Well, it’s official at last. Protecting our most important habitats and threatened species is not standing in the way of economic growth. And neither is there any evidence that the European legislation, on which this protection hinges, is gold plated. These are among the principal findings of a Defra report published last week.
The Defra report reflects just one of a number of moves by government that are questioning, and possibly unpeeling, the laws and policies that protect our environment. Hot on its heels is the government’s reform of the land use planning process, launched this week and to come into effect immediately. Last autumn the government suddenly got cold feet about protecting our undeniably threatened marine wildlife. And yet another review of wildlife legislation will be taking place over the coming year.
So far, the worst fears expressed by many green groups (Devon Wildlife Trust included) in response to these changes have not materialised. But one could be forgiven for thinking that a bunch of people in the Treasury don’t like the environment an awful lot. The Chancellor would appear to be among them. In his autumn budget statement, he adopted harsh tones, with talk of “gold plating”, “ridiculous costs to business”.
More concerning than the rhetoric (no doubt intended to please particular interest groups) was the language that pitted the economy and the environment against each other. The message seemed to be – if you want to get rich, then the natural environment must be sacrificed.
This is of course simplistic nonsense. For starters, a number of recent studies have placed huge financial values on services, such as flood protection and a clean water supply, which wildlife habitats provide. One such study – which to its credit the Defra report quotes – valued the services of the sites protected by EU wildlife laws alone at 200-300 billion euros per year. That’s up to six times the funds spent by the tax payer to bale out Royal Bank of Scotland. The fact that we currently place no financial value on these “ecosystem services” does not mean that it is in our economic interests to ignore them.
It’s not overly surprising that many developers would happily see the back of laws and policies that place controls on what they do and where they do it. Few of us want to be regulated. But let’s keep this in perspective. Only 6% of land in England is protected by EU wildlife laws, considerably less than the European average. In Devon, these areas include some of the wildest bits of Dartmoor and Exmoor and some of our most stunning coast. In short, places where most of us would agree development ought to be controlled at the very least. The government’s wildlife agency, Natural England, objects to less than 0.5% of the development proposals it receives each year relating to these sites; and in most cases the objections are satisfactorily resolved at an early stage. Is this really what is holding back economic growth?
Our natural heritage means much more to us than can ever be expressed by dry financial statistics. A recent poll found that the most common reason people cited for being proud to be British was our beautiful countryside – even more than our sense of humour! Surely there’s some value in that, even if we haven’t yet worked out how to express it in sterling or euros?
There will always be an argument for adding value to our home by building an extension or a bigger garage. But there comes a point when we have no garden left, and suddenly we don’t want to live there any more and it’s a lot less attractive to a potential buyer because there is nowhere for the children to play. Wildlife laws are not there to stop all development and atrophy the landscape. They are there to achieve a sensible balance, to allow us to thrive and progress but also to live in places we value and of which we are proud. This is the essence of sustainable economic development – and it is not the same thing as growth at any cost.
There is little evidence that weakening environmental controls will help bring back growth. There is a great deal of evidence that weakening it could threaten or destroy the natural environment that so many of us value, and much of which is irreplaceable.
In fairness, there are many people in government who understand this. We can only hope that the Treasury joins their ranks, and soon.