Comment: The UK Government’s deregulation agenda is dangerous

Image credit: Colin, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.

For the good of future generations, we must retain existing laws and improve protections for nature, writes Joan Edwards, director of policy for The Wildlife Trusts

We face an urgent nature and climate crisis. The situation is dire, with more than one in ten species in England on the brink of extinction and the UK among the most nature-depleted countries in the world. To tackle this, we urgently need a coherent plan for nature’s recovery on land and at sea.

Instead, the UK Government is pursuing a dangerous agenda of deregulation that puts the very laws protecting wildlife at even greater risk.

Deregulation means removing rules and protections, often characterised as “cutting red tape”. In reality, it means polluters can get away with poisoning our rivers and countryside – even more than they are doing already. It also means ripping up the rules that protect our most important wildlife sites from damage and removing funding that supports farmers to restore habitats across our landscapes.

The Retained EU Law Bill – introduced into the House of Commons by Business Secretary, Jacob Rees-Mogg, today – will reform and revoke hundreds of laws that have their origins in policies from the European Union. Whatever our views on Brexit, many of these laws provide vital environmental protections for our air, rivers, wildlife, and food standards. They helped remove the UK’s 1970’s reputation of being the ‘dirty man of Europe’ by cleaning up our waterways. Changing these laws entails extensive procedural change with little benefit for nature and could lead to more litigation and greater costs for both developers and conservationists. If retained EU legislation is replaced with weaker alternatives, our natural environment will be left unprotected while rewriting regulations will cause unacceptable delay.

Rather than pursuing its deregulation agenda, we need the UK Government to:

Strengthen the rules that protect our most important wildlife and habitats – don’t remove them

  • Defra has more EU retained law than any other Government department, with 570 retained laws on environmental issues. Key laws include the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations, the cornerstone protection for our most treasured sites, and the Water Framework Directives that set strict standards for pollution of rivers. The Air Quality Standards Regulations impose limits for toxic air pollution, whilst the Marine Strategy Regulations ensures the government protects our seas.
  • The removal of the Habitats Regulations is a particular concern. They defend 18.8 million hectares of our most precious wildlife across the UK from inappropriate and damaging development – from the New Forest and Norfolk Broads to hazel dormice and harbour porpoises. Protections like the Habitats Regulations must be strengthened, not removed, if Government is to have any hope of delivering its promises for restoring nature and tackling climate change.

Increase support for nature friendly farming to secure a sustainable future for British farming and nature

  • The Government’s Food Security Report 2021 is clear: ‘‘The biggest medium to long term risk to the UK’s domestic production comes from climate change and other environmental pressures like soil degradation, water quality and biodiversity”. The estimated cost to UK farmers of soil degradation alone is £1.2 billion each year. To secure a sustainable future for British food and farming, we need more nature.
  • Delays to schemes to reward farmers to restore nature would be bad value for money, providing billions of taxpayer funding to the wealthiest farms in England, hold back the recovery of nature, and hinder the UK’s progress to Net Zero. The UK Government must urgently announce details of its long-awaited proposals for a local nature recovery scheme for farmers and reverse the cut in funding for large-scale landscape and river restoration.

Set a legally binding target to ensure nature is in a better state by 2042

  • The UK Government’s current nature target would mean there is less nature in England in 20 years’ time. With wildlife populations the lowest they have ever been, and once common species under threat of being lost forever, this is simply unacceptable. We need a target that will guarantee in law the promise of passing on nature in a better state to the next generation. The Government should raise their ambition and set a target to increase the abundance of wildlife by at least 20% compared to current levels.
  • We cannot let the UK Government pretend that it can have it both ways – that it can gut environmental laws whilst also positioning itself as a climate and nature leader on the world stage. When the UK attends COP15 in December to negotiate global action on biodiversity loss, its push for “high ambition” outcomes will be undermined by its decisions to deprioritise nature at home. Without strong environmental regulation, we can have no hope of protecting 30% of land and sea for nature by 2030, the very goal we have been lobbying other countries to commit to through the Leaders Pledge for Nature. Domestic pledges like the Environment Act’s legally-binding species abundance target and the Conservative Party’s 2019 manifesto commitment to deliver the most ambitious environmental programme of any country on earth will have no hope of being met. Even with protections like the Habitats Regulations in place, only 3% of land can reliably be said to be protected for nature.

The current proposals in the Retained EU Law Bill will weaken the existing system or create change for the sake of change, in a manner which is likely to confuse developers, industry, and nature conservation organisations. As our landscape is increasingly damaged by climate change – as seen by the wildfires, drought and flooding of this summer – we cannot afford not to protect our wild spaces to our best ability.

The Treasury-commissioned review, The Economics of Biodiversity by Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta, demonstrated that our economy depends upon the resources provided by nature – for jobs, materials, health, wellbeing, and so much more. For the good of future generations, we must reject deregulation and enhance nature protection instead.