This summer, 520,000 European citizens – including over 100,000 from the UK – sent a clear message to the European Commission that they place great value on the laws that protect nature (the EU Nature Directives). By using their voices for nature they have shouted loud and clear that the outcome of the current ‘Fitness Check’ of these laws should be a renewed focus on better implementation and enforcement. They, and a coalition of 100 NGOs from across the four countries of the UK, believe that making changes to these laws at a time when nature is in crisis would fundamentally undermine our collective efforts to halt and reverse the loss of biodiversity by 2020.

The Nature Directives are important for protecting special places like the Cairngorms, for driving species recovery like Red Kite and for people such as those living in the North Kent Marshes

But it is clear there are some who hold a different view. These people are quite difficult to identify as they seem to do their business in dark corridors across Europe and seem reluctant to speak publicly. But their main gripes are clear; they argue that the Directives are a ‘burden’ on business and a ‘barrier to growth’.

In many debates about Europe, myths develop that are often based on anecdote rather than an objective assessment of the facts.  So, I thought I'd take the opportunity to debunk some of the Nature Directives-related myths so as to encourage others to come forwards and share their views.

Contrary to myth, the Directives are good for nature AND business.  

Smart businesses recognise the need to protect biodiversity, and value the clear and consistent level playing afforded  by the well-established regulatory framework provided the EU Nature Directives. This provides businesses with certainty and helps to ensure that no Member State can gain a competitive advantage over others through the adoption of lower environmental standards.  For example...

...Cemex – a leading supplier of cement, ready-mixed concrete and aggregates – has stated that "... sound and well implemented legislation are important in order to provide a level playing field for industry and stimulate innovation and enhanced performance. The EU Birds and Habitats Directives provide an appropriate and effective legal instrument for the conservation of biodiversity in Europe and an appropriate framework for the development of extractive activities in harmony with nature."

...Energy UK – the trade association for the UK energy industry – has stated that "[Our members]... are very familiar with the EU Nature Directives and consider that they are very important to nature conservation. The Nature Directives are generally achieving their conservation objectives and we do not wish them to undergo significant revision. Re-opening the Directives would introduce a degree of unnecessary uncertainty to energy project developments that would damage investor confidence at a time when it is vital to deliver new energy infrastructure...that contributes to UK and EU renewable energy targets."

...the European Landowners Association has stated that “One of the principal benefits of the Nature Directives is the extent to which it helps ensure a level playing field...a basic standard of environmental protection which all Member States must meet. This accords with the terms of the Single Market and its requirements for common standards and mutual recognition.”

And both Defra  and Decc appear to agree with this view... its submission to ‘Fitness Check’ consultation, Defra stated that the Directives “…provide a level playing field by requiring that Member States all set a broadly similar level of ambition without compromising economic growth.” and that they “ensure that no Member State is able to gain a commercial advantage over another Member through taking lesser action”. In addition, they have “improved the development of conservation measures and raised the level of ambition”.

...and Decc stated that the legislation ...provides a high level of certainty for businesses...even if, in a minority of cases, the Directives do cause difficulties. It is difficult to quantify the financial benefits of the current stable legislative climate. There is a risk that if the Nature Directives were opened up for review with possible changes of an unknown nature and timescale, then this could introduce additional uncertainty which may affect investment decisions. In most cases, costs are considered proportionate to the size of the project and to the level of environmental risk.”

Projects like Wallasea  – an innovative partnership project between the RSPB and Crossrail – also highlight the importance of the Nature Directives in driving positive and sustainable developments for people, business, and wildlife.

Contrary to myth, the Directives do not place ‘disproportionate’ or ‘unnecessary’ burdens on business, or act as a block on development.

The UK Government’s own review (the 2012 Habitats and Wild Birds Directives Implementation Review) found no evidence to support the “burden” claim. Instead, it found that “in the large majority of cases the implementation of the Directives is working well, allowing both development of key infrastructure and ensuring that a high level of environmental protection is maintained.” 

In particular, the evidence suggests that...

