The nastiness of George Osborne came out when he mentioned ‘endless social and environmental goals‘ in his Autumn Statement yesterday. George is keener on economic goals – although not so good at reaching them, so perhaps we can see why he doesn’t want any other goals to miss.
As predicted in this blog yesterday (just a lucky stab in the dark mind of the Chancellor) Osborne mentioned gold-plating; “We will make sure that gold-plating of EU rules on things like habitats aren’t placing ridiculous costs on British businesses.” Things like habitats? What are you on about, George?
The crassness of the Chancellor’s words stung wildlife NGOs into something a bit more animated than puzzlement and sadness – there was a touch of real anger.
Martin Harper, RSPB Conservation Director said ‘The chancellor’s attack on vital environmental regulation is below the belt and shows how short sighted his policy for growth is.
“These regulations have been in place for 17 years and they have not been a brake on development. Many large scale projects have gone ahead in that time and this legislation has ensured that they have not trashed some of the most important wildlife sites in Europe.
“The Davidson report carried out in 2006 looked at the claim that the Government had goldplated European legislation, and found there was no case to answer.
“Clearly the chancellor believes that he can bring about a quick fix of the economy by allowing unrestrained growth to trample over our precious natural environment.
“His failure to rule out a new airport in the Thames Estuary signals a u-turn in the Government’s policy not to support such a development. This would be an act of environmental vandalism and would further undermine the Government’s commitment to a low carbon future.
“The Treasury’s plan is a simple one – let’s build our way out of recession. This marks the biggest backward step in environmental and planning policy for a generation and would simply serve as a short term economic sticking plaster on a problem which requires a long term plan for effective, sustainable growth.”
Stephanie Hilborne of the Wildlife Trusts said:
‘It seems that the Chancellor is not content with the massive shake-up of the planning system that is already under way, and which initially failed to recognise Local Wildlife Sites. Now sites and species of European importance face an uncertain future in England. When will the Government recognise that our natural resources are finite?
Does this Government want to go down in history as the Government that kick-started nature’s recovery or as the Government that tore down the long fought for protection for England’s richest wildlife sites?”
“The Wildlife Trusts are well known for taking a pragmatic and constructive stance in its dealings with developers and local authorities on the ground and with the national Government. Now we are beginning to lose our patience with the Government. The wrong outcome from this review risks driving a wedge between developers and conservationists at time when we ought to be cooperating more than ever.”
Melissa Moore, Senior Policy Officer for the Marine Conservation Society said:
‘The Habitats Directive is fairly written to enable Major Infrastructure Projects that are needed and for which there is no alternatives, but not to enable Governments to concrete over important habitats such as maerl, spawning and nursery grounds in estuaries unnecessarily. Riding rough shod over conservation legislation like this will cost the UK more in fines from Europe than it will generate for business.
Our seas as well as our economy need recovery. Putting money into port development, when world container shipping is in decline, is nonsense. The money would be better spent helping small businesses, not environmental destruction.’
But the CLA gave the Chancellor a big thumbs up. New President, Harry Cotterell said the CLA was delighted that the Government intends to review the way in which the Habitats Directive is implemented: “The Government is starting to melt the goldplating on this directive. We support conservation, but it is important that humans are considered as important as bats, newts and dormice.”.
The NFU President Peter Kendall agreed with the overall thrust of the speech; businesses and industry must be freed from the stifling grasp of red tape and regulation if they are to achieve their potential. This doesn’t, I guess, necessarily mean environmental red tape and regulation – but it might!
It’s simply not true that the Birds and Habitats Directives stifle any economic development – but they do constrain it – which seems to me to be perfectly fair since we are dealing with the very best wildlife sites of the continent. Dorset heathlands, The Wash, the New Forest and the seabird cliffs of the Yorkshire coast all seem to me to be the types of places that we ought to protect for their beauty and their natural wonder – just like we should protect Stonehenge or Durham Cathedral. We could bulldoze any of these things to build a new Tesco or a car park or an ugly shed of a distribution centre, but isn’t it better that we make that destruction rather difficult? Because without the protection someone will want to make money out of those sites – and I fear George Osborne is desperate enough to be in favour of destruction rather than protection. We will be the generation who can say to their children ‘We left you less natural beauty but more car parks, concrete and ugliness. Sorry!‘
If anything, the wildlife NGOs have been too reticent to use the powers of the Directives to give governments a hard time. And with the Chancellor showing his colours, black, so clearly, perhaps it is time to flex some muscles. There are potential legal complaints and cases to be taken against the UK government (but let’s concentrate on England here) over lack of designation of sites (particularly at sea) and failure to protect nature generally. Take the Special Protection Areas of the English uplands designated for their raptor interest that don’t have those raptors any more? And how about the lack of designations at sea? And what about the massive declines in farmland birds which are greater than those in most other EU countries? Plenty of scope for using the Directives here now that the coalition government (what is the point of the Liberal Democrats?) has shown its true colours – black not green.
Nature Directives – use them!