Fears raised about DEFRA review of how habitats directives are applied in England

Fears are growing among some groups that Government Ministers risk sacrificing some of the most cherished parts of our natural world in their haste to create an environment where development and industry can bloom.

One particular announcement in George Osborne’s autumn statement last week provoked widespread alarm among the custodians of East Anglia’s wildlife.

The chancellor told MPs that he wanted to make sure that “gold-plating of EU rules on things like habitats” were not putting “ridiculous costs” on British firms, pricing them out of the global economy.

“If we burden them with endless social and environmental goals – however worthy in their own right – then not only will we not achieve those goals, but the businesses will fail, jobs will be lost and our country will be poorer,” he said.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) then announced a review of how the EU habitats and birds directives are being applied in England, “with a view to reducing the burdens on businesses while maintaining and, where possible, enhancing environmental benefits”.

The review of the habitats directive was welcomed by a national representative of landowners and farmers.

Country Land and Business Association (CLA) president Harry Cotterell said: “The government is starting to melt the gold-plating on this directive. We support conservation, but it is important that humans are considered as important as bats, newts and dormice.”

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But the suggestion from other groups is that these directives are being imposed too rigorously, preserving wildlife sites at all costs – to the detriment of the industry required to kick-start our creaking economy.

East Anglia’s wildlife charities said watering down these legal safeguards would threaten not only protected plants and animal habitats, but also the substantial tourism industry which flourishes around them.

Paul Forecast, below, the RSPB’s regional director for the east of England, said: “At this stage, until we know exactly what’s going to happen in the review, we don’t know what the full implications might be. Clearly, from George Osborne’s statement, he wants to weaken the legislation that protects our important wildlife sites in the region.

“The east of England has a higher number of these important areas for wildlife than many other parts of the country.

“When you think about the Broads, the Brecks, the Wash and the North Norfolk coast – there are so many areas of land protected by this legislation. The fear is that for short-term economic gain, we might threaten some of the environment which makes the region so distinctive.

“All of us who live in the East do so because we love the area we live in, and that’s part of attracting business and tourism into the area. You meddle with that at your peril.”

A recent study showed the RSPB’s flagship reserve at Titchwell Marsh attracted �4.6m of tourist spend alone to North Norfolk in 2009, supporting 132 local jobs through the reserve’s conservation, farming, and tourism appeal.

Mr Forecast said: “Places like Norfolk are highly dependant on environmental tourism. Our reserves are putting millions into the economy through direct employment, people staying in bed and breakfasts, contractors. We risk damaging that.

“If you weaken the safeguards then in 50 years time we will be saying what a shame it is that we have lost part of the Broads or the Wash to unsightly development when there used to be a tourism industry there. It is very short-sighted.”

Mr Forecast said there were already good examples of where the habitats directives had been used to negotiate “win-win” solutions for both developers and conservation bodies.

He said the RSPB had been involved in discussions to ensure the dualling of the A11 had been routed to avoid protected areas of Breckland, and land for 5,000 proposed new homes in Thetford being allocated to the north-east of the town, away from buffer zones to protect stone curlews.

“We should all want a win-win solution like that. The economic and social needs were balanced and that thinking is at the heart of sustainable development.

“The habitats directives are not designed to block development. There are often practical solutions around any development,” he explained.

EU legislation restricts development in special areas of conservation (SACs) under the habitats directive and in special protection areas (SPAs) under the birds directive.

Both designations are held at the RSPB’s reserves at Snettisham and Titchwell Marsh, which are overseen by senior sites manager Robert Coleman.

He said: “The habitat we’re looking at here is a very wild place, and there are not many landscapes like this left in the UK. The habitats and birds directives have been in place for a good number of years and they have done a good job helping us to protect these places for wildlife.

“It is easy to look at these places in isolation, but we need to look at the wider context. We are part of the ‘Natura 2000’ network of SACs and SPAs across Europe. This legislation is not just about protecting it for the UK. Wildlife does not recognise boundaries, so what happens here affects birds migrating from places like Greenland and Iceland.”

Snettisham attracts an estimated 350,000 birds during the winter, but Mr Coleman said that even this isolated stretch of marshy coast facing the Wash could potentially be threatened by development.

“The biggest threat to the Wash as a habitat is the potential of changing the way the Wash works in the form of tidal energy barrier or something similar,” he said. “We have already got large wind-farms on the far side of the Wash and the building of the turbines and the way their cabling comes ashore all needs to be assessed.

“These are the kind of things these two directives were set up to assess, so appropriate decisions can be made. We are very aware that it is important the economy gets back on track. We don’t want to stop that, but it needs to be somewhere appropriate.

“The habitats directives are a great way to negotiate that balance between the need for economic growth and the really important protection of our wildlife heritage.”

Norfolk Wildlife Trust (NWT) chief executive Brendan Joyce, right, said the habitats directive in particular had been an important “last resort” in protecting its reserves.

He said the controversial waste incinerator proposal at King’s Lynn was an example of where the EU legislation had provided a framework for the NWT to voice its concerns about potential effects on nearby Roydon Common.

“It is an SAC and the valley mire is an extremely important and sensitive habitat where the pH of the water has to be precise,” he said. “One of the concerns we have is whether whatever particulates coming from the incinerator could change that balance. At the moment the habitats directive is in our favour, but without it developments could just ride rough-shod over places like this.

“The sort of places that the habitats directive protect are the most important places on a European scale. If they were not, they would not have the designation as an SAC. You cannot just say you are going to let those places go.

“We are not anti-development. We are not standing in the way of progress. We should have modern networks and housing and we do need economic security, but to be prepared to trash the wildlife jewels in the crown for the sake of it seems to me to be crazy.”

The review expects to publish its recommendations before next year’s budget in March. It will consider where implementation of the legislation gives rise to the greatest compliance costs and delays, whether the requirements are “applied too or insufficiently rigorously”, and “whether competent authorities and statutory conservation advisers could explore more creative solutions”.

Following the chancellor’s autumn statement, environment secretary Caroline Spelman said the government still “strongly supported” the aims of the habitats and birds directives.

“It’s important that we maintain the integrity of these directives,” she said. “The vast majority of development cases do successfully meet the directives’ requirements but a small number raise particularly complex issues which give rise to unnecessary costs and delays.”

East Anglian CLA members believe they have proved that partnership working is the best way to balance any conflict between conservation interests and economic growth.

A contingent of Breckland landowners has been negotiating with Natural England and the RSPB to find ways to help rural businesses cope with a 1,500m buffer zone placed around Special Protection Areas (SPAs) to safeguard nesting stone curlews.

A draft policy has been produced which could allow some new development at existing rural businesses, as long as measures are put in place to minimise disturbance to the birds.

Although this compromise doesn’t affect the SPAs governed by the habitats directive, landowners hope the same principles could be applied to relax the assumption that SPAs should be absolute no-go zones for development.

Robert Childerhouse, of Childerhouse Lodge Farm at Weeting, near Brandon, said: “I think the work we have been doing in the Brecks could be a footing for the much bigger picture which George Osborne is talking about. If we can work together with the local authorities on the interpretation of these directives we can make sure we can all get along together.

“This was a good example of gold-plating in an area where a blanket approach was causing serious constraints for farmers, leaving huge swathes of land sterilised. We are not saying that conservation is not important, but we are saying we need to find a more common-sense approach.”