Michael Gove has been urged to stop wildlife areas losing vital protections which could see them concreted over under Government plans to shake up the planning system.
The Wildlife Trusts group – which represents 47 charities across the UK – is urging the Government to rethink plans to strip 42,000 Local Wildlife Sites of protections which help stop them from being destroyed.
Alarm bells were sounded when the Government removed the protection from its new National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) – a document which authorities examine before giving permission for infrastructure and housing developments – ahead of a consultation period.
More than 20,500 people have backed a Wildlife Trusts campaign to get the protections restated, and on Wednesday evening – just hours before the consultation officially closes – Labour wrote to the Environment Secretary urging him to “step in” to save the areas.
A letter signed by Shadow Defra Secretary Sue Hayman and Shadow Housing, Communities and Local Government Secretary Andrew Gwynne reads: “The previous policy protection for Local Wildlife Sites was very important, as these sites hold much of the country’s remaining wildlife, and are fundamental to the delivery of a Nature Recovery Network.
“The proposed removal in the consultation document of this protection in our planning system undermines the Government’s commitment to leave the natural environment in a better state than they found it.”
It concludes: “We urge you in your role as Secretary of State for the Environment to step in and demand that your colleagues in the MHCLG reinstate Local Wildlife Sites in the NPPF.”
Designated Local Wildlife Sites can range from woodlands, river banks, churchyards and even small patches of flower-rich land, and they make up 5% of England’s land base.
The Government put forward the idea of scrapping the protection on March 5, but has been forced to defend its actions in the face of growing criticism.
Last week Housing Minister Dominic Raab tried to reassure campaigners, saying: “There is absolutely no intention of watering down wildlife protections.
“The NPPF is out for consultation and before it is finalised we will make any changes necessary to ensure that protection for local wildlife sites is clear.”
HuffPost UK has learned Raab met with The Wildlife Trusts earlier this week in a further attempt to play down fears.
The charity’s chief executive Stephanie Hilborne told HuffPost UK she felt like ministers “hearts are in the right place” when it comes to protecting the environment, but more action is needed.
She said: “They are under pressure to relax the planning rules to free up development. “That means the wording in the NPPF needs to be strong if it’s going to protect Local Wildlife Sites.
“Expressing general sentiments won’t do. It won’t carry enough weight when it comes to planning permissions being granted.”