In praise of the Habitats Regulations

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I’ve been the RSPB’s Conservation Director since May 2011. As I settle into the job, I’ll be blogging on all the big conservation topics and providing an inside view of our conservation projects. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel inspired to join in t

In praise of the Habitats Regulations

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In 1994, John Major's Conservative Government brought in the Habitats Regulations to implement the European Habitats and Species Directive – a beautiful piece of legislation. Yes, that’s right, I did just describe a piece of legislation as beautiful.

The Habitats Regulations are something to be proud of - they have been helping to protect English wildlife and wild spaces of European importance for seventeen years.  That is why alarm bells are ringing about the expected announcement today that they are to be reviewed.

What the Directive, and the regulations that followed, means is that major developments like ports, airports and housing estates have to pass a series of tests before they cannot be allowed to damage the very best wildlife sites.   Tests of genuinely sustainable development. 

These Special Areas of Conservation and Special Protection Areas (designated under the earlier Birds Directive) cover over a million hectares in England – magical places like Chesil Beach, Lindisfarne, the Thames Estuary, the New Forest, Salisbury Plain and the North Norfolk Coast. These are the cream of the crop when it comes to wildlife habitats – some of the most important in Europe.  Developers have learned to live with (if not exactly love) these regulations and those that have taken the time to understand them manage to cope perfectly well.

As part of the Chancellor's economic statement later today we expect that the Government will unveil its plans to look at these regulations. If this is a cleaning up exercise, then yes, there probably are some areas that could be improved.  But, if it is a wholesale review, then that would be a shock and could have disastrous consequences unless handled with care.  

As I have blogged before, the mood music coming from the Treasury and other bits of government is a cause for concern for the environment: environmental regulation has been put under the spotlight as part of the Government’s Red Tape Challenge, while the National Planning Policy Framework clearly placed economic growth above the needs of the environment.  In his conference speech George Osborne bemoaned ‘a decade of environmental laws and regulations' before adding, ‘we’re not going to save the planet by putting our country out of business’.

Some people think that protecting the economy and protecting the environment, whether on land or at sea, are mutually exclusive concepts. We don’t. And neither did the Conservative Government which introduced the Habitats Regulations.

Over the past decade and a half they have ensured major developments can take place without destroying wildlife habitats. This is the very essence of good planning policy, good economic policy and good environmental policy.

So yes, this is a beautiful piece of legislation and, if we must review the Habitat Regulations, then my plea to government is, please take extreme care. 

I shall post details of the review as soon as it is published.

  • Thanks for all the comments.  Nightjar - I particulalry like you David Miliband quote.  We have commented as you may have seen and I shall blog on this tomorrow. I have to say I struggle to see how and why we should be aspiring to compete with China and Brazil in their pattern of development.  We must be offering an alternative path which treads more lightly on the planet.

  • EU Directives have really worked for wildlife because Ministers don't like to be seen in a bad light in Europe and action in one area can flash across to other parts of the EU, like where the money comes from. The Habitats Directive, being recent, probably assembles a more logical series of national sites than SSSIs which grew up over time and, of course, it extends to a whole European network. As you say, Martin, a beautiful piece of legislation.

    The Government, and George Osborne in particular, just seem to be lashing out at anything that suits their uninformed predjudice - have they learnt nothing from the forestry experience ? What makes Osborne's attack all the more serious is that our national environment is likely to play an increasing part in our future economic success - in 2007 David Milliband  said 'Footloose companies do not choose to locate their high paid employees in unattractive locations - however good the airport links.' He is right - and as China and India boom those Habitat Directive sites could play a crucial role in our survival in an increasingly competitive world market.

  • God Bless European lawmakers for having the intelligence and wisdom to give these sites a greater measure of protection than that afforded under UK national law and furthermore having the vision to try and make that protection integral at a European level; so that across Europe, as europeans, we together try and protect habitats and species in an integrated and cohesive way each shouldering responsibilities to ensure the survival of these interlinked, complementary and to varying degrees, interdependant networks.

  • He does seem to have started the process. My concern is that he followed it with a reference to putting all airport hubs back on the table.