...Of the approx. 27,000 land use consultations received by Natural England each year, less than 0.5% are objected to on Habitats Regulations grounds, and most of these objections are successfully dealt with at the planning stage.

...Defra figures for environmental regulations as a whole suggests that the costs are outweighed 3:1 by the benefits (only some of which can be estimated in monetary terms), and account for less than 2% of industry turnover on average.

This makes it clear - the Directives do not prevent all development; they simply provide the minimum safeguard necessary to ensure that biodiversity is properly taken into account when planning decisions are taken.

Nevertheless, the UK Government review did identify a range of practical solutions to improve implementation and reduce costs within the legislative framework provided by the Directives, including the development of clearer and more consistent guidance, more streamlined licensing processes, introduction of clear conservation objectives for protected sites and improved access to/availability of data (see also protected species below). The recommendations of the review were supported by both businesses and NGOs. Yet, as pointed out by Energy UK in their response to the ‘Fitness Check’  “many are yet to be fully implemented.”

Contrary to myth, the Directives take a sensible and proportionate approach to protecting species like great crested newts.  

When it comes to species like  great crested newts that are strictly protected by the Directives, there are some who believe that the Directives are placing disproportionate obligations on developers, and the solution to this is that such species should no longer be granted protection.

While it is true that problems can sometimes arise when it comes to these ‘problem’ species, such problems need to be kept in perspective. According to the UK Governments own figures...less than 0.05% of planning permissions each year in England require a licence for European Protected Species.

Moreover, where problems do arise, they relate not to the laws (Directives) themselves, but rather to the way in which they have been implemented. The evidence suggests that solutions that work within the existing legislative framework are available.  For example...

...the great crested newt has suffered substantial declines over recent decades in the UK and Europe which is why it is protected under the Habitats Directive.  The current approach to licensing development that affects this species has been criticised by some developers and landowners who feel that the cost and delays they have encountered are disproportionate (for example requiring the capture and relocation of individuals).  Fortunately, Natural England in partnership with Woking Borough Council will shortly be piloting a new approach (here) designed to speed up development and improve the conservation of great crested newts.  If successful, this will influence any future licensing regime.  

The problems that people have encountered are nothing to do with the law, rather how we choose to implement  it.  I am pleased that creative approaches are now being explored to overcome difficulties without compromising the conservation of threatened species.

Contrary to myth, the Directives are coherent with other EU policies... but the Common Agricultural Policy remains an issue.

Recent reports on the State of Nature in the EU have once again highlighted that the main drivers of biodiversity loss in the EU are land use changes, and most notably agricultural intensification. At the same time, many of the habitats and species that are protected under the Directives are dependent on, or associated with, extensive farming systems and practices for their continued survival. In such cases, support is required to both (i) ensure the economic viability of the extensive farming systems on which the beneficial management depends, and (ii) addresses the specific management practices needed for the conservation of the key habitats and species.

Unfortunately, only a small portion of EU Common Agricultural Policy supports farmers that provide a range of public goods such as an attractive countryside rich in wildlife accessible to all. It is possible to farm in harmony with nature; in the long-run, the two are inextricably linked. However, perverse subsidies and inadequate support for high-nature value farmers is hindering, rather than helping, the EU to meet its biodiversity conservation goals.

So to conclude this rather long myth-busting blog...

The Directives are not a burden on business or a barrier to growth. They are good for people, nature, and business. If and when problems do arise, the solutions lie in better implementation and greater investment in nature conservation.

This is why the Aldersgate Group have called on the UK Government to “...champion smart environmental regulation in key areas of European legislation. Priorities should include...the effective implementation of the Habitats and Birds Directives.”

The case for better implementation and greater investment in nature is supported by citizens, NGOs, and businesses. As well as deflecting attention from the much needed focus on implementation and wider action for nature, making changes to the Directives now would be undermine decades of progress in clarifying requirements and developing best practice, and would cause sustained uncertainty for developers and investors alike.

It's time to put these myths to bed and for politicians to come out and proudly support the EU Nature Directives.