UK Implementation of the Habitats Directive: no light-hearted matter

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The Habitats Directive protects a large variety of the UK’s plant and animal species, including rare and vulnerable animals such as otters, bats and dormice, and habitats from heathlands to sand dunes to rocky caves. It puts in place systems to make sure that areas containing this precious biodiversity are not damaged by development. It plays an important role in securing the vital ecosystem services benefiting human well being that flow from the preservation of such healthy natural areas. Not all human activity is excluded from sites protected under this legislation – the idea is not to create “fenced off” no-go areas, but areas where humans and nature can co-exist. The legislation therefore provides a set of tests for activities and potential developments to ensure that those not adversely affecting sites and species may continue, whilst those which cause damage are prevented.

Last autumn’s budget statement revealed the government’s plans to review the UK’s implementation of the Habitats Directive and its sister Directive on the protection of Wild Birds (both created originally by the European Union). Later today the final announcement on the review will be made. Despite encouraging indications so far that changes won’t be harmful, it is still imperative that we check that the proposals have not affected the standards contained in this important legislation. Indeed, timed in advance of the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, and following the recent slackening of England’s planning regulations through the forthcoming National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) which has shown clear siding with development, any possibility of a watering-down remains hugely worrying.

Judging the UK too ‘strict’ in its application of the tests required under the Directive, last autumn the Chancellor deemed this legislation ‘a ridiculous cost on British business’. The review may have sent solidarity signals to business, but it must be acknowledged –and quickly- that our prosperity in the long term depends on growth within a healthy natural environment. The Habitats and Birds Directives are too often presented as a barrier to socio-economic activity when in fact they make a great deal of economic sense. In the long term, healthy biodiversity will support development, and the environment should not face a forfeit in favour of short-term and short-sighted economic growth. We cannot afford to miss what this great variety of wild species and natural areas can provide in terms of essential ecosystem services. Carbon sequestration, water purification and climate regulation are just a few examples of how biodiversity can offer high monetary value – as has now been thoroughly documented in studies such as the “TEEB” review of the Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity.

The Chancellor’s autumn statement appeared to be founded on an assumption that the implementation of the Habitats Directive in the UK goes beyond our minimum legal obligations, and business accuses it of gold plating: ‘This is a very welcome attempt to possibly melt some of the gold plate on the directive … finally we might see a time when human beings are treated with about the same importance as bats, newts and dormice’, (Vice president of Country Land & Business Association). This reaction ignores the great value and importance – for human beings as well as for nature itself – of a system of laws to protect the ecosystems on which all human life, and economic development, ultimately depend upon. The Habitats Directive was triggered over 20 years ago by a deteriorating biodiversity crisis, which has become even more urgent. In 2007, it was reported that only 26% of the UK’s species listed under the Habitats Directive were in favourable conservation status and a mere 18% improving. There needs to be a step change if the UK (along with its EU neighbours) is to keep to its mission as promised in the EU Environment Council and international commitments (see below) : to halt biodiversity loss by 2020. It is as crucial as ever that the government take its biodiversity commitments seriously. By requiring industry to comply with the cornerstone of biodiversity legislation government would be doing its job, not overstepping its boundaries.

In addition to underpinning EU biodiversity protection targets, the Directive will play an important role in making sure the UK meets international law commitments such as the “Aichi targets” endorsed by the UK as part of the Convention on Biological Diversity Strategic Plan signed at the Nagoya 2010 Conference of Parties. Target 11 – on protected areas for biodiversity and ecosystem services, and target 12 – on preventing the extinction of threatened species – are especially relevant. The UK’s own National Ecosystem Assessment, published last year, showed 40% of priority habitats and 30% of priority species to be in decline, while at the same time recognising the problems raised by consistently undervaluing nature in decision making, and recognising the importance of biodiversity to the UK’s economic prosperity. Against this backdrop, it is clear that rigorous implementation of the Habitats and Birds Directives is key. Indeed, one of the factors contributing to so many of the priority habitats and species with regards to biodiversity action plans under the Convention on Biological Diversity being in decline, may well be that they do not benefit from strict statutory protection under the Birds and Habitats Directives and would benefit from, rather than suffer as a result of a binding regulatory protection framework. As a very minimum, ClientEarth urges that UK implementation of the Habitats and Birds Directives be a priority: they are absolutely essential pieces of legislation and any initiatives to circumvent their provisions could result in serious environmental and economic harm – as well as being illegal.

Positive steps already made by developers, planners and conservationists to work together should be worked with and not lost. What, however, is absolutely not negotiable, is the continued need for a strong regulatory regime for the authorisation of activities that are potentially harmful to the conservation interests of a designated site. So far, we know the review will propose setting up a Major Infrastructure and Environment Unit; streamlining guidance; setting clearer standards for evidence; and changing the culture of statutory bodies charged with applying the Habitats Directive. As always, the devil will be in the detail, and we will be watching carefully as those details emerge.

This blog was written by Susie Wilks and Lucy Callen

 

Image source: heatheronhertravels

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