Author: Jeff Knott, RSPB in the East's Regional Director

Back in January, Theresa May launched Defra’s long-awaited 25 year environment plan. A plan slathered in promises to secure a generational turn around in the fortunes of our natural world. One key idea was to create a ‘world-leading environmental watchdog’ to ensure the interests of our environment had a strong voice in decision making.

This was a perfect opportunity to not only uphold our environmental laws, but also to deepen and improve their enforcement as we leave the EU. Any laws are only as effective as the institutions that enforce them, so a strong, independent body is crucial.

An effective ‘world-leading environmental watchdog’ would be one established through new legislation, which sets out ambitious new targets for nature’s recovery – so that governments and devolved bodies can be held to account.

Last week we anticipated its arrival, waiting to be ‘wowed.’ Would this new watchdog deliver for wildlife? Put simply: no.

The proposals do not pave the way for a world-leading environmental watchdog that the Prime Minister promised, in fact the proposals amount to little more than a toothless, green lapdog. Under current proposals, vital principles of environmental law will only be enshrined in UK policy, not law, meaning our environmental protections will be severely weakened.

This body would only have the ability to issue weak ‘advisory notices.’ These written notices would only request people to comply with the law, with no enforcement, or apparent consequences for those who refuse to comply. They’d have no real teeth and chances are they would just be ignored. Essentially, they’re little more than a written ticking off. It’s the environmental equivalent of writing a burglar a polite letter asking them to consider not robbing any more houses.

This lack of a strong voice for nature is already being felt. Natural England, our current environmental regulator has undergone a shift in their approach. Their emphasis seems to have shifted away from ensuring rules are complied with, and towards enabling and facilitation; asking where nature might be allowed to fit around other activities, rather than putting nature first. Natural England’s strength is being put to the test right here in our region, right now.

Just off the shore of Great Yarmouth, lies Scroby Sands. This sand bank acts as a sanctuary for wildlife. It is especially important for common terns and little terns, which struggle to find undisturbed areas to nest and breed on our coasts. Coated in seals, and dotted with seabirds, Scroby Sands continues to grow and develop its status as one of the best wildlife spectacles on the eastern coast.

Scroby Sands is a legally protected site of European importance for wildlife, and little terns (a species that has suffered chronic declines over the past 25 years) are a legally protected species. However, this summer even the sanctuary of Scroby Sands won’t remain untouched from human disturbance.

Great Yarmouth Air Show could pose major threats to wildlife, as a conservation organisation, we have raised our concerns since October 2016 to both Great Yarmouth Borough Council, the Civil Aviation Authority, and Natural England. We hope that Natural England, as a regulator, will act as a voice for nature and not assent the Air Show, during this sensitive time of the tern’s breeding season.

A strong voice for nature is vital to ensure our special places and wildlife are properly protected, now and in the future.

Luckily, the plans for the new regulatory body are not final, and the UK government have opened them up to consultation. As we hope Natural England will see sense and protect Scroby Sands, we hope the Government will see sense with a new regulator. Nature needs help and the RSPB will continue to speak up for its needs, but we need your help. To help our special species and places, please visit the RSPB website and join us in asking for an effective ‘world-leading environmental watchdog’, by signing up to add your voice at http://bit.ly/campaignchampion

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