Society management

Green Paper on Nature Restoration: Protected Sites and Species

The first months of 2022 have seen several consultations on environmental reforms in England. This Green Paper has set out some of the key post-Brexit reforms, and the BES Policy Team’s response has presented a series of suggestions to ensure that the reforms provide more effective protection of sites and species.

In March this year, the British government published the Green book on nature restoration: protected sites and species. This sets out the policies the government plans to use to achieve the target set in the Environment Act 2021 to halt the decline in species abundance by 2030. The green paper covers a series of proposed reforms, but of most interest to BES are suggested changes to species protection legislation, changes in the designation, management and enforcement of protected sites, and the potential roles of the nature restoration network and other effective area-based conservation measures (OECM) to meet the government’s commitment to protect 30% of land and sea by 2030 (30×30). BES recently published a report on the current and potential effectiveness of protected areas and the OECMS in the UK, in the context of the 30×30 target.

The BES policy team responded to the consultation on the Green Paper, discussing the evidence surrounding these changes and whether they represented progress towards protecting biodiversity and restoring nature in the UK. The BES raised several concerns about these policy proposals which were to represent a shift in emphasis on environmental protection and the restoration of nature and the resources allocated to it.

Too Much Emphasis on Streamlining

One of the main motivations for the reform is said to be that “the environmental regulatory landscape for protected sites and species has become too complex”. The proposed amendments aim to reduce the number of protected site designations and species protection provisions.

If the BES is not opposed to simplification, the priorities should be to create more protected areas, improve site management and strengthen the protection of sites and species. We believe there is too much emphasis on renaming, reorganizing and streamlining existing structures, rather than actually improving the effectiveness of protection. We must act quickly to achieve the objectives proposed by the government for 2030 and 2042 during the consultation on the environmental objectives.

If reform goes ahead, we suggest a series of principles that should be followed to ensure the effectiveness of the new legislation. These include that no site or species should have its level of protection removed or downgraded and that any new species protection should be flexible and adaptive. The Green Paper’s proposal for species protection is for a three-tier system, where all species at each tier receive the same protections. We believe this is inappropriate as species at the same level will face different threats and therefore have different conservation needs. Protection must be species-specific to ensure its effectiveness and, importantly, there must be leeway to protect the habitat of endangered species in any new legislation.

led by science

BES urges that all environmental policy be guided by science and evidence, and there are a few proposals in the Green Paper that are not necessarily guided by this principle. First, simplifying the system of protected sites does not necessarily make it more coherent and more ecologically efficient. The system of designated sites should move from representative to comprehensive and use systematic conservation planning to identify priority habitats to protect in terms of biodiversity, connectivity and resilience. This process should follow the ‘more’, ‘better’, ‘bigger’ and ‘unified’ principles that were proposed by the Lawton report.

Currently, Natural England has the power to notify Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), protected sites created to protect important habitats, species or geological features based on a set of scientific criteria. The Green Paper suggests the sole power to designate protected sites should rest with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, but giving the final say to a minister means the evidence-based process used by Natural England can be cancelled. Any power given to the Secretary of State to designate protected sites should be additional to, and not substitute for, Natural England’s jurisdiction in the matter so that land designations continue to be science-led.

Integrate the new and the old

Two of the consultation questions ask whether there should be a move towards a “more results-based approach to site management” and whether there should be a reform of the “current characteristics-based approach to site selection and management to also allow for greater dynamic ecological processes.” BES agrees that both of these measures would be positive, but neither the feature-based approach nor the action-based obligations should be completely removed.

There is no proven system of results-based approaches that would ensure proper monitoring of biodiversity changes and abandoning actions before this is in place could be disastrous. The feature-based approach has protected many key aspects of England’s nature and biodiversity, and moving away from it completely can result in the loss of important habitats and species. It is important to complement the current feature-based approach with an ecosystem-based approach to ensure the resilience of protected sites, but it should not be one or the other.

To achieve these two suggested changes, the amount of resources allocated to management, enforcement and monitoring must be increased. Recent evidence has shown that current levels of oversight are grossly inadequate, and Natural England and other bodies do not have the staff or resources to meet current requirements, let alone expanded powers and duties. The government suggests that private sector investment could play an important role in funding nature conservation, but research on sustainable development and climate finance has indicated that public funding is often the most effective solution, both in terms of results and profitability. We argue that public funding will always have to play a major role in supporting the protection and restoration of nature. There have been many attempts to correct the market failure of ecosystem services treated as externalities, where people and organizations receive benefits from the natural world but do not pay to maintain them. Mechanisms such as carbon markets attempt to internalize these services and ensure that people pay to offset their emissions or other damaging activities, but almost all have encountered challenges that have seriously undermined their activities. Public resources to protect and restore nature need to be significantly increased in the UK, alongside efforts to boost private investment.