My Times column on the sensible proposal to reform the way protected species are helped during development:
Natural England, the government body charged with protecting Britain’s wildlife, is currently consulting on reforming the way protected species are rescued from bulldozers. The rethink is focused on the great crested newt, the bane of developers everywhere, and it sensibly suggests giving the newts new ponds so their populations can expand, rather than the futile gesture of surveying, trapping, deporting and excluding them from development sites one by one.
This might seem a trivial tale to disturb your bank-holiday breakfast with, but don’t be fooled. Newts are big business and very, very controversial. There are about 1,200 licences issued each year to fence newts out of development sites and then trap those inside and remove them to safety, though they hate being moved and often don’t survive. Such fencing and trapping directly costs business about £60 million a year. The actual cost is much higher if you add in the delays that newts regularly cause, because a developer must trap newts on a development site for at least 30 days after the newt-exclusion fence goes in and then for five clear days of zero catches, which might take weeks or months to achieve.
Yet, despite this, Natural England is frequently taken to court both domestically and in Europe by people in the green movement who have too much money and not enough to do, for not being zealous enough in enforcing the law on newts. Greens see newts, precisely because they are so common, as a useful weapon to stop people engaging in economic activity. (I tell you, compared with newty politics, party politics is tame.) Until recently, Natural England itself was split down the middle between the pragmatists and the dogmatists. Aided by new DNA technology, allowing ponds to be tested for newts without trapping, the pragmatists may now have the upper hand.
Great crested newts are common. You find them in every part of England, as well as much of Wales and Scotland. They inhabit Northern Europe as far east as the Urals, but are scarcer on the continent, which is where these things are decided. (Yes, we are being punished for success again.) In 1994, Britain implemented a European directive defining great crested newts as a “European protected species” (EPS), meaning that you can go to prison for six months for harming them. This means, because they are so widespread, that housebuilders and other developers go to great lengths to ensure that any newt living on or near their development is excluded or rescued so that it is not run over by a bulldozer.
Developers live in terror of breaking this rule. In one case in Milton Keynes, a housebuilder incurred £1 million in costs and a year’s delay just to remove 150 newts from a site. There’s a vigorous industry selling “solutions” to developers. These include fences lined with heavy plastic sheets partly buried in the ground to prevent newts entering sites. The fences can be miles in length and are often cruel barriers to the movement of wildlife. When lapwing mothers are calling plaintively to their babies that are stuck on the wrong side of a fence, you have to wonder if we have our priorities right. Lapwings are of much more urgent conservation concern than newts.
The incentives from this policy are perverse. One water company spent tens of thousands of pounds on newt fencing to keep newts out of a natural habitat. No wonder similar legislation is known in the United States as the “shoot, shovel and shut up” act. Nothing has done more to alienate businesspeople from wildlife than this sort of newty-statism.
Suppose, Natural England says, that a minerals company wants to extend a quarry into what is now farmland, but the extension comes within 200 metres of a newt-infested pond. The pond will not be affected and the farmland is currently useless for newts, so what’s the problem? Indeed, the quarry extension will turn the farmland into something much more attractive to newts: with scattered ponds to breed in and heaps of rocks to hibernate in, so the newt population might rise despite the odd bulldozer accident. Yet if newts move in, the quarry owner faces a choice between going bust and going to jail. So he keeps them out.
Natural England’s four proposals in the current consultation (which closes next week) suggest: reducing the need to exclude and relocate newts so long as compensatory habitat is provided elsewhere; allowing that habitat to be built off site rather than immediately nearby; allowing newts to use temporary habitats on site that will be developed at a later date; and reducing the cost of, and need for, surveys for newts and other EPSs. All very sensible ideas.
Newts are to be the pioneers, Natural England explicitly hoping that these measures will also help with other EPSs. In the case of the surveys, Natural England gives the example of somebody trying to add an extension to a house. To get planning permission the owner has to do a bat survey. Bat surveys are expensive and can only be done at certain times of year. If the survey is inconclusive, you may have to wait another year and get another survey. The incentive is strong for the bat surveyor to suck his teeth like a costly plumber and say, as he takes his fee: “Looks like soprano pipistrelle droppings, squire. Might be just using it as a day roost, but I can’t rule out that they might be hibernating here too. See you next year.”
Instead, suggests Natural England, the house owner should be allowed to go ahead and build his extension so long as he does the right thing by the bats that might or might not turn up for hibernation: providing bat boxes, say, and making sure the work is not started in hibernating season. Common sense, in other words.
But common sense does not always prevail in the countryside. The green pressure groups, the newt-fencing industry and the dogmatists within officialdom all have vested interest in the current system. The Department of the Environment even formed a great crested newt “taskforce”, boasting (and this is beyond parody) “several parallel workstreams, each involving a committee to deliberate and progress aspects of policy and capacity”.
Meanwhile, British industry is hobbled by a wholly unnecessary source of cost, delay and uncertainty — wearing a yellow waistcoat, a jagged crest and a pointy tail.