I spent yesterday in Defra talking about its two 25 year plans - for food and farming and a separate one for biodiversity. There is a rather obvious need to broaden the farming strategy beyond growth objectives and to align the two pieces of work (more on this soon), but it was good ministers and officials engaged and listening.
I emerged to find that the Government had reneged on its commitment to ban fracking from SSSIs (see blog from my colleague, Matt Williams here). My initial thought was that this must be a cock-up. Here is a Government that has committed to restoring nature in a generation and surely they'd stick to Amber Rudd's promise when she said in January "we have agreed an outright ban on fracking in national parks [and] sites of special scientific interest”?
But then I read the response from Decc that said the number of SSSIs "would have an adverse effect on the development of the shale gas industry." So the intention is clear - fracking in SSSIs is fair game. This is going to be one hell of a test for the the National Planning Policy Framework. Developers will now feel that they can chance their arm and target SSSIs expecting to make the case that the benefits outweigh the costs.
This completely runs roughshod over existing Defra SSSI commitments in the England Biodiversity Strategy and undermines its ambitions to restore nature in a generation. Nature conservation starts in protected areas and we need more, bigger, better and connected sites if we are to halt the loss of biodiversity.
Over the summer, we shall make the case why this is a wrong-headed decision and hope to convince parliamentarians to vote against this ruling when the law is voted on after summer recess.
I am reminded by this decision of the biblical quotation which should be addressed to this Government,"You shall not side with the powerful against the powerless".
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