Open letter calls for enforcement so that “toothless” Environment Act protects the English countryside

25 March 2022

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Leading ecologists, conservationists and biodiversity specialists from the Universities of Oxford, Kent, Exeter and Bangor have today published an open letter calling on the government to close gaps in the Environment Act 2021 that could undermine its ability to protect and restore nature, and reverse wildlife loss in England.

One of the key parts of the Environment Act is mandating that from late 2023 new developments deliver a minimum 10% improvement in biodiversity on their sites through habitat restoration, creation or enhancement. However, the scientists say there are no credible mechanisms for monitoring or enforcing most of these biodiversity gains. The mandate is further undermined by current government guidance, which advises local authorities against taking enforcement action except in a case of ‘serious harm to a local public amenity’.

current government guidance advises local authorities against taking enforcement action except in a case of ‘serious harm to a local public amenity’

“Ensuring Biodiversity Net Gain from every new development in England could be transformative for nature in this country. But creating this requirement to restore and enhance nature and then not empowering local authorities to actually enforce it will lead to the policy falling well short of its aims,” said Sophus zu Ermgassen, Ecological Economist at the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology, University of Kent.

zu Ermgassen and his co-signers are calling on Michael Gove, George Eustice and Tony Juniper to review better and more feasible enforcement mechanisms, improve the monitoring of how and whether biodiversity is delivered, and properly resource and empower local authorities to enforce these planning conditions and penalise non-compliant developers.

“If we want to fulfil the UK's commitments to restore our nature to a healthy state, we need to ensure that the right incentives are in place,” said Professor E J Milner-Gulland, Tasso Leventis Professor of Biodiversity and Director of the Oxford Martin Programme on Biodiversity and Society. “Only with effective rules, guidance, measurement and enforcement will the government’s vision to rebuild our natural world be realised.”

The full open letter has been published by the Oxford Martin School and in The Conversation today. It calls for improved monitoring and enforcement, better oversight of delivery, greater capacity to deliver biodiversity gains at the local authority level, and for more opportunities to restore nature to be realised.