The nature protection laws that we have in the UK have been the subject of regular reviews over the years. These ‘health checks’ have generally been carried out with a view to weakening the vital protection that they provide. They also usually happen as part of wider calls for deregulation.
And yet, time and time again, both the scientific evidence on the importance and efficacy of these laws, and the views of a wide range of stakeholders (including businesses and environmental organisations) have repeatedly found that these laws are needed, and that they generally work well both for business and for wildlife.
However, everyone repeatedly highlights that attention needs to be focused on improvements to how the laws are implemented. Getting this right could do so much more for business and wildlife.
So, it’s heartening to see that the latest of the these reviews – the Red Tape Initiative (RTI) – has once again concluded that the challenges associated with the protection of internationally important bat and newt populations in England arise from how the laws that protect these (and many other) species are implemented, and not from the laws themselves: ‘It is clear from both business and conservation groups that the Habitats Directives should be maintained and enforced – the issue, for both ecologists and infrastructure providers, is the practical process of enforcement’.
But there is also a shared frustration among NGOs and businesses that the recommendations of past reviews – including one undertaken by Defra in 2012 – have not been adequately acted upon by Government. It’s crucial that this doesn’t happen again.
Because of these past missed opportunities, it’s good to see the RTI’s call for the establishment of an overarching Memorandum of Understanding between Defra, The Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government, NGO and industry representatives to focus joint efforts on how to improve implementation of our nature laws (for bats, newts and a wealth of other wildlife) in ways which work best for both wildlife and for business. This is something that both NGOs and a wide range of industry bodies (such as CEMEX, the Mineral Products Association and the Seabed User and Developer Group) have been calling for over several years. The proposed MoU would provide a way to address flaws in some of the current approaches being adopted by the Government and its agencies which are thus far failing to deliver the desired improvements for either wildlife or for business.
To date, the current Westminster Government has been strong on rhetoric about the protection of the environment, but weak on action. Whether or not it accepts and acts on the RTI’s recommendations in respect of nature protection laws and their implementation will be seen by NGOs and industry alike as a key test of their stated intent to deliver on their promise to leave the environment in a better state for the next generation.
Action taken for England will need to be coordinated with that taken in the other countries of the UK, and with countries beyond our borders, reflecting the fact that both our wildlife and businesses move and operate across national boundaries, and as such need clear and consistent standards of protection across those boundaries.
As the Brexit negotiations reach their conclusions, both wildlife and responsible businesses need governments to work closely and constructively in order to maintain high standards of protection for species, habitats, protected areas and our shared environment, and to ensure consistent regulatory frameworks to maintain a level playing field for business. It’s essential that high common standards for nature protection should form part of the UK's future economic partnership with the EU.
So now the UK Government must do three things: It needs to insist on legally binding commitments to uphold these high standards in any agreement with the EU on future trade and cooperation; it needs to create an independent watchdog with the power to hold Government and its agencies to account for meeting those commitments; and it needs to stop reviewing our nature legislation which has repeatedly been proved to be fit for purpose, and start implementing its own recommendations.
Kate Jennings, Head of Site Conservation Policy, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds
Kit Stoner, Chief Executive, Bat Conservation Trust
Carol Williams, Director of Conservation, Bat Conservation Trust
Jason Reeves, Policy and Communications Manager, Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management
Tony Gent, Chief Executive, Amphibian and Reptile Conservation
Jim Foster, Conservation Director, Amphibian and Reptile Conservation
The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.
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