Environmental protection rules may be headed for government shredder

On 12 January, cabinet office minister Oliver Letwin met senior officials from Defra, the Environment Agency and Natural England and made a startling proposition – that he wanted all environmental guidance replaced with a single 50-page document, just as the government aims to do with the 1,000 pages of planning guidance. Details of the meeting are difficult to obtain. However, this is part of the government’s Red Tape Challenge, to simplify regulations in order to help business. Damian Carrington writes: “Businesses should be encouraged to thrive by developing sustainable goods and services fit for the 21st century, not by cutting costs through a return to pumping their waste into rivers and the air.”  Earlier the RSPB said “we will fight tooth and nail any unnecessary destruction of our environment for a short termist approach to economic recovery.”

Oliver Letwin wants all guidance covering pollution, wildlife, and waste more replaced with one 50-page document, source says, as is happening to planning rules

by Damian Carrington

25.1.2012  (Guardian)

On 12 January, cabinet office minister Oliver Letwin met senior officials from the department of the environment along with representatives from the Environment Agency and Natural England and made a startling proposition. Letwin told them he wanted all environmental guidance replaced with a single 50-page document, just as the government aims to do with the 1,000 pages of planning guidance.

That is the story told to me by a well-placed source. I have tried to uncover more details, but have met with a brick wall, surrounded by stony near-silence and topped with a few barbed comments. I understand a leak inquiry has been initiated since I started asking questions.

This is not surprising. His proposal was met with disbelief, I’m told. Letwin, it appears, is living in another world having apparently told the meeting that the planning proposals showed how the shredding of guidance could “work very well.” The public uproar over the planning proposals suggests otherwise.

I asked both Defra and the Cabinet Office for more information on the meeting. Their entire response is this: “We never comment on whether internal meetings have or have not taken place.”

This is poor, given that the Environment Agency had already confirmed to me that the meeting had taken place. A spokesman said: “The meeting was about simplifying advice to business about environmental regulation and was positive.”

So there was a meeting and it was about “simplifying” environmental guidance. It was prompted by the government’s Red Tape Challenge(RTC), which has now consulted the public on environmental regulations and guidance, with Defra is expected to respond soon.

Has Letwin, finger on the popular pulse, has detected a huge groundswell of public opinion ready to unleash a torrent of common sense and wash away all that loathsome red tape? A few minutes on theenvironment section of the RTC website gives you the answer: a deafening no.

The site attempts to prime the pump. “We have to make sure that our … environmental regulations are not strangling businesses and individuals with red tape.” The first question then posed to readers is: “Should we scrap them altogether?”

But when you read the comments posted, the vast majority span the range between outrage and indignation that the “greenest government ever” is even considering scrapping the rules protecting the enviroment. Many call for stronger regulation, not less.

The first of the eight categories is “Air pollution”, which attracted 108 comments. Of these just 8 (7%) suggest any change at all. The rest protest at the exercise, saying, for example: “I cannot imagine how any government of a civilised country really thinks that watering down the legislation about air quality is a good thing.” The other categories show the same strong sentiment.

So if the public seem to want the opposite of what the government is proposing, why is it proceeding? The obvious answer is economic growth. Letwin’s proposal is “very plausible because deregulation is their only policy for growth”, one source told me.

Tom Burke, veteran environmentalist, past adviser to Conservative environment secretaries, and now working for Rio Tinto, agrees: “This report [of the Letwin meeting] is consistent with a complete hostility to the environment, based on the misapprehension that the environment regulations get in the way of growth – which they don’t and there is no evidence that they do – and the mistaken belief that the British people want to choose between the two, which they don’t.”

He adds: “The financial crash was due to deregulation, the government now has a very tricky problem on breast implants due to regulatory failure and the soaring whiplash injury claims are due to the deregulation of lawyers. Who are the government doing this for?”

Chancellor George Osborne answered this question in his autumn statement by accusing the implementation of the EU Habitats Directive, which protects wildlife, “placing ridiculous costs on British businesses”. He added: “We shouldn’t price British business out of the world economy. If we burden them with endless social and environmental goals – however worthy in their own right – then not only will we not achieve those goals, but the businesses will fail, jobs will be lost, and our country will be poorer.”

This is far from the first attack on environmental protection from this government. The frontline agencies, Natural England and the Environment Agency, have had their budgets slashed and are losing thousands of staff. The “bonfire of the quangos” in 2010 saw the demise of the Sustainable Development Commission and bodies covering renewble energy, pollution, pesticides, cycling and integrated transport. The Carbon Trust and Energy Savings Trust have been cast adrift, with no core funding.

