'It's a direct attack on nature': Environmental groups challenge government on controversial new law

  • Campaigners say replacement laws aren't coming in quickly enough, Charlotte Cross reports

A “direct attack on nature” is being waged through a new government bill designed to scrap thousands of lingering EU laws, environmental campaigners have warned - leaving some of the country’s most valuable habitats without any legal protection.

Under the EU Retained Law Bill, which goes to Parliament’s Committee Stage tomorrow (Feb 23), any piece of EU legislation still in force by the end of this year will simply cease at the end of 2023.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) insisted environmental protections “will not be downgraded” - but environmental groups say they fear not enough is being done to ensure this.

'It is complete environmental de-regulation', says Ed Green, chief executive of Warwickshire Wildlife Trust

“With hundreds of pieces of nature based EU legislation due to be scrapped by the end of this year, unless something happens, it all disappears,” said Ed Green, chief executive at Warwickshire Wildlife Trust.

“That would mean that every single bit of legislation that covers the protection of habitats like the wetlands at Brandon Marsh Nature Reserve, the species like otters and bittens that live here, the quality of the water in the River Avon, all of the law that governs chemical pollution, agricultural pollution.

“But much more than that as well. We're also talking animal welfare law. The amount of pesticides that is legal to be in the food that we eat.

“All of it disappears. It is complete environmental de-regulation.”

A starling murmuration at Brandon Marsh Nature Reserve Credit: Simon Watts

The UK’s legal system was entwined with the EU’s for decades - and there are thought to be at least 3,700 EU laws still in force.

But unless they are explicitly replaced, restated or updated, under the EU Retained Law Bill, they will expire at the end of this year.

A mammoth task which many fear is difficult - if not impossible, and which could leave huge gaps in Britain’s legal framework ready to be exploited, at the expense of countryside like Brandon Marsh, or the Attenborough Nature Reserve in Nottinghamshire.

“It's a direct attack on the things that protect our nature, protect our rivers, and protect our wildlife,” added Paul Wilkinson, the chief executive at Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust, which owns and looks after the reserve.

“This water [here] is really polluted because of the water coming in from the River Erewash. That water is getting better because of some of these protections and regulations that we have in place to stop pollution getting into the rivers from sewage treatment plants or from agriculture, or from urban areas.

“So at the moment, this this site is suffering, but it is improving, which is a great success story that could be completely unraveled by this piece of legislation that's now going through Parliament.”

Attenborough Nature Reserve in Nottinghamshire. Credit: Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust

Other groups are already taking matters into their own hands.

Sandy Luk is chief executive at the Marine Conservation Society, based in Herefordshire.

The charity is a co-claimant in a legal case against Defra over its Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan, which was unveiled last year. It wants ministers to rewrite the plan completely, arguing that it currently doesn’t apply to coastal waters and doesn’t require any urgent action until 2035.

“We took legal action as an absolute last resort, we tried everything,” she told ITV News Central.

She added: “Untreated sewage is being pumped into our seas for hundreds of thousands of hours each year; putting people, planet and wildlife at risk. Our seas deserve better.”

The action is being brought under English law - but that relies on framework provided by EU laws.

If that disappears, legal action like theirs in future would be much more difficult.

“They are really, really important cornerstones for our environmental law frameworks,” she explained.

Sewage entering the sea on England's south coast Credit: ITV News

“They deal with protected areas, protected species, they deal with water quality in rivers, drinking water quality, they deal with marine health.

“They deal with so many aspects of the environment that if we were suddenly all to use them, lose them, we would be without environmental protections. You cannot scrap thousands of laws and then still have a functioning system.

“We're going to lose the foundations of our environmental law framework if that happens.”

In response, a Defra spokesperson said: “The UK is a world leader in environmental protection. Reviewing our retained EU law will not come at the expense of the UK’s already high standards, and environmental protections will not be downgraded.

“We have set new legally binding targets under the Environment Act, including to halt and reverse nature’s decline. These stretching targets and the Office for Environmental Protection, our new watchdog, will protect and improve the environment.

'Reviewing our retained EU law will not come at the expense of the UK’s already high standards, and environmental protections will not be downgraded,' says Defra

“We’ve also put the strictest targets ever on water companies to clean up our water, plus requirements to deliver the largest infrastructure programme in their history to tackle sewage spills.”

But the ‘sunset clause’ of the EU Retained Law Bill as it stands comes into action in December.

The question remains how hundreds of existing laws can be replaced by new ones in little more than 10 months.

The clock is ticking.