enforceable anyway and who could afford to even if they were?

  2. jezdagley says:

    Thanks Miles – a Helpful summary of a worrying if expected Direction of travel

  3. Nimby says:

    Thanks Miles, useful and confirm suspicion.

    Consultation …. with no guarantee that they’ll listen to feedback from? Like reviews, a way to kick things into the long grass?

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  8. Merle Stayne says:

    I definately will not be voting for this government in any future election. They do not value or appreciate the natural environment and our dependence on it.

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  20. Charles Routh says:

    I’m not sure of the relationship between the EIA directive and EIAs in planning applications, but (having worked with Natural England giving planning advice) I have to say that in my opinion EIAs are very clunky and add very little to ensuring developments don’t harm wildlife. In particular they don’t provide the information that allows planners to decide whether the relevant planning policy requirements have been met, and any pertinent information is quite easily hidden in the reams of guff. I rarely found them of any use when providing advice.

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