UK government proposals to radically streamline conservation rules after Brexit will drive a “coach and horses” through wildlife regulations and add “cost and uncertainty” to protecting habitats, environmentalists and marine industry groups have warned.
The alarm was sounded following a consultation by the UK environment department, Defra, over the delivery of a government target to halt the decline in the number of animal and plant species in the UK by 2030.
George Eustice, environment secretary, has said the government wants to overhaul and simplify the existing conservation framework inherited from Brussels’ “habitats directive” and a patchwork of other green laws.
During the 2016 Brexit referendum campaign Eustice described the EU’s rules as “spirit-crushing”, promising that the directives on wildlife “would go” if the UK left the bloc.
However, his plans are facing stiff opposition from a broad coalition of conservation and marine industry lobby groups who believe that the rush to sweep away old EU laws will be counter-productive.
Richard Benwell, chief executive of Wildlife and Countryside Link, a lobby group that represents 60 wildlife groups including the National Trust and Wildlife Trust, said the government’s plans would “shake the foundations of environmental law” in England, “with no evidence that it would improve the state of our struggling wildlife sites”.
“These proposals would strip away a layer of legal protection that prevents existing sites from being harmed and would lead to more cost and uncertainty by chucking out decades of case law that’s helped businesses and courts interpret the law properly,” he added.
The government said the UK’s environmental regulatory landscape had become “too complex” and that the plans were a stepping stone to a 2023 “environmental improvement plan”.
But conservation groups, including the RSPB, a bird protection group, argued the problem was not the existing regulatory framework but the failure to use it properly to protect wildlife.
Kate Jennings, the RSPB’s head of site conservation and species policy, said creating new rules would not help the government reach its 2030 targets. “We are really concerned that the best way to waste a decade would be to rip up the existing conservation framework and start again,” she noted.
Marine groups have expressed deep misgivings about the changes, which one industry insider said were perceived as “ideologically driven” and not supported by those on the conservation frontline.
Charles Clover, executive director of the Blue Marine Foundation, a conservation group, said the public would be “horrified” by Eustice’s proposals when they fully understood what they entailed.
“He is proposing to rename all our current nature protections and, in the process, remove duties on ministers and change them to mere aspirations which cannot be legally enforced,” Clover said. “Far from simplifying the system, this drives a coach and horses through existing regulations.”
The Seabed Users and Developer Group, an umbrella group for a broad spectrum of marine industries including ports, oil, gas and renewable energy, said the plans risked being a step backwards.
“We’ve spent many years working together — government, conservationists and industries — to understand how . . . to deliver these regulations most effectively. We don’t think abandoning EU legislation would be in the best interest of industry or the environment,” said Jennifer Godwin, the group’s executive officer.
However, Defra said that rules inherited from the EU had done “nothing to halt the decline of nature” and that none of its proposals would reduce environmental protections.
“Our nature recovery green paper sets out ambitious proposals to deliver a system that better reflects science rather than legal process, and actually delivers the protection that we all want to see,” it added.