Environmental campaigners slam Tory MP’s pushing to curb powers of nature watchdog 

Therese Coffey is among the Tory MPs urging the Environment Secretary to transfer powers from Natural England to ministers

Therese Coffey former environment secretary

Environmental campaigners have blasted 18 Tory MPs revealed to have written to the Environment Secretary Steve Barclay urging him to strip Natural England of its powers to create nature reserves. 

Conservationists have slammed the move as an ‘attack on nature’ as it would transfer powers over the designation of Sites of Special Interest (SSSIs) from the government’s adviser for the natural environment in England, to political decision making. 

In March, Tory MP Derek Thomas tabled a Bill which seeks to remove Natural England’s power to designate protected areas, SSSIs, and shift the authority to the Environment Secretary. 

Former Environment Secretary Therese Coffey is among the MPs who support the bill seeking to undermine the authority of the nature watchdog, along with large landowning Tory MPs including Philip Dunne and Sir Robert Goodwill. 

Environmental campaigner Guy Shrubsole said it exemplified Tory MPs and landowning lobbyists, “trying to undermine nature protections in England”.

“Tories & landowners have always chafed about land being legally protected for nature – because they see it as infringing their property rights,” Shrubsole wrote on X.  “If Natural England were stripped of these powers, we’d see Ministers bow to landed interests & nature given even fewer protections.”

He added: “This is only the latest assault on nature protections & Natural England being waged by Tory MPs. Last year Devon MPs Geoffrey Cox & Anthony Mangnall kicked off about NE asking farmers to reduce sheep grazing on Dartmoor. Mangnall called for NE’s powers to be ‘curtailed’.”

The 10-minute Rule Bill, due for a second reading on 26, April and tabled by the MP for St Ives, follows on from Natural England coming under fire from farmers in Cornwall last year over its decision to designate 3,044ha in West Penwith as a SSSI. 

In a letter to Steve Barclay by supporters of the Bill, they claim that transferring the powers to ministers “would not cause any protections to be lost; but it would allow your department to consider other matters, which are outside Natural England’s competence.”

But CEO of Wildlife & Countryside Link, Richard Benwell wrote on X: “Just 3% of England is well protected for nature.

“We can’t afford to swap balanced scientific process to designate SSSIs with political choice.”

While Lib Dem MP Richard Foord responded: “Putting the Secretary of State for sewage in charge of SSSIs would be like putting the fox in charge of the hen harrier.”

 A former Environment Agency Area Manager wrote on X: “This Government has presided over sustained decline of our best wildlife sites. Now a group of Tory MPs are lobbying to remove powers from the agency responsible for them.

“Shameful. But not surprising.”

Here is a list of the Tory MPs who have signed the letter urging Steve Barclay to curb Natural England’s powers: 

Therese Coffey

Phillip Dunne

Sir Robert Goodwill

Steve Double

Trudy Harrison 

Simon Jupp

Mark Menzies 

Selaine Saxby

Greg Smith

Maggie Throup

Sir Bill Wiggin 

Natalie Elphicke

James Grundy

Rachel Maclean

Sheryll Murray

Robert Syms

Heather Wheeler

(Image credit: Number 10 / Wikimedia)

Hannah Davenport is news reporter at Left Foot Forward, focusing on trade unions and environmental issues

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