Like planning debacle, where there is no evidence that planning red tape holds up developments, no evidence has been presented that environmental regulation and guidance is doing more than protecting people and places from harm and giving clarity to businesses on how they can operate responsibly.

No doubt there are a few outdated regulations, and they should be scrapped of course. But that does not require the shredding of all guidance. Businesses should be encouraged to thrive by developing sustainable goods and services fit for the 21st century, not by cutting costs through a return to pumping their waste into rivers and the air. As I have written before, smart regulation that corrects market failures can both drive growth and do social good.

I hope I never hear of Letwin’s indecent proposal again, and that it dies of shame in a dark corner of Whitehall. We will see.

In the meantime, I’ll give the last word to a commenter, R K Joyner on the RTC site: “Regulation is supposed to be designed to prevent the occurrence of identified undesirable/hazardous consequences of actions by individuals or groups. By all means carry out a study relating desired outcomes to actual outcomes, a process that should be ongoing in any case. The ‘Red Tape’ premise is pejorative dogma rather than enlightened politics, as we are supposed to believe.”

and earlier

From forest sell-off to Thames airport plans – this government has a seriously anti-environmental agenda

The coalition is set to unravel 30 years of hard-won environmental protection to claw its way out of an economic hole

by Martin Harper

Autumn statement 2011: George Osborne admits UK recession risks

In the 2011 autumn statement, George Osborne labelled environmental legislation as a ‘ridiculous cost on British business’. Photograph: PA

“Quite frankly, when it comes to environmental policy the Treasury has often been at best indifferent, and at worst obstructive.”

Who said these words? Was it George Monbiot? Jonathon Porritt? Caroline Lucas? Actually it was George Osborne in 2009 talking about his predecessor at number 11.

The speech, entitled A Sustainable Government: a Sustainable Economy, went on to promise: “That attitude is going to change if the government changes. I want a Conservative Treasury to be in the lead of developing the low–carbon economy and financing a green recovery.”

Two years later, the government is seemingly set to unravel 30 years of hard-won environmental protection and sacrifice carbon targets to claw its way out of an economic hole.

We learned this week that the government plans to consult on the idea of an airport in the Thames Estuary, an area of international importance for hundreds of thousands of wetland birds. Similar proposals have been ruled out time and again, and with public and political opinion, many in the aviation industry and a host of UK and international environmental designations going against the plan, it is on seriously unstable ground.

So why is the government even considering such a discredited, unpopular idea? Well let’s take a look at some of the other proposals this government has put out for consultation.

First up, a plan to make a quick buck by selling off our national forests –cue public outcry and some swift backtracking. Then a proposal to reform the planning system which removed vital environmental checks and balances – again public uproar ensued.

And more recently something of a game-changing moment as Osborne nailed his colours to the mast in the 2011 autumn statement, labelling hard-won environmental legislation protecting our most valuable wildlife sites as a “ridiculous cost on British business”. This sounds like a very different Osborne from the one speaking in 2009.

It’s quite clear that this government faces an enormous economic challenge, but we fail to see that a development path dependent on environmentally destructive, high-carbon infrastructure is the right way forward.

We want this government to recognise that our environment is an asset that we should be nurturing and passing on in a better state than we found it.

This is what environment secretary, Caroline Spelman, promised in last summer’s Natural environment white paper.

The European habitats and wild birds directives – of which the government has ordered a review of implementation in England – are crucial to achieving this kind of sustainable recovery.

Under these rules we have seen the London Gateway port development on the Thames go ahead with a host of compensation and mitigation measures for wildlife. Similar developments have taken place on the Humber and the Stour while the planned dualling of the A11 will offer protection for nearby stone curlew populations and the London array offshore windfarm is set to provide clean energy without disturbing local wildlife. I could go on, but you get the point. These rules are not a block on development – they affect only a fraction of developments in the UK and in those cases they are the only way to ensure we achieve sustainable development.

Of course, there are steps that could be taken to make the process run a little smoother. Our own experience shows us that developers need clear and consistent support from a range of involved parties in order for relevant development to proceed swiftly. Much of this support needs to come from public bodies – in particular, Natural England – which has seen its staff slashed by a third under this administration, and local authorities – where all too often cuts have fallen hardest on essential ecologists.

We want this government to be finding bold new ways to decouple economic growth from environmental harm. This ought to be a moral crusade that they pursue tirelessly.

If they succeed we will have proved to the rest of the world that it is possible to maintain current standards of living without destroying the things many of us hold so dear.

We will work constructively with any political party which wants to achieve this aim.

We continue to live in hope. But in the meantime we will fight tooth and nail any unnecessary destruction of our environment for a short termist approach to economic recovery.

• Martin Harper is conservation director at the RSPB