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Promises to protect the environment are going to be 'spectacularly broken’

Priest Hill / Surrey Wildlife Trust

The deregulatory anti-planning ideology runs deep, says Craig Bennett, but the planning system is key to creating beautiful places and giving people access to all that nature has to offer.

This week (30 June) we heard the cry of ‘build, build, build’ from the prime minister, trumpeting a package of (mostly recycled) public spending commitments on construction and infrastructure projects. 

In a passing ‘dog whistle’ to some in his party, the prime minister also expressed concern that “newt-counting delays” in our planning system are a “massive drag on the productivity and prosperity of this country.”

In what he claimed would be the “most radical reforms of our planning system since the end of the Second World War”, the prime minister seemed to signal that his government was planning to weaken the legislation which protects our precious wildlife habitats and species; legislation which is derived from the EU Habitats and Species Directives.

“Having a go at planning in general, wildlife legislation in particular, and newts in anger, is something of a blood-sport to some politicians”

Theresa May when she was prime minister, then Michael Gove when he was secretary of state, and then again Boris Johnson when he became PM, all promised “to maintain and enhance” as we Brexit. Now it’s clear that this promise is about to be spectacularly broken. 

This will come as a massive disappointment to many, but not much of a surprise. The reason green organisations have worked so hard to try and keep the government to its promises over environmental protections post-Brexit is because we suspected they might try and break them sooner or later. 

Having a go at planning in general, wildlife legislation in particular, and newts in anger, is something of a blood-sport to some politicians. In 2011, George Osborne, when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, claimed that the Habitats Directive placed “ridiculous costs on British business” and our current Secretary of State for the Environment, George Eustice, once described these directives as “spirit crushing”. 

But what is really spirit-crushing is that these assertions have been comprehensively countered with evidence time and time and time again, and yet they keep popping up. 

In 2012, after George Osborne made that assertion just one year before, Defra published a comprehensive review of the actual evidence and concluded: “The directives are working well, allowing both development of key infrastructure and ensuring that a high level of environmental protection is maintained.”

But the deregulatory anti-planning ideology runs deep, trumps evidence every time, and the suggestion that wildlife legislation is still somehow getting in the way of development has popped up again like a zombie that just won’t die. 

And it’s so depressing that it’s risen from the dead, right now. During lockdown, millions of people have reconnected with the natural world around them. Visits to Wildlife Trust webcams have soared by over 2,000 per cent as people try and get their daily dose of nature, and discussions about the need to ‘Build Back Better’ started to offer a glimmer of hope that we might create not just a new normal, but a better normal – one where we recognise the crucial role that nature plays in keeping us happy and healthy as we live, work and play. 

Over the last year, we’ve also seen greater recognition of the linkages between the climate and ecological emergencies, and a growing understanding of the role nature-based solutions could and should be playing to help us solve both. Healthy ecosystems on land and at sea absorb more carbon and can help us deal with the consequences of climate change, soaking up flood water, cooling air and protecting against coastal erosion. But these ecosystems are in poor health and the UK has become one of the most nature-depleted countries on earth. 

Coming out of lockdown, we have a unique opportunity to deliver a green recovery that prioritises climate and nature together, through rapid cuts to our emissions and action to kick-start nature’s recovery. If we properly protect and restore these ecosystems, they could play a vital role in delivering net zero emissions targets.

“We have a unique opportunity to deliver a green recovery that prioritises climate and nature together”

This will require real ambition to bring back the habitats we’ve lost and deliver more space for wildlife. It also means we absolutely must protect our remaining natural carbon stores, so they are not lost in a flurry of construction. How we develop and build new homes is a critical piece of the puzzle. The planning system is the key to creating beautiful places designed for people to thrive and get the best that nature has to offer. 

We need to plan developments fit for the future we now face, for nature and people. Keeping the nature we have, joining this up with new natural green spaces, wildlife-rich gardens, verges, cycle paths and walkways will help us all to connect with nature, so we can feel the benefits for our health and wellbeing. Planning development in this way will also provide the crucial space and connections that nature needs to adapt to climate change and recover in abundance.

The Wildlife Trusts work with planners and developers because we believe development should do no harm to nature, it should mitigate any damage and should leave the natural environment better than before – a legacy that benefits both people and wildlife. 

At Woodberry Wetlands, London Wildlife Trust worked with Thames Water, Berkeley Homes and the London Borough of Hackney to deliver a new wildlife reserve in a densely built-up environment that was undergoing regeneration. The reserve was opened in 2016, and is now a thriving, carbon-absorbing wetland habitat.

At Priest Hill in Epsom, Surrey Wildlife Trust worked with developers bring wildlife back for local residents, by restoring old playing fields to chalk grassland. Over 1,500 tonnes of tarmac and rubble were removed, and old tennis courts, buildings and car parks were cleared to create a nature reserve, providing habitat for rare wildlife and accessible green space for local residents.

Cases like these show that, if we get it right, and if we build in the right way and in the right places, we can deliver for people, nature and climate. 

The Wildlife Trusts' new report Let Nature Help – How Nature’s Recovery is Essential for Tackling the Climate Crisis can be read here.

Craig Bennett is chief executive of The Wildlife Trusts

Read more: 

Climate and nature recovery should be addressed as one, suggests report

Image credits / Top: Surrey Wildlife Trust / Author: Richard Jinman / Bottom: London Wildlife Trust


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