RSPB and other nature charities raise alarm over UK government plans


Plans to relax planning laws in “investment zones” in parts of England and to abandon a scheme that rewards farmers for protecting wildlife are being widely condemned by environmentalists, including the Wildlife Trusts, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and National Trust



Environment



27 September 2022

Picture of sunset at Mam Tor, Peak District National Park

National parks in England are currently protected by planning permission laws

Shutterstock/DaBrick

On 23 September, as part of the new UK Conservative government’s emergency budget, the chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng announced plans to set up low-tax investment zones with relaxed waterplanning restrictions in parts of England. Separately, it has also emerged that the government is likely to abandon plans under which farmers and landowners in England would have been paid for helping preserve and enhance areas for wildlife.

This has led to a widespread outcry from environmentalists across the political spectrum, with opponents saying it would be a disaster for wildlife.

“This government has today launched an attack on nature,” the UK’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds stated on 23 September. “If they carry out their plans, nowhere will be safe.”

“Rather than ramp up action to support our environment, this government appears, however, to be heading in the opposite direction,” stated Hilary McGrady, the head of the National Trust, a charity that manages large areas of land in the UK. “The new Investment Zones represent a free-for-all for nature and heritage.”

“Everything we have and everything we do depends upon the health and vibrancy of the nature which shines all around us,” Conservative member for parliament Ben Goldsmith said in a tweet implying a rethink is required. “Britain is one of the most nature-depleted countries on Earth.”

It seems that plans for the investment zones are vague for now, with no details yet finalised. A fact sheet says: “The need for planning applications will be minimised and where planning applications remain necessary, they will be radically streamlined… We will set out further detail on the liberalised planning offer for Investment Zones in due course.”

The government says it is in discussions with 38 local authorities in England to establish investment zones. Those authorities cover most of England, but which areas will become investment zones appears to be up for negotiation still. The government hopes to extend the scheme to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

There have been similar schemes in the UK and elsewhere before. The last government announced plans for “Freeports” where different regulations would apply. What’s more, there are already 48 “enterprise zones” in England that “benefit from tax and planning concessions,” but have generated far fewer jobs than forecast, according to a 22 August House of Commons research briefing.

In addition to the investment zones, sources within the government have also confirmed that the Environmental Land Management Scheme will be scrapped before it even comes into effect, according to The Observer newspaper. The idea was to pay farmers and landowners to manage land in a way that is more beneficial to wildlife and the wider environment.

Instead, farmers may get paid per area of land they own, as under the Common Agricultural Policy of the European Union that the UK was meant to be moving away from after Brexit. Wildlife campaigners say the Common Agricultural Policy has harmed biodiversity by subsidising intensive agriculture and paying farmers to keep land clear even if it isn’t used to grow crops.

The replacement of the Common Agricultural Policy with the Environmental Land Management Scheme was regarded by environmental campaigners as one of the few positive things that might result from Brexit.

“The utter madness of this,” said Craig Bennett of The Wildlife Trusts on Twitter. “If we revert to an agricultural system where people get given taxpayers’ money on [the] basis of how much land they own then one of the few potential environmental benefits of Brexit will have been squandered. It will be unfair and unsustainable.”

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