Natural England urged DEFRA to rein in Habitats Regulations reforms, documents reveal

Natural England advice to create more protected sites and rein in the proposed reforms of the Habitats Regulations in order to meet 2030 nature recovery goals has been ignored by DEFRA, according to reports.

Dark clouds over a field in England. Image: Flickr

Internal briefing documents obtained by openDemocracy through Freedom of Information (FOI) requests have revealed that DEFRA has not been following the advice of its nature regulator Natural England when making decisions which could affect the UK’s ability to meet the ambition to protect 30% of land and sea by 2030.

The news comes as the UN biodiversity summit COP15 has kicked off, where the ‘high ambition coalition’, including the UK, will be seeking for the global community to adopt the  30x30 target.

The FOIs reveal Natural England giving its view on some key draft policies announced this year in the Nature Recovery Green Paper and the Landscapes Review. 

In the former, the government has proposed that all current sites and species protections should be merged into “a simpler legal structure” and then potentially tiered. This could see sites designated under the EU-derived Habitats Regulations, such as Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) and Special Protected Areas (SPAs), brought together with those with weaker protections like Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs). 

The proposals emerged from a review of the Habitats Regulations, which also recommended the use of more strategic approaches to mitigations and protections. Since the proposals were published, green groups have been expressing fears that the promise to simplify the regulations bodes trouble. 

MORE: Is there a ‘false promise’ at the heart of DEFRA’s Habitats Regulations reforms?

According to openDemocracy, the FOIs it has obtained reveal that Natural England told DEFRA that it should rein in its plans for significant changes to the regulations, saying that they are “an important and effective tool for nature’s recovery”. 

In the government’s Landscapes Review, published in January this year, DEFRA proposed some potentially significant changes to how national landscapes are managed and governed to help meet the 30x30 goal, including a proposal to strengthen their statutory purpose to recover nature. 

At the time, England’s national park authorities said they were ready to work with DEFRA on the proposed reforms, but stressed that the parks must be “appropriately resourced”.

According to openDemocracy, the FOIs show that Natural England had also been stressing behind closed doors that funding was essential to make the proposals work, with the regulator urging the government in 2020 to adopt the Glover recommendations, which informed the Landscapes Review and called for multi-year funding. 

However, no funding was announced in the government’s proposals, which instead suggested that the national landscapes will have to engage more with the private sector.

In May this year, after the end of the Landscapes Review consultation, Natural England is reported to have again urged the government to implement Glover’s recommendations and provide “adequate resourcing” to parks and AONBs.

The regulator has also been calling on DEFRA to create more Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), with the FOIs reportedly showing that the regulator stated in July 2021 that there was “clear justification for increasing SSSI coverage” to meet the 30x30 target.

Natural England is reported to have noted that every government commissioned analysis on how to meet 30x30 had shown that the creation of 100,000 hectares of new SSSIs by 2030 will be required.

However, approximately just 3,000 hectares of new SSSIs have been created since August 2021, according to analysis by the NGO coalition Wildlife and Countryside Link.

Craig Bennett, chief executive of The Wildlife Trusts said that the government “desperately needs a plan for how it’s actually going to make [30x30] happen, and it needs to be listening to its own nature conservation advisors as it puts that plan together – not blindly ignoring their advice”.

A DEFRA spokesperson said that the claims in the openDemocracy piece were "incorrect".
"We are working closely with Natural England on our commitment to protect 30% of land and sea by 2030 – which we are confident we will meet.
“Natural England has not commented on delivery, but rather provided guidance towards the assessment criteria for that commitment.  
“We have already taken steps towards achieving our nature recovery targets and we are on course to meet them. For example, we have invested over £750m through our Nature for Climate Fund for tree planting and peatland restoration, and taken the first 22 projects, which focus on species recovery and river restoration, into our Landscape Recovery scheme.” 
A Natural England spokesperson said: “Natural England and DEFRA are working closely on the delivery of government’s commitment to protect 30% of land and sea by 2030. For example, this year, Natural England has designated over 3000 hectares of new Site of Special Scientific interest and over 7000 hectares of new National Nature Reserve. 
“The Habitats Regulations are an important tool for nature’s recovery. We continue to work with DEFRA on how the current system might be improved to ensure that it delivers better environmental outcomes and long term protection for England’s important wildlife sites, as set out in our response to the Nature Recovery Green Paper.”
This article was updated with DEFRA and Natural England's comments