Thursday 1 December 2011

George Osborne's attack on nature

Not being content with a destructive shake-up of the planning system, George Osborne now has wildlife sites of international importance in his sights. Now our most important wildlife sites and rarest species face an uncertain future in England.

Osborne’s perspective on this is clear:
“..we will make sure that gold plating of EU rules on things like Habitats aren’t placing ridiculous costs on British businesses.”
“If we burden them with endless social and environmental goals…. businesses will fail, jobs will be lost, and our country will be poorer.”

So that’s it then – wildlife is just a ridiculous cost and it’s making us all poorer!

Where has George Osborne been for the last two decades? Study after study, as well as basic logic and common sense, shows the central importance of the environment. This is not separate to the economy or a cost to the economy but underpins the economy (as well as underpinning our well-being and very existence). Economic growth that damages the environment can no longer be considered economic growth at all.

The Government’s own National Ecosystem Assessment and Natural Environment White Paper, both published in June this year, promised us much more than this:

The UK National Ecosystem Assessment states: “The natural world, its biodiversity and its constituent ecosystems are critically important to our well-being and economic prosperity, but are consistently undervalued in conventional economic analyses and decision-making.”

The Natural Environment White Paper states “The Government is committed to putting the value of natural capital at the heart of our economic thinking.”

There is no sign of this clear thinking in Osborne’s current attack.

These documents were supposed to herald a step change in nature’s fortunes.

The internationally important sites under attack are the Special Areas of Conservation (SACs), established under the EU Habitats Directive, and the Special Protection Areas (SPAs), established under the EU Birds Directive.

They are the very foundation of environmental protection on land and at sea in England and the building blocks for nature’s recovery. They include iconic places such as the purple heaths of Ashdown Forest, the unspoilt wetlands of the Arun valley, the flower-rich grassland turf of the South Downs at Lewes and at Castle Hill and the secretive ancient woods at The Mens and Ebernoe Common.

Yet taking England’s much depleted wildlife into a more positive future is clearly far from the Chancellor’s agenda.

At a time of recession we should look to the long-term.

The coalition Government during the Second World War placed nature at the centre of post-war reconstruction and some of our greatest nature conservation initiatives stem from that period. Even during one of the worst economic climates of the twentieth century Britain was able to build a positive future for the natural world. Governments then did not have the advantage of the clear messages coming from the National Ecosystem Assessment, they had not had the decades of environmental awareness that we have now and did not have the foundation of protected sites that we have spent decades identifying and defending. But they did know it was the right thing to do. How different to today when nature is presented merely as an unnecessary cost to society.

Is the Government’s review of these sites an attempt to ease the way for major developments on land and on our coasts?

The chairs and chief executives of the 47 Wildlife Trusts met last week where we heard from the New Economics Foundation about the urgent need for a fundamentally different economic model that takes the value of our natural capital into account. Only a dramatic shift will secure the services we gain from a healthy functioning environment and produce a society that can thrive.

Economic growth achieved at the cost of our natural life support systems is not economic growth at all, merely an illusion of temporary benefit.

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