I’ve had a bit of a nomadic week. On Tuesday night I was having a bath in a hotel room and Newsnight was twittering away on the telly in the background. When I woke up this morning I had a vague recollection that I’d heard something about the Prime Minister shaking a tree and some angry pickles doing away with habitats.
Perhaps it was a dream. But, watching Newsnight [43.28 mins] again, and reading the Financial Times, it is clear that we might be in the middle of a nightmare. At a Cabinet meeting on Tuesday the Prime Minister and the Chancellor were reported as putting pressure on the Communities Secretary Eric Pickles and Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman to speed up reform of planning and the Habitat Regulations to kick-start the economy.
Defra has been running a rational review of the Habitat Regulations to determine whether the Chancellor is right that they pose a “ridiculous cost to British business”. The RSPB, other NGOs and developers have all engaged with this process in a professional and constructive fashion. We’ve taken a bit of time out from our day jobs - from saving nature - to share our experience and considerable expertise.
I am convinced that Defra will conclude that rather than being a constraint on growth, the regulations provide huge opportunities for inward investment by creating fabulous places for people to live and work. What's more, they help sustain crucial ecosystem services (including supply of raw water, flood defence, carbon storage and places for enjoyment), that we all need (especially pertinent in face of the current drought).
The idea that we gold-plate (implement more than is necessary) is just wrong. If anything we are underperforming – languishing at the bottom of the EU league table of land area covered by protected areas and we still have no comprehensive marine protected area network.
The vast majority of planning applications are unaffected by the Directives. For example, the RSPB commented on less than 0.04% of all planning applications in England between 2001-2010 (about 217 a year). Very few of these resulted in RSPB objections.
But there are some anomalies and areas for improvement which should deliver some win-wins (for both nature and for business) and we have been sharing our ideas with Defra. I’ll come back to this in due course.
I always felt that the implementation of the Habitat Regulations would stand up to scrutiny. They guide smart development and reject bad development. On Tuesday, Mr Pickles rightly rejected an application to build more houses next to Talbot Heath which is a site of European importance for heathland birds such as nightjar and Dartford warbler.
Equally, I always feared that the pressure that the Government is under to speed up recovery may lead to some irrational conclusions.
This is the nightmare we want to avoid.