I was reminded the other day that in 1941, in the darkest hours of World War II and with Churchill’s backing, planning for post-war nature conservation was underway.  Our countryside and wild places, our wildlife in towns and rural parishes and its role in our lives is part of what defines us.

The last ten days have seen an unprecedented series of major initiatives and announcements that will shape nature conservation for years to come.  First the outcome of the Red Tape Challenge review of environmental regulation, then the Budget set up by the Chancellor’s intemperate words six months earlier in his autumn statement in which he characterised the environment and its protection as ‘a ridiculous cost on business’. Then, hot on its heels, publication of a review in to the European Nature Directives (specifically the Birds and Habitats Directives) and how they are implemented in England – ‘gold plating’ was the charge. And finally the publication of England’s National Planning Policy Framework.

The Treasury, DEFRA, The Department of Communities and Local Government and the Cabinet Office lining up to shape the relationship between economic growth and the future of our environment.

Our treasured countryside.  Hard-wired into our nation's consciousness, our campaigning has shifted thinking. Photo, view from the North Downs Andre Farrar.

Dozens of organisations have risen to the challenge in recent months backed by the active involvement of hundreds of thousands of people, just like you, who have left the coalition Government in no doubt at all that our countryside and the natural world remains hard-wired into the nation’s consciousness. This shift in thinking at the heart of the coalition Government is a welcome recognition that the environment is critical to our wellbeing, economy and future prospects for a country worth living in.

In recent months the campaigning and debating, arguing and positioning have at times felt like the future for England’s nature was bleak (and this is mainly about England, I’ve asked some colleagues from other parts of the UK to contribute their perspectives in future posts).

So where are we now?

In one word – relieved.

Relieved primarily that the coalition Government has listen to us and to you.

So from the top

The Red Tape Challenge – 16,000 stepped up for nature (thank you!) and emailed Business Secretary, Vince Cable. Result – sensible simplification but on the whole necessary and hard-one environmental regulation comes through in tact. Here’s more detail if you’d like it.

The Budget – had the Chancellor continued his intemperate assault on the environment, Budget day threatened to be labelled Black Wednesday.  Over 19,000 stepped up for nature (thank you again) and joined the chorus to wake up George and ensure he sees the natural environment and investment in the green economy as inseparable from a prosperous economy. Result – less of the anti-environment language, but still a budget that will launch a wave of proposals for roads and runways that will risk us being set on an unsustainable path. A grey day for the environment.

The ‘Habs Regs’ – part of the repercussions of the Chancellor’s autumn statement was to kick off a review into how the European Birds and Habitats Directives are implemented in England.  Accusations of gold plating and over-zealous application where in the air.  We submitted extensive evidence to the review. Result – largely a clean bill of health. The Directives are supported by Government and are not guilty of the charge of unnecessarily holding up economic development. More here.

And finally the National Planning Policy Framework NPPF. This fundamental part of the English planning system will complement the move to local involvement in the Government’s Localism Act. Get it wrong and the dogs of unconstrained economic growth are off the leash. Result – a massive improvement on earlier drafts and a huge vindication of our campaigning alongside, in particular, the National Trust, CPRE and the Daily Telegraph. I know the lengths our planning specialists have gone to in order to make a constructive contribution to the consultation – we’re proud of the difference they’ve made.  The implications of the NPPF will take some time fully to analyse, but first impressions are very favourable.

So where does that leave us?

No one should be under any illusion; we are facing an unprecedented upsurge in infrastructure proposals and development that will test our resolve to ensure that the best projects prosper and the bad and unsustainable are rejected. But we have saved the means to make our case.

Will it be enough?

Only if the public mobilisation that has opened the ears of government continues.  The focus now moves from Westminster to the town hall, the village hall and communities directly affected. Local Authorities, hard pressed by falling budgets often shorn of specialist ecologists, are likely to find the requirements of the NPPF to update their plans a real challenge. Communities are expected to have a greater role – perhaps your community? Skills, time, organisation will be patchy. If we are to avoid a post code lottery for planning and the environment then these deficits must be addressed.

We will all have a part to play – are you ready to step up for nature?

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