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Nature Green Paper: What’s the Big Idea, DEFRA?

The Government’s Nature Recovery Green Paper was published yesterday. Richard Benwell, CEO of Wildlife and Countryside Link, discusses the Green Paper and shares thoughts on the missing 'big ideas' for how our sites and species designations can play their part to halt nature's decline.

March 2022

Yesterday, the Government published its Nature Recovery Green Paper.

It asks the right question: how can sites and species protection be improved?

At the moment, however, you may come to the end of the consultation and ask “what’s the big idea, DEFRA?”.

The document is full of process proposals, intended to change institutions, names, and structures. For a document that expressly says too much attention has been paid to process, there is an irony that its own gaze is fixed firmly on procedures rather than on fixing the big problems affecting nature.

Missing are the big ideas that really could ensure that our sites and species designations play their part in halting nature’s decline. Instead, we find proposals that could vest too much power in the hands of politicians, and potentially weaken the legal safeguards that defend our most vulnerable sites and species.

New designations

DEFRA would like to rationalise the current array of sites and species designations.

For sites, the Government is proposing to merge SSSIs (national protected sites) with SACs and SPAs (European protected sites). A new system might divide sites into highly protected and protected areas. This could be structured in a few different ways: by bolstering protection for a few sites (option 1); simply renaming them as highly protected (Ramsar sites, SACs and SPAs) and protected (SSSIs) (option 2); or creating a single designation with a sliding scale of protection (option 3).

For species, the Government is proposing three tiers of protection: minimum management (safeguarding welfare, with additional options concerning trapping, killing, hunting); protected (with additional protection from killing, possession, disturbance and trade); and highly protected (which also protects ecosystems, similar to the rules for European Protected Species).

There are some positives:

  • Rationalisation and renaming really could help people understand their protected sites better, and potentially help people understand the rules for protecting them.
  • DEFRA also proposes a new Nature Recovery Network designation, which is a welcome recognition of the need to restore nature across the landscape, although it appears not to envisage any really beneficial rules or duties in relation to those sites.
  • DEFRA also proposes Statutory Site Improvement Plans, which could go some way toward improving management of protected sites, if they are matched with strong legal duties of implementation and reporting.

Overall, though the impression is of a consultation focused on simplifying process, repatriating procedures, and reducing regulation, rather than one that could really bring our protected sites and species protections up to scratch. 

Legal responsibilities and accountability

Simplification brings with it a number of important risks.

The first is simply delay. We have eight years to achieve the tremendous task of halting the decline of wildlife. If several years are taken up simply rearranging the designation deck chairs, then valuable time could be lost. The first symptoms of this are already apparent: the Government’s excuse for not setting a target to improve the condition of protected sites is that it is reviewing protected sites designations. In other words, this exercise in rebadging protected sites could actually stand in the way of measures to improve protected sites.

The second is more substantive. The Green Paper includes proposals to do away with the more “legalistic” features of the current regime, particularly the rules regarding Habitats Regulations Assessment, which derive from the Habitats Directive. We know that the Government believes Natural England is “distracted by highly prescriptive legal processes” and wants to free up “exceptional technical expertise” to “prioritise interventions that will make a difference”. But the Green Paper is silent as to what those are. Instead, it proposes to give more power to individual decision-makers on the ground. These changes are not necessarily negative; a single, integrated system of environmental assessment that pays plenty of heed upfront to scientific advice would be welcome. But these rules have often proven the last line of defence for our most important wildlife sites against unsuitable or unsutainable building development, and should not be meddled with lightly.

In a further assault on “process over discretion”, the Government is proposing to make Ministers responsible for final decisions on whether or not to designate a protected site. Contrary to promises of being led by scientific evidence, this would allow politicians to stop important sites from being designated, even if they meet every threshold of scientific significance.

So what should DEFRA do?

The overriding impression of the Nature Recovery Green Paper is that it may achieve very little by way of nature recovery. In some areas, it may bring the benefits of simplicity; in other areas, it may close off important avenues of legal accountability.

It is highly unlikely to deliver the big change for protected sites and species that is needed for nature’s recovery. And change is needed. There is strong scientific evidence that the UK’s most important wildlife designations (SACs and SPAs) really do work. But only 38% of SSSIs are in favourable condition. And wildlife continues to decline, despite the protection conferred by the Wildlife and Countryside Act. Sites like Swanscombe Peninsula can still be passed over for protection and, even when they are designated, they can still be subject to harmful development.

So what should DEFRA do? There are the seeds of some big ideas in the Green Paper, which should be allowed to grow before a White Paper is published. And they have their roots in Sir John Lawton’s old mantra of more, bigger, better, joined up protection.

  1. We need to strengthen the protected site network. DEFRA should take its idea of Highly Protected sites that are even better protected than European Protected Sites, and make all of the existing protected site network ‘highly protected’. That would mean clarifying once and for all that all of these places are not up for grabs by developers; they are not free to harm or pollute by unsustainable land-use.
  2. We need to complete the protected site network. DEFRA should expedite the process of designating sites to contribute to its promise of protecting 30% of land and sea for nature by 2030. One way to do that would be to take the proposal to give the Secretary of State power over designation, and make that power additional to rather than instead of Natural England’s existing duty to designate any sites that meet scientific criteria. New “Secretary of State Sites” could be chosen and protected much more quickly.
  3. We need to make space for nature to recover. DEFRA should take the idea of a Nature Recovery Network designation and make it work. That means a new planning designation for nature’s recovery, with tangible power over planning and spending decisions. This could take the form of a planning presumption against development and in favour of land use choices that promote nature’s recovery, as well as premium payments for restoration activities for farmers and land managers.

Perhaps, then, we can look forward to a Nature Recovery White Paper that lives up to the name.

        Richard Benwell is CEO at Wildlife and Countryside Link. 

        Follow: @RSBenwell and @WCL_News

        The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.