During a debate on the bill on Monday, Labour peer Baroness Young went as far as condemning the government’s proposed new powers as “tantamount to a declaration of war”, and questioned why the government wanted to “put their head into this particular lion's den”.
“Why does the government want to junk one of the decent pieces of EU legislation? Is it simply because it is a European law?”, she queried. Young also suggested the minister may be being “forced into sweeping the ground for a set of planning proposals that have not been seen across government yet, let alone by your Lordships or the public”.
In May the government introduced two new clauses to the Environment Bill; the first would confer a power allowing ministers to swap the duty on public authorities to satisfy the requirements of the EU Nature Directives, with one to satisfy the requirements of the Environment Bill targets.
The second, clause 106, confers a power upon the secretary of state to amend part of the regulations that ensure development projects which cause significant damage to wildlife sites only go ahead for reasons of overriding public interest.
READ MORE: Habitats Regulations: What plans to ‘refocus’ nature rules could mean for EU-derived case law
On Monday, crossbench peer Lord Krebs introduced two amendments on these clauses, one to ensure the Habitats Regulations are observed as well as the Environment Bill targets, and another which calls for the deletion of clause 106.
Introducing his amendment Lord Krebs said: “Time and again, we have heard that the bill, in many ways, appears to tip the balance in favour of development and against nature. Some might even be driven to argue that the bill is designed to protect nature provided that this does not interfere with other priorities, housebuilding in particular.”
Krebs argued that the targets in the Environment Bill concern improving the natural environment as a whole, whilst the Habitats Regulations concern protecting individual sites and populations. As such, he said, “the two forms of protection are complementary and are not alternatives”.
Whilst some Tory peers suggested that the government can and should be trusted on these clauses, Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Parminter said that the government is “asking us to take too much on trust at this stage”.
She continued: “It makes me think that this is really more cover for future changes in the proposed planning bill, through which they will sweep away protections for particular sites to allow more development in these new zoned areas.”
In the government’s response, environment minister Zac Goldsmith said “the idea that the bill represents a declaration of war on nature is frankly absurd”.
He also sought to reassure the number of peers who had raised concerns about the government not being required to consult on changes to the Habitats Regulations by repeating a commitment to consult with the Office for Environmental Protection, and saying a green paper consultation would be brought forward.
However Goldsmith’s reassurances were met with limited welcome, with Lord Krebs challenging the government to “give us in the bill the reassurance that the minister is prepared to give us at the dispatch box”.