Environment Bill to determine future of Surrey’s wildlife

© Jon Hawkins

Surrey Wildlife Trust urges people to back ambitious environmental protections and a powerful, independent Nature Watchdog

The government published yesterday a draft of the upcoming Environment Bill, which will set out proposals to protect our country’s wildlife and natural landscapes. This is the first Environment Bill in 20 years, and Surrey Wildlife Trust is urging Surrey MPs, businesses, local communities and individuals to support strong legislation based on ambitious ‘nature targets’, ‘nature recovery networks’ and robust environmental laws enforced by a ‘nature watchdog’.

However, as the Bill stands, the lack of independence for a proposed environmental watchdog could limit its ability to hold government to account.

Surrey Wildlife Trust, together with Greener UK, a group of 14 major environmental organisations including The Wildlife Trusts, are urging everyone to come together and take advantage of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to call for stronger laws to protect precious green space and habitat and create a #WilderFuture and #WilderSurrey for generations to come.

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Surrey Wildlife Trust is the largest land manager in Surrey and protects habitats which are home to nationally and internationally rare and protected heathland, woodland, wetland and chalk grassland species.  It advises on over 1,000 planning applications per year and provides ecological consultancy on development and infrastructure projects to deliver the best outcomes for wildlife across Surrey. 

The State of Surrey’s Nature report found that nearly one in nine species is now extinct in Surrey and more than one in five are under threat – including tree sparrows, hedgehogs and water voles. The Trust believes that with stronger regulations and ambitious nature recovery targets set in law, enforced by a strong and independent Nature Watchdog, the fortunes of species within countryside and urban green spaces across Surrey could be transformed.

The draft Environment Bill, published yesterday, sets out some of the government’s proposals for new environmental protections, including an Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) that would uphold and enforce protections. However, under the proposals, the Secretary of State for the Environment would set OEP’s budget and would make many of the appointments to the body, including the Chairperson. Surrey Wildlife Trust and the wider Wildlife Trusts believe that this would seriously limit its independence and ability to hold the government to account.

James Adler, Director of Land Management at Surrey Wildlife Trust, said:

‘We welcome the government’s intent to properly protect and improve the environment for future generations; however, the draft bill does not fully deliver on this ambition and must go further. Without a fully independent and powerful watchdog, the government would not be properly held to account and environmental standards could slip. A nature watchdog with real teeth is needed to enforce protections and ensure politicians are working to improve the environment for wildlife and people.’

Stephanie Hilborne OBE, Chief Executive of The Wildlife Trusts, added: 

‘Now Ministers and MPs must improve upon this draft Bill to create a bold visionary piece of legislation proportionate to the vast environmental challenge we face. Unless they do, we will regret losing still more wildlife and the health of our ecosystems for generations to come. 

‘Critically, an ambitious Bill would put nature’s recovery on to a statutory footing by mapping out where wildlife must be protected and where habitats must be improved – a Nature Recovery Network on land and at sea.’

A family enjoying the meadows at Sheepleas

© Jon Hawkins

This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the government to introduce ambitious environmental protections. Surrey Wildlife Trust is campaigning for the new laws to use ‘nature targets’, which takes an evidence-based approach using environmental data records with measurable targets that politicians have to meet.  The targets would include benchmarks on clean air, water quality, green space creation and wildlife species population growth. 

Additionally, the Trust wants new laws to ensure the creation of ‘nature recovery networks’ to transform isolated pockets of wildlife into thriving populations at a landscape scale. A strong Environment Bill would also create a ‘nature map’ of the UK’s wildlife and ensure new property and infrastructure developments take account of the paths and corridors needed by wildlife. 

For instance, working with developers, Surrey Wildlife Trust created a brand new, 85 acre nature reserve at Priest Hill, Epsom, out of abandoned playing fields. In 2013, the development of a small housing estate funded the removal of 1000 tons of tarmac and rubble from the site, revealing a layer of chalk that has since been restored to valuable grassland habitat. Developers also fund the continued management of the new reserve.

Cooperating with developers led to a ‘net gain’ for nature, by improving a site where wildlife was in decline. This more than offset the impact of the new houses, helped further efforts to create a living landscape by creating a ‘stepping stone’ for wildlife between nearby Howell Hill Nature Reserve and the Epsom Downs, and provided a new, nature-rich reserve for local residents.

Sarah-Jane Chimbwandira, Director of Biodiversity, Evidence and Policy at Surrey Wildlife Trust, said: ‘We support the ‘net gain’ approach to development which not only restores ‘nature recovery networks’ but also enhances the biodiversity on existing green spaces. Priest Hill demonstrates this really well. Development doesn’t have to be at the expense of wildlife. We need the Environment bill to make ‘net gain’ for wildlife mandatory and support a strong, independent ‘nature watchdog’ with powers to ensure that organisations are doing the right things to protect wildlife.’ 

Such a watchdog would allow people to appeal bad planning decisions that might harm nature and would ensure local government only approves developments which provide new habitat and greenspace and create a ‘net gain’ for wildlife.

Surrey Wildlife Trust has over 25,000 members, reaches over 15,000 children and adults every year with its education programme and works with a team of more than 1,500 education and conservation volunteers. It believes wildlife is an important part of all our lives and being close to nature makes us happier and healthier. 

So it is urging people in Surrey to take action to support a stronger Environment Bill by writing to your local MP and asking for a meeting.  

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