We are still reeling from the Chancellor's economic statement. I summed up our mood in an interview I gave to Farming Today (about 8 minutes in).
We can just about live with a review of the Habitats Regulations. As in the 2006 Davidson review, we think that the regulations will stand up to scrutiny. They have served us well for seventeen years during a period of unprecedented economic growth. We will, of course, engage constructively with the review. But to be clear - we will fight any attempt to dilute protection. It is what wildlife deserves and our supporters expect nothing less.
Let's also remember that the UK is at the bottom of the EU league table for the percentage of our land covered in wildlife sites of European importance. This does not look like gold-plating to me.
Yet the rhetorical intent from the Chancellor and the substance of the announcement made his intentions clear: he has no truck with sustainable development or ‘green economy’ investment approaches and absolutely no regard for climate change. While the Environment Secretary, Caroline Spelman, has repeatedly stated that a healthy natural environment underpins our economic prosperity, it appears that the Chancellor does not share this view.
It is ironic how some people see the EU Birds and Habitats Directives (and the accompanying Habitat Regulations) as a constraint on economic activity when in fact recent Government research demonstrates that it pays to invest in protecting our finest wildlife sites. The EU Nature Directives are responsible for the UK’s modern SSSI system – 80% of which underpin and are essential to the effective management of Natura 2000 sites. Evidence suggests that SSSIs generates benefits 8 times the investment in maintaining them. Such sites makes an immense contribution to the wellbeing of the millions of people who visit them each year.
So, during the review, whose terms of reference have now been published, we shall make the case that the Habitat Regulations should be treated as a force for good. Rather than overlook them or implement them in a partial and muddled way, we shall argue that they are key to achieving most of the aims for biodiversity set out in the recent Natural Environment White Paper.
They could help both shape and unlock landscape scale conservation in the UK - something that this Government wants and is backing to the tune of £7.5million.
The Directives themselves were born partly out of a desire to prevent any country from obtaining competitive advantage by destroying her local environment. They both create a level playing field across the EU, but also raise standards in environmental stewardship. In many ways, their legal framework provides the key to “smart regulation” complemented by other instruments in the conservation toolkit, whether they involve fiscal measures, exhortation, or the use of market instruments. Positive and timely investment in implementing the Directives can benefit strategic planning for key industries and avoid potential regulatory blight – for example by appropriate investment in establishing a coherent network of marine protected areas, in particular marine Natura 2000 sites.
My message to the Chancellor is, if you must, review these regulations and do consider ways of "enhancing the environmental benefits" - our prosperity will benefit. But, I am sure that I speak to for anyone who cares about wildlife when I say, do nothing to weaken them.
I shall use this blog to help provide updates on our engagement with the review and other issues which have emerged from this week's announcement. In the meantime, why don't you write to your MP to let her/him know what you think about the Chancellor's statement. I'm sure that they would love to hear your views.
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