Eustice gives assurances on ‘cautious’ Habitats Regulations reform

Environment secretary George Eustice has attempted to placate concerns that new powers in the Environment Bill will be used to water down the Habitats Regulations.

George Eustice was questioned by Craig Bennett, The Wildlife Trusts’ Chief Executive. Photograph: The Wildlife Trusts George Eustice was questioned by Craig Bennett, The Wildlife Trusts’ Chief Executive. Photograph: The Wildlife Trusts

In a speech yesterday, Eustice made a series of announcements, including that a statutory target to improve species abundance by 2030 will be inserted into the bill, alongside new plans for tree planting, species reintroductions and ending the sale of peat.

But his plan to “refocus” the regulations, “to ensure our legislation adequately supports our ambitions for nature, including our new world leading targets, rather than remaining tied to legacy EU legislation,” as he told the Commons the day before, has sparked criticism from the environmental community. 

What this means for pre-development environmental assessments, which the prime minister has dismissed as “newt counting delays” that form “a massive drag on the prosperity of this country”, remains vague. Plans to amend environmental impact assessment and strategic environmental assessment regimes were mentioned in the Queen’s speech last week.

But in a blog yesterday, Joan Edwards, policy and public affairs director at the Wildlife Trusts warned off Eustice from radical change. “Our most threatened wildlife and important wild places are at risk. Don’t mess with the crown jewels,” she wrote.

After his speech yesterday, Eustice was asked whether he will ensure the Habitat Regulations are not undermined, “and isn’t it a threat to the good progress we are making?”.

“I can give that assurance, and actually that will be explicit on the face of the bill, so the amendment can only be used provided it is either to maintain or to enhance the protections that we have,” Eustice replied. He had earlier promised “a cautious approach to reform”.

“You are always going to need to have a screening process and an assessment process for some of these projects. But within that, we also have to say that the Habitats Regulations predated the Environment Bill, predated crucially this groundbreaking target we’ve set today, and if you are going to have a duty on public bodies to hit those targets, then surely the targets we have set today should be reflected in the Habitat Regulations.

"So rather than having a set of regulations that only have a reference to an EU directive, we should also be looking to see how we can hardwire in the targets we have set today to the way we approach these assessments,” he added.

“It is absolutely vital that he sticks to his word because these regulations are there to protect our most valuable wild places and most threatened wildlife; they protect species and habitats of importance not just on a UK-scale, but on a European-scale, including otters and harbour porpoises, as well as land recognised as Special Areas of Conservation,” Edwards wrote.

“Politicians have tried for years to water-down these protections – even though we live in one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world and wildlife is more threatened than ever before. The Habitat Regulations are not just another piece of dull technical planning legislation – they are absolutely vital protections for wildlife, helping nature to survive in our increasingly developed land and seas. With almost half of UK wildlife in long term decline and 15% of species at risk of extinction, these regulations are more important now than ever,” she added.

The rules have been reviewed twice over the past decade, the first in 2012 being ordered by then chancellor George Osborne to accelerate and cheapen major infrastructure projects. But it came to little, with the review finding that few assessments led to rejections.

The European Commission’s 2016 ‘fitness check’ of the underlying Birds and Habitats Directives also found them to be sound. But the same year, ahead of the Brexit referendum, Eustice said they merited a more flexible approach.

“The Birds and Habitats Directives would go,” he told the Guardian. “A lot of the national directives they instructed us to put in place would stay. But the directives’ framework is so rigid that it is spirit-crushing.

“If we had more flexibility, we could focus our scientists’ energies on coming up with new, interesting ways to protect the environment, rather than just producing voluminous documents from Brussels.”

A green paper on the reforms is expected this autumn.

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