Habitats Review

In Autumn 2011 budget George Osborne announced a review of the Habitats directives when he said ”We will make sure that gold-plating of EU rules on things like habitats aren’t placing ridiculous costs on British businesses.”

Today Government released its review of both the Habitats and Birds Directives. Not simple pieces of legislation by any means but inshrined in UK law and providing Legal protection for some of our most precious places in the UK and primarily, from our point of view, affording protection from development of the Greater Thames Estuary and marshes. Interestingly protected sites under the Habitats and Wild Birds Directives cover about 6% of land and nearly 23% of English inshore waters. By the end of 2012 over 7% of UK offshore waters will be protected sites. In the rest of Europe the figures range between 9% and 35% with the average of all 27 Member States being 17.5% The Government has made a commitment to create an ecologically coherent network of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) that will provide a valuable contribution to the protection of rare, threatened and valuable habitats throughout the UK.

Caroline Spelman MP Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs explained that .. “the Purpose of the review was to take a fresh look at the way the Habitats and Wild Birds Directives are being implemented in England and to find out how to do things better, more simply, and more efficiently without compromising the founding objectives of the Directives.”

She went onto explain.. “What this Review has delivered is a series of sensible, pragmatic measures which will uphold the integrity and laudable ambition of the original Directives, yet will also reduce many of the administrative headaches which can impede the sort of progress and flexibility people want to see in their daily lives. It demonstrates that important work can be done to alleviate unnecessary red tape and improve efficiency without watering down the ultimate objectives. It speaks to two fundamental human instincts: on one hand the desire to protect that which is most precious and on the other the urge for growth”

Government is keen to make the understanding of the directives simpler and its data more available to developers who are bringing forward projects in the national interest that may impact on European protected habitats, so they can better understand from the outset what they are up against and what mitigation is required for sustainable development to take place. Of particular concern are potential developments in marine environments where ecological data is scarce or just not available.

The National infrastructure plan identifies the ‘top 40’ list of infrastructure projects and programmes  and over 500 infrastructure projects worth over £250 billion planned to 2015 and beyond that are of national significance (in the national interest) and critical for growth.

The seeming gold plating and intransigence of the Regulations were dispelled in a series of examples wherein developers had worked with English Nature to achieve sustainable development without impacting detrimentally on or providing mitigation for several projects including Teesport Container Terminal, Felixstowe Port and Abberton Reservoir in Essex.

The review also outlined the positive benefits to society through The National Ecosystem Assessment which reported the value for the UK population of the “non-use benefits” of domestic terrestrial biodiversity as being worth between £540million and £1.26 billion every year.