English countryside ‘at risk from Boris Johnson’s planning revolution’

The English countryside and its wildlife are at serious risk because of Boris Johnson’s pledge to revolutionise the planning system, leading green groups warn today.

In a joint letter to the Observer, the organisations, which include the National Trust, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and the Wildlife Trusts, say wide-scale deregulation leading to lower environmental standards and less protection would be a betrayal of promises by Johnson and Michael Gove to deliver a “green Brexit”.

Such backtracking, which they fear is imminent, would also damage the UK’s reputation in the battle against climate change. The prime minister last week pledged to stimulate economic recovery after the Covid-19 crisis with a “build, build, build” strategy, adding that he wanted to drive through the most radical changes to the planning system since the second world war to ensure fast progress.

But green organisations say weakening planning and protections, including the role of local people in shaping developments, risks setting voters in the shires against the Conservative government – alarming many Tory MPs in the process. In 2011, David Cameron’s government faced the wrath of the shires as the Daily Telegraph mounted its “Hands off our Land” campaign in protest at attempts to change planning laws.

In terms that reminded environmentalists of Cameron’s pledge to ditch what he called “green cap” – having campaigned on a green Tory manifesto in 2010 – Johnson blamed red tape and over-regulation for hold-ups in development, saying: “Newt-counting delays are a massive drag on the prosperity of this country.”

Downing St, under the direction of the prime minister’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, has issued orders in recent weeks to several government departments to come up with ideas on how to slash “red tape” and make sure big building projects can be pushed through in what is known in Whitehall as “project speed”.

Despite having promised to maintain high environmental standards post-Brexit, there are now fears of a government U-turn that will see ministers drop laws on the protection of habitats while promoting plans that would see more carbon-generating projects, many for new roads.

In their letter, the green groups say: “There are rumours of forthcoming deregulatory measures, including those that weaken laws to protect habitats and wildlife. Furthermore, the government’s flagship environment bill has been delayed and its new body to enforce environmental laws after Brexit will not be ready in time. This will considerably weaken our environmental protections.

“Countless reviews, including those commissioned by the government itself, have shown that environmental laws guide good development when implemented well. There is no public appetite for deregulation, with 93% of Conservative voters wanting to maintain or strengthen protections for habitats and wildlife.

“Rebooting our economy needs to be done in a way that doesn’t exacerbate the current environmental and climate emergencies. Ripping up important laws and lowering our standards would be a betrayal of previous commitments and reduce our international standing.”

As well as simplifying planning, Downing St is understood to be looking at how to get rid of Strategic Environmental Assessments, which under EU law have been used in this country to assess the green impact of big new developments.

In July 2017 Michael Gove, then environment secretary, promised to deliver a green Brexit, saying: “Leaving the EU gives us a once in a lifetime opportunity to reform how we manage agriculture and fisheries, how we care for our land, our rivers and our seas, how we recast our ambition for our country’s environment, and the planet. In short, it means delivering a green Brexit.”

Government sources said the environment bill would return to parliament as soon as possible, but declined to comment on whether environmental protections and planning regulations would be weakened.

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