Today
Wed 3 March 2021

Vulnerable wildlife is collateral damage in the Prime Minister’s economic vision for Britain, reports Stuart Spray

On New Year’s Eve at 11pm, the European Union Birds and Habitats Directives – the cornerstone of nature and biodiversity protection in Europe for the past 30 years – became null and void in the UK.

Instead, the UK has amended existing laws, allowing the EU regulations to be transposed, almost word for word, into domestic law. In theory at least, there will therefore be no change in the protection of the UK’s rarest habitats and species now that the Brexit transition period has ended.   

But, without the European Court of Justice (ECJ) watching over the UK, can Boris Johnson’s Government be trusted not to scrap environmental laws in the future that are deemed to be inconvenient?

Author and environmental campaigner Dr Mark Avery is concerned that Britain’s post-Brexit trade agreement with the EU has been deliberately worded to allow for a watering-down of UK environmental protections in the future.  

His fears relate to a paragraph in page 202 of the document, which states that the UK has agreed to “not weaken or reduce, in a manner affecting trade or investment between the parties, its environmental levels of protection or its climate level of protection below the levels that are in place at the end of the transition period, including by failing to effectively enforce its environmental law or climate level of protection”.

Writing on his blog, Dr Avery said: “Our Government has negotiated a trade deal which enables dismemberment of environmental protection wholescale in the years ahead, provided its disappearance is not a trade issue. Removing legal protection for, say, the Hen Harrier, would have no major impact on trade whatsoever, so I guess would fall way under the ambit of this agreement.”

Indeed, the Prime Minister’s rhetoric will be music to the ears of hardline Conservative Brexiters who have spent years campaigning to reduce red tape.

In an interview with the Sunday Telegraph published in December, Johnson left the door wide open for future changes to UK environmental laws. His words echoed previous commitments to deregulate the planning system made in his “build build build” speech last June, when he alleged that protected species were causing unacceptable delays for developments and house building projects. “Time is money,” he said. “And the newt-counting delays in our system are a massive drag on the productivity and prosperity of this country.”

Craig Bennett, head of the Wildlife Trusts, described the Prime Minister’s speech at the time as “pure fiction” and said that “it may sound funny referring to newts, but actually it was rather sinister. In the environment movement we know referring to newts is a dog-whistle to people on the right of his party who want environmental protections watered-down”.

Concerns were so great following Johnson’s speech that a coalition of 20 non-governmental conservation organisations wrote an open letter to the Prime Minister calling for a halt to planning deregulation. 

The letter had no apparent effect, however, with the economic impact of the Coronavirus pandemic used as justification to rush in a series of changes to permitted development rights in England. These new rules included allowing additional storeys on blocks of flats and individual houses; the demolition of buildings and the construction of new dwelling houses in their place; and the conversion of redundant office buildings into residential buildings – all without the requirement of planning permission.

Official Government guidance states that developers wishing to take advantage of the new permitted development rules must make an application to the local planning authority and show that they have taken into consideration the potential negative impacts and risks associated with their proposed development. The guidance lists transport and highways, contamination, flooding, heritage and archaeology as issues that have to be considered.  

However, nowhere in the guidance nor in the prior approval application forms available via the national planning portal is the developer asked to provide any information on the impact or risk relating to protected species such as roosting bats or nesting birds.

“We are losing biodiversity at an unprecedented rate and it seems that people in power have no appreciation for what this means,” said Dr Phoebe Carter, chief ecologist at Habitat First Group. “Recent changes to the planning rules in England and the forging ahead of HS2 suggest that money counts for more than nature.”


The Boris Bulldozer

One of the first tests for Boris Johnson’s post-Brexit regime in relation to protected species comes in the form of a private member’s bill – sponsored by Conservative MP Sir Christopher Chope and supported by leading Conservative Brexiters Peter Bone and Philip Davies – threatening the legal protection of British bats in places of worship. 

The Bat Habitats Regulation Bill 2019-21 is due for its second reading in House of Commons on 29 January and aims “to limit the protection for bat habitats in the built environment where the presence of bats has a significant adverse impact upon the users of buildings”.

The Bat Conservation Trust believes that the “current legislation provides an essential mechanism for safeguarding vulnerable species whilst ensuring social and economic needs are met. Diluting or requesting exemptions to this legislation would certainly harm bats and would not be a positive way forward for churches or other places of worship either”.

Although Sir Christopher appears to be primarily concerned with stopping bats from roosting in churches, the remit for his bill could easily be widened to include all buildings, while paving the way for a reduction in the legal protection for other vulnerable species.

According to the 20 signatories of the letter sent to Johnson back in July, the Government is at a fork in the road. One route leads the UK down a road of sustainable development and a green recovery in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, with “investment in locally accountable and democratic planning which will deliver the homes and liveable places communities will feel proud to call home”.

The other route leads back to 1975.


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