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Newts and Project Speed

ARC’s Conservation Director, Jim Foster, reflects on the ministerial mistake of framing newts as a hindrance to building a new future for Britain.

July 2020

Late at night, torch in hand, people across Britain count newts. For some, it’s a past-time and for some a profession. But after hearing the Prime Minister’s speech yesterday, perhaps we should be concerned? Boris Johnson asserted that “…newt-counting delays in our system are a massive drag on the productivity and the prosperity of this country…”

“Newt-counting delays” presumably refers to surveys in advance of development, and specifically aimed at the great crested newt that is protected through both British and European legislation. It is clearly essential to have an understanding about the wildlife that might be affected by any development proposals if regulatory agencies are going to fulfil their role in safeguarding bioidiversity as they are required to do through both national and international obligations. The Prime Minister implied that houses are built more quickly in the EU because, well… it’s not really clear what he meant here as great crested newts are strictly protected in the EU, and guess what? People count newts there too.

Indeed, there is so much awry with the PM’s analysis that it’s difficult to know how to respond. Perhaps we should consult the government’s own reviews for assistance. It turns out that factors such as market forces are key to the low rate of house building, according to a 2018 review by Sir Oliver Letwin. Another review by Sir Oliver, this time on red tape in the context of Brexit preparations, concluded that “It is clear from both business and conservation groups that the Habitats Directives should be maintained and enforced.” And a major review in 2012 concluded that the UK implementation of the Habitats Directive was working well, and that the protections led to delays in only a tiny fraction of cases. Encouragingly, government has said “as we leave the EU [the new mechanisms we put in place] don't just maintain, but strengthen protection for the environment.”

We may hope that in seeking a reduction in delays the Prime Minister is signalling a better resourced planning system, with the natural environment at its heart. This vision, supported by local nature conservation strategies, improved environmental information and achieving net gains for nature that works to robust strategic nature plans lies at the heart of the Government’s stated ambitions in the Environment Bill the 25 year plan for the environment, and importantly will provide the certainty and level playing field sought by developers. However, Government yesterday set out a position that set alarm bells ringing pretty loudly. Far from advocating better regulation, the agenda proposed as part of “Project Speed” was one of de-regulation that could mean the planning process is stripped of vital checks and balances that help protect what remains of our wildlife.

The UK can be economically strong, whilst also supporting diverse and robust wildlife populations. Like the Prime Minister, I think that the current circumstances present a “much greater chance to be radical.” And we really need to be. Studies show that many species have declined drastically in recent times. So let’s see clear targets for nature recovery. Let’s see local government, wildlife agencies and conservation groups properly resourced to play their part. Let’s see the benefits of connecting with nature embedded in our society.

Maybe that’s not such a radical agenda though. It’s pretty much what government’s 25 year plan for the environment says. That’s laudably ambitious, but to date actual progress is slow. The direction set in yesterday’s speech seems disconcertingly at odds with the government’s stated ambition. It’s also at variance with a hefty chunk of public opinion: Surveys reveal that people favour a “green recovery” from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Are newts the villains of the piece? Emphatically not. It’s true that the strict protection requires special consideration by regulators and developers, early engagement invariably eliminates problems. New approaches to planning and regulation also help, such as well-designed strategic licensing schemes like that offered in the Midlands. A more robust and strategic approach to nature conservation that provides certainty and thus avoid later delays to development is surely a sensible way to achieve the Prime Minister’s aspiration to “building greener and faster.”

For a widespread yet declining species like the great crested newt, we need imaginative approaches that involve specialists like ARC, government and the construction industry.

Conserving newts brings a range of benefits to other wildlife and importantly to people, and simply doesn’t sterilise large areas of land, contrary to some assertions. Even where development proceeds there are often ways to keep newts happy.

Better implementation of the legislation is certainly to be encouraged, with an eye on the outcomes for wildlife, but we don’t need to water down the laws themselves. Conservation organisations are working hard to help developers and planning authorities navigate the issues. Pre-development wildlife surveys lead to better outcomes, and are themselves a source of green jobs.

But just as importantly, we need active conservation projects to create and maintain newt habitat in the wider countryside. At ARC we’re leading by example with innovative demonstration projects, yet we need to see this scaled up and main-streamed across the countryside. Just imagine if farmers and other landowners received public funds to help them create high quality ponds, as part of normal countryside practice. If only there were a way to do that. Hold on, I just checked and there is. Agricultural land management support is currently being reviewed and with a modicum of ingenuity government could mandate that ponds feature in the resulting scheme. Last time the schemes were revised, ponds and their amphibian occupants were badly let down. Let’s get it right this time. We know how to do it, it’s not expensive, and we’d get bucketloads of biodiversity.

Reportedly an admirer of P.G. Wodehouse, the Prime Minister might be familiar with Gussie Fink-Nottle, perhaps literature’s most celebrated newt enthusiast. In one memorable scene in “Right Ho, Jeeves”, Fink-Nottle is under considerable pressure and instead of talking about the matter at hand, simply blurts out newt facts as a diversionary tactic. I’m all in favour of newt facts. Let’s hope there are some the next time we hear from the Prime Minister on newts and the economy. It would be wonderful if “thriving newts” were an indicator of the green economy. Maybe we could all lend a hand counting them?

Jim Foster is the Conservation Director of Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (ARC)

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