Habitat Directive works well, says Defra review

22nd March 2012

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The Habitats and Wild Birds Directives do not hamper the vast majority of development projects according to Defra, but greater collaboration between government agencies and clearer guidance is still needed

Following the chancellor’s 2011 autumn statement, in which he warned that “gold-plating” EU environmental legislation could place ridiculous costs on businesses and impede the country’s economic growth, Defra has published a review into how the Directives are implemented in England.

The four-month assessment examined the experiences of developers, regulators, local authorities and environmental charities, in projects affected by the regulations and concludes: “in the large majority of cases the implementation of the Directives is working well, allowing both development of key infrastructure and ensuring that a high level of environmental protection is maintained”.

However, it goes on to say that in a “relatively few” cases delays can arise and developers incur additional costs, often due to a lack of clear guidance on certain key areas of the planning permission process. Examples include the guidance on what constitutes a “reasonable” level of information on which to take a decision and on the assessment of likely significant effects.

In addition to pledging to publish a new overarching guidance manual for stakeholders on the implementation of the Directives in the next 12 months, Defra is to introduce new standards outlining the range and quality of evidence needed by relevant bodies, such as the Environment Agency (EA), Natural England and the Marine Management Organisation, in order to provide advice.

The greater sharing of information will also play a key role in improving the consistency of decision making across the bodies and at local authority level, says Defra. More collaboration and coordination between the agencies is to be encouraged, with the environment department committed to publishing advice on when authorities should be able to accept the conclusions of another authority by June. The EA will also be publishing information about the risks to protected sites posed by the activities it regulates.

The review outlines the government’s plans to create a major infrastructure and environment unit (MUIE) in the next six weeks, to help ensure the successful delivery of UK’s 40 most important national infrastructure projects.

“[The MUIE] will improve identification, and support resolution, of issues associated with the Directives for those projects at the pre-application stage. This will help facilitate key infrastructure development, consistent with the principles of sustainable development,” the review states.

Commenting on the report, environment secretary Caroline Spelman said: “I strongly support the aims of the Habitats and Wild Birds Directives, and I have said all along that I want them to continue to be effective in protecting important wildlife sites. Central to that is ensuring that we maintain their integrity, and the best way of doing that is to make it as simple as possible for people to comply with them.

“The action we are taking will make it clearer for developers to understand how to comply with the Directive, and will ensure that our wildlife still receives the high level of protection it deserves.”


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