The Government is to launch a consultation later this autumn on changing the approach to environmental assessment and mitigation in the planning system, the Environment Secretary has said.
In a speech George Eustice said: “If we can front-load ecological considerations in the planning development process, we can protect more of what is precious.
“We can set out which habitats and species will always be off-limit, so everyone knows where they stand. And we can add to that list where we want better protection for species that are characteristic of our country and critical to our ecosystems that the EU has sometimes overlooked – things like water voles, red squirrels, adders and pine martens.”
He added: “We want everyone to be able to access an accurate, centralised body of data on species populations so that taking nature into account is the first, speedy step to an application.”
The Environment Secretary said there would be a £5m pilot on establishing a new Natural Capital and Ecosystem Assessment.
“At the heart of our approach is a simple premise,” he suggested. “If we can improve the baseline understanding of habitats and species abundance across the country in every planning authority, then we can make better decisions towards achieving our vision to leave the environment in a better state than we found it.”
Eustice said that the Government would also shortly be:
- publishing a paper that sets out its approach to setting long-term targets on biodiversity, waste, water, and air quality through the new Environment Bill, so they are established in time by October 2022;
- launching the appointment campaign for the first Chair of the Office for Environmental Protection so that they will be in place to lead a new public body in 2021.
On the end of the transition period, the Environment Secretary said EU environmental law always had “good intentions” but there were also negative consequences to attempting to legislate for these matters at a supranational level.
“It tends to lead to a culture of perpetual legal jeopardy where national governments can become reluctant to try new things or make new commitments for fear of irreversible and unpredictable legal risks. This in turn creates a culture where there are frankly too many lawyers and not enough scientists and too many reports but not enough action,” Eustice claimed.
“So, as we chart a new course for our approach to protecting the environment, we can retain the features that worked and change the features that didn’t. We should recognise that the environment and our ecosystems are a complex web of interactions that mankind will never fully understand let alone manage. We should re-balance the way we approach policy development with more focus on science and technical knowledge and less time fretting about legal risks of doing something new or innovative. We should have fewer reports that say nothing new – but more new ideas that we should actually try.”
Eustice concluded: “In recent decades, our approach to environmental regulation, particularly in regards to nature and biodiversity, has been to protect what is left and to stem the tide of decline. We have had some successes so far as that approach goes and should acknowledge this. However, if we really want to realise the aspirations that the public have for nature then we need policies that will not only protect but that will build back – with more diverse habitats that lead to a greater abundance of those species currently in decline.
“Delivering this change is what lies at the heart of our approach to future farming policy, our approach to biodiversity net gain in the planning system, and also behind other initiatives like highly protected marine areas that we intend to pilot. Building back greener means what it says, and I want to work with all of you to make that happen.”