The Infrastructure Bill: working for or against biodiversity?

The Coalition Government’s Infrastructure Bill is continuing its controversial passage through parliament. The main elements of the multi-faceted Infrastructure Bill concern proposed changes to planning legislation in England and Wales, as well as additional provisions for nationally significant infrastructure projects, town and country planning, and the control of invasive species.

However, aspects of the Bill have drawn sharp criticism because of the potential for adverse impacts on the environment. Particular concern has focused on Clause 21, which would permit the Secretary of State to transfer the “designated property, rights or liabilities of a specified public body” to the Homes and Communities Agency – a non-departmental public body that funds new housing in England. In a widely circulated 38 Degrees petition, critics of the Bill allege that Clause 21 has been introduced to make it easier for public land, perhaps including the Public Forest Estate (PFE), to be sold to developers with limited community involvement whilst bypassing the planning system. With over 250,000ha of land across England, the PFE is vitally important for the preservation of woodland biodiversity. This is especially pertinent given that the most recent indicator for woodland birds shows a 28% decline since the 1970 baseline.

The Government has since published a rebuttal of this “uninformed and misleading speculation”, stating that Clause 21 will not be connected to the new public body which is to be established to manage the PFE. The Government commented further, stating that “the underlying policy intention [of Clause 21] is to make it easier for surplus and redundant brownfield land to be sold and help build more homes.” Dan Rogerson MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Water, Forestry, Rural Affairs and Resource Management, also defended Clause 21 at a recent All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Biodiversity event on the future management of the PFE after Caroline Lucas, Green Party MP for Brighton Pavilion, challenged the impact the clause will have on woodland biodiversity.

Regarding invasive species, the Bill would empower local authorities to require landowners to control or eradicate invasive, non-native species from their land. Similar legislation is currently in place for dealing with pest species such as rats. However, in an open letter to the Government published in Nature magazine, 24 leading scientists have called for this aspect of the Bill to be re-written as “in its present form, it could lead to an irreversible loss of native biodiversity.”

The concern of the signatories of the letter pertains to