By Jill Crawford, Environmental Law specialist at Irwin Mitchell
The UK Government's consultation on Nature Recovery green paper: Protected Sites and Species closed on 11th May and we (the Environment team) await the outcome with bated breath having spent a large number of hours working on a response to the consultation.
The purpose of the Green Paper was to seek responses to the government proposals on how it intends to meet the legally binding targets enshrined in the Environment Act in particular how it will meet the target to halt the decline in species abundance by 2030.
The Rt Hon George Eustice Environment Secretary when announcing the Nature Recovery Green Paper said quote "The ultimate goal of this work is to better enable nature's recovery". It was difficult therefore on that basis to understand why there was much focus in the Consultation document on the importance of simplifying an alleged complicated regulation system with quote a "muddle of different types of site designations, grown up over decades, often seeking to achieve the same thing and quite often overlapping for largely technocratic reasons" but with very little focus on seeking responses that would elicit assistance in fixing the decline in species and habitat loss.
Will simplifying and streamlining current environmental regulation realistically achieve a halt in the decline in species abundance by 2030 and bring a focus to delivering the legally binding targets enshrined in the Environment Act and was the regulatory system even that complicated in the first place to warrant what some have called unnecessary meddling. It is difficult to know the answer when the consultation document provided no evidence that supports simplifying systems results in halting the decline in species abundance by 2030.
When working on our response to the Consultation we could see glimpses of a different form of environmental regulation taking shape for the future, such as a move away from a focus on protection and preserving to one that is about recovery with a more strategic approach to mitigation which will be used as a tool to support wildlife recovery. The government are looking to make flexibility a cornerstone of future environmental regulation. Flexibility together with mitigation could be interpreted by some as a weakening of protection rather than it assisting in species recovery and protection of important habitats.
Some positives for nature were the proposals for a new Nature Recovery Network designation which is an acknowledgement of the real need to focus on restoration of nature across the country. There were also proposals for Statutory Site Improvement Plans which could support improving the current management of protected sites which has not had a particularly good success rate so far.
The Green Paper has received mixed reviews from conservation groups with the Wildlife Trust raising a number of concerns stating that rather than transforming the way we protect and enhance nature, its proposals potentially weaken existing systems or create change for the sake of change in a manner which is likely to confuse developers, industry and nature conservation organisations.
We had already noticed some overlap in the Biodiversity Net Gains and Green Paper consultations and there is no doubt that following these recent consultations including the Environment Targets that the final outcome needs to be a clear and coherent strategy across the whole of government in order to avoid the confusion predicted by the Wildlife Trust.