Today Defra has proposed reforms to the existing nature conservation designations, with a focus on addressing the current disconnect between the Government’s ambition to drive nature’s recovery and the outcomes of the current system. Making the system of protected sites simpler and more coherent could help deliver better outcomes for nature in Britain.
The system currently in place has developed organically over several decades, but in doing so has become unnecessarily complicated and overlapping. EU designations, such as the Special Protection Areas (SPAs) and Special Areas of Conservation (SAC), are to be changed, along with our existing national designation, Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). These currently form the core of site-based conservation legislation in the UK.
Taking inspiration from the current system of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), Defra is proposing the adoption of a hierarchy of “protected” and “highly protected” designations for sites on land. Having proposed three potential versions, the details of this system will be determined following the consultation that launched today.
The reforms will also see changes made to the Arm’s Length Bodies (ALBs) that oversee the designation, regulation and enforcement of protected sites, including Natural England and the Environment Agency. This is in an effort to create a more efficient delineation of responsibilities.
This overhaul has the potential to be a huge win for the recovery of British nature and biodiversity, by making it easier to establish the importance of a specific site for nature conservation, its current condition, and the route to its improvement.
But, in order for this Brexit dividend to be properly realised, Defra must set an ambitious overall target for protected sites alongside other Environment Act targets, in anticipation of when the new system is up and running. A protected sites target would set an overarching ambition for the reforms to site designations, reassure stakeholders that there will be no weakening in protection for our most precious habitats, and ensure effective management plans are put in place. This new target should reflect the contribution of protected sites to meeting the Government’s commitment to halt the decline of nature by 2030.
A focus on recovery, which the proposals appear to provide, is welcome. Previous designations focused on protecting what was left of an area, rather than moving land into recovery. This takes forward the key principle behind the proposal for a Wildbelt designation, as called for by the likes of CEN MP Claire Coutinho.
A Wildbelt would connect conservation sites and overlay our landscape designations, namely Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and National Parks, and the Green Belt to create a coherent network of wildlife corridors connecting biodiversity hotspots, rather than having individual, isolated sites spread across the UK. Such a designation could easily find a home in the upcoming Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill.
Recognising current debates on food security, many farmers already recognise that, without healthy soils, clean water and abundant pollinators, the future of British farming is at risk. Healthy natural capital and a stable climate are essential for domestic food production. Attempts to create a false binary between food production and nature, therefore, are not only unproductive, but also represent an incredibly short-termist and reductive view of the needs of farmers.
Overall, today’s proposals are bold enough to recognise the flaws in our current system and are clear in their desire to put nature at the heart of the department’s upcoming reforms. To ensure that Defra’s nature-focused ambition remains when implementation begins, Defra must set an ambitious overall target for protected sites to ensure that designations are kept on track, helping us to reach our national goals.
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