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The Brexiteer and the newt – a case study in the EU, corporations and nature

Part one of a new three-part series on EU environmental protections – and how Brexiteers are seeking to redefine protected wildlife as a “scourge” to industry.

Image: Great Crested Newt, Natural England/Flickr.

There are two diametrically opposed Brexit narratives, in what is now widely described as a ‘cultural war’ dividing the nation. The first story presents Britain as exceptional and plucky, but currently under the yoke of the risk averse European Union matriarch. We Brits, with the help of the brotherly United States, can overthrow this oppressive other, reboot our economy and find our way to the sunlit uplands.

The second story is that of the great catastrophe. Britain had found a port in the storm with the European Union, and the single market and free movement represented an openness, a connectivity and solidarity which is now under threat. It is small minded businessmen, obsessed with non-existent “red tape”, privately driving this absurd and dangerous escapade.

Enter the warty newt

At the centre of this particular conflict between protecting what remains of our natural environment, and supporting development end economic prosperity, is the great crested newt (Triturus cristatus) or as it is more comically known, the warty newt.

The great crested newt is the perfect case study when trying to understand the implications of Brexit at the complex nexus between corporations, European and national government, local communities, environmental pressure groups and nature itself. It is the canary in the mine as European directives and regulations undergo translation to British law through the EU Withdrawal Bill.

The nocturnal amphibian has suffered prolonged historic declines in its population, but is protected by a European Union directive. This regulation causes much annoyance to Britain’s house builders, and to their trade lobby groups and supporters in government. The fate of the great crested newt appears to hang in the balance, and the more we learn about its plight the more we will know about our own. So it really is worth taking the time to hear their story - from the beginning.

The great crested newt is Britain’s largest and most threatened newt. Its knobbly appearance has leant it the nickname of the warty newt. It has been hibernating since October and should be waking up around now. The nocturnal creature can be found snoozing under piles of leaves or logs or inside tree stumps or stone walls, and occasionally in the mud of the pond bed.

Paul de Zylva, nature campaigner at Friends of the Earth, explains: “Great crested newts are protected in UK and EU law because they have suffered huge drops in population in the past century caused by the filling in of ponds on farms and in gardens, and damage to their surrounding hunting grounds. It is illegal to disturb them, their natural habitat and even their eggs.”

Yet this seemingly inoffensive creature is presented to the world - by The Telegraph at least - as “the scourge of the building industry”. The Home Builders Federation (HBF) describes itself as “the voice of home building industry of England and Wales”, lobbying government in the interests of its members. The trade body represents household names such as Barratt Developments and Crest Nicholson and smaller local housebuilders.

The HBF views as halcyon days the period between 1960 and 1989. Things were so much simpler back then. According to a report published by the body last year, this was “a period in which small house building companies could start up, grow quickly and establish themselves as significant contributors to regional economies… Experience of the 1980s shows that post-war housing supply peaked at precisely the same point as small, entrepreneurial companies were flourishing.” This was the golden era. New homes. New jobs. New profits.

The fall in the number of great crested newts coincided with increased house building across the UK since World War II. “The species is sensitive to changes in water quality. Correspondingly, industrial pollution of water, destruction and drainage of ponds seem to be the most harmful factors for T. cristatus,” according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. “Habitat fragmentation is a threat.”

Political leaders from across Europe were becoming increasingly concerned about the impact of industry, including house building, on the natural environment, and fears over species decline led to the first piece of environmental regulation from the European Union.

Directive 79/409/EEC, known as the Birds Directive, was adopted unanimously by the member states in April 1979. Adopting the directive in Britain was one of the final acts of James Callaghan’s Labour government. The European Commission notes: “It is the oldest piece of EU legislation on the environment and one of its cornerstones.”

The directive introduced Special Protection Areas and placed great emphasis on the protection of habitats for endangered and migratory species. Politicians were able to take credit for the economic boom, while also appearing to care deeply for the natural environment. Problem identified. Solution found.

Johnson, senior – a fan of EU environment law

But the conflict between nature and economic growth can through regulation be resolved for the short term, only to emerge later in an extended and more severe form.

The apparent golden era of housing building and prosperity for all came to a crashing end in 1990. The cause was not the great crested newt, but the economy. As the HBF itself recognises: “The recession which engulfed the UK economy in the early 1990s was deeper and arguably harder felt for a greater number of households than the most recent recession period of negative growth in the late 2000s.”

There was, in the eyes of industry, another major problem. The Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher had introduced the Town and Country Planning Act 1990.

This, according to the HBF, “tipped the balance of control significantly away from private, entrepreneurial companies and towards authorities”. It was “the most momentous planning legislation” since the 1947 act “which effectively nationalised the right to develop land”. The act established for the first time a presumption against development unless in accordance with development plans drawn up by local authorities.

Two years later, house builders would be confronted with yet another challenge. The European Union adopted Directive 92/43/EEC, known as the Habitats Directive, on 21 May 1992. The commission also lent its weight to the International Union for Nature Conservation European Red Lists of Threatened Species, providing an overview of the conservation status of more than 6,000 European species so that appropriate action can be taken to protect those threatened with extinction.

The great crested newt was duly added to the Red List, and suddenly British house builders needed to get very well acquainted with the amphibian.

There was at least one Brit who was absolutely delighted by these developments. Stanley Johnson is the former Conservative MP, former employee of the European Commission and current co-chairman of Environmentalists for Europe. He is also father to the foreign secretary, Boris Johnson.

He has been described as “instrumental” in delivering the habitats directive. “The Spanish have the lynx, the Romanians and Slovenians have wolves, elsewhere in Europe there are bears. I think we should be proud of our great crested newt,” he said more recently. “I hope this element of EU environment law doesn’t take too much of a pounding.”

While the great crested newt was being protected from extinction in the intervening years, the same could not be said for many smaller British house building companies. Many of those who had somehow survived the recession of the 1990s were wiped out by the 2008 financial crisis, with one third going out of business between 2007 and 2009, according to the HBF.

The faltering global economy, and the emergence of a complex monopoly within the industry would, however, escape serious censure in the Conservative press. Migration would be blamed. And occasionally, so too would the great crested newt. House builders were in crisis, and obviously the main problem was European regulation, environmental regulation, newt regulation.

Stories about the absurdity of the birds and habitats directives became commonplace. Just a few months after the economic crash, The Telegraph thundered: “Leicestershire County Council delayed a major road-building scheme for three months after evidence of great crested newts was found on the site. The species is protected by law, but after the authority paid hundreds of thousands of pounds for special newt-fencing and traps, not one of the rare creatures was discovered.”

This newt controversy fed into and reinforced a wider social narrative that plucky old Britain was being dragged under the waves by the great albatross of Europe. The Conservatives were delighted that the EU was taking the heat, and simultaneously keen to affirm its reputation as being the champion of business.

A wake-up call for the complacent newt

The nature-business conflict manifests itself as two factions within the Conservative party: one seeking the votes of the environmentally conscious, including the young, the other championing the interests of business.

Greg Clark, then planning minister, launched a root and branch review of the planning system in 2010, which would result in the new National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF).

This was an attempt to spark a new house building boom by removing costly regulations. The minister called for a "presumption in favour of sustainable development". This was a somewhat Orwellian signal that environmental regulation would no longer be a barrier to development.

Clark appointed Peter Andrew, director of land and planning at house developer Taylor Wimpey, to the panel set up to review the planning laws. Three out of four members of the panel had direct involvement in development. The industry-dominated panel drafted its proposed reforms, including the recommendation that “at the heart of the planning system is a presumption in favour of sustainable development, which should be seen as a golden thread running through both plan making and decision taking.”

This recommendation was in turn effectively copy and pasted by the Conservative government into its own policy. The Guardian reported: “The chiefs of housing firms, including Barratt, Bovis and Redrow, insisted that ministers introduced a planning policy that would mean the default answer to applications would be ‘yes’ – a presumption that would hugely boost their business prospects”.

The HBF was at the centre of the lobbying campaign. The trade body fired off a letter circulated to George Osborne, then chancellor, demanding that this new presumption "must be introduced immediately" as it formed part of "absolutely essential requirements" of any new planning policy.

The trade body was delighted by the Tory policy paper published the following year. “The introduction of the NPPF in 2012 engendered a much more positive environment in which to plan for new housing,” it reported. “This can be seen very clearly by the impact it has had on the number of planning permissions that have been achieved in the years following its ‘bedding in’.”

But the wholesale adoption of the reforms asked for by housing developers by the Conservative cabinet raised serious concerns among charities, including those considered ‘conservative with a small-c’. Neil Sinden, then policy director at the Campaign to Protect Rural England, felt it necessary to speak out.

"The evidence suggests that some in government have allowed themselves to get too close to the development lobby, which has enabled [the industry] to exert disproportionate influence,” he argued. "It's no surprise housebuilders have been pushing the presumption in favour of sustainable development so strongly. It allows them to threaten local authorities with costly appeals if their applications are not approved."

This was a wake-up call for the complacent great crested newt. The house building industry and the government were now united. Friends of the Earth’s de Zylva concludes: “The humble great crested is probably best known for its ability to stop a developer’s plans in its tracks if it would cause harm to newts and their feeding and breeding grounds.”

“For years the government has been trying to get round the laws coming up with various ideas that may look great on paper but are dubious in practice. It’s another case of nature losing out and the government doing the bidding of house builders and developers. If our government got on with protecting and restoring nature instead of spending its time finding ways to make things worse, nature might not be in the deep trouble it is across the UK.”

In the next instalment in this three-part series, we learn how the European Union and the British government reviewed the impacts of the birds and habitats directives on business over the years, long before Brexit and the fight to ‘take back control’.

About the author

Brendan Montague is a regular columnist for openDemocracy in our 'Brexit Inc: the environment and corporate power in the new Britain' series.

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