The government is considering introducing “wild belts” to connect and expand existing wildlife corridors and help reverse the huge declines among animal and plant species across the UK.
Under plans set out by the Wildlife Trusts, which the government has said it is particularly interested in, wild belts would be a formal designation which would be applied to areas in a similar manner to green and brown belt land.
The housing secretary, Robert Jenrick, is among several MPs keen on the plans, which would add to the UK’s tiny percentage of land which has some kind of protected status, and currently includes sites of special scientific interest (SSSI), areas of outstanding natural beauty (AONB), national parks and green belt areas.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government told The Independent: “The secretary of state has an interest in wild belt corridors and has met with environmental groups to discuss this matter, which we are considering.
“One of the reasons we are modernising the planning system is to ensure that it better reflects our commitment to nature and tackling climate change, and our reforms will ensure our countryside and natural habitats are protected with more green spaces provided, whilst delivering the sustainable development our country needs.
“We will set out further details when we publish the Planning Bill.”
Craig Bennett, the chief executive of the Wildlife Trusts, which first put forward the proposals last summer, told The Independent that existing designations “are not enough”.
“Even if [AONBs, national parks and SSSIs were] all in a good state, nature is still declining. There have been catastrophic declines over the last 40 or 50 years. For example, 41 per cent of our wildlife species have suffered declines in abundance since the 1970s, insect populations have halved.
“It’s not enough to just protect what we have left. We need to create space for nature, so we need a designation that allows you to take bits of land with low value for nature, and manage them in such a way they aid nature’s recovery.”
Part of the Wildlife Trusts’ vision is to apply the “wild belt” status to all land given over to biodiversity recovery, to help measure the total area, and simplify the competing designations to make it clearer for the public.
“It’s a way of saying very clearly, ‘this is land being managed for nature’s recovery’, but also to give a sense that people and communities can have agency and involvement with this. We would like to see communities coming forward and proposing bits of land near where they live which can be managed for nature’s recovery.”
But while he welcomed the government’s interest in the scheme, he warned the Wildlife Trusts would not support the government’s existing planning proposals, which include stripping back some protections for wildlife.
In June last year when Boris Johnson said the UK would “build, build, build”, following the coronavirus outbreak, he hit out at wildlife protections and their impact on building.
“The newt-counting delays in our system are a massive drag on the productivity and prosperity of this country,” the prime minister said.
Under current plans, numerous species, including red squirrels, pine martens, water voles and mountain hares could have their special statuses reviewed, so they lose certain safeguards which developers currently have to adhere to.
Mr Bennett added: “We’ve been very clear at the Wildlife Trusts that we oppose a lot of the thinking behind the government’s proposed planning reforms at the moment. Certainly as they currently stand they’d be pretty devastating for nature, so we wouldn’t want them to use this as a way of covering that up.
“But we also need to be proactive in saying what we do want. It’s not good enough for NGOs to just say what we don’t want. We’ve got to come up with some new ideas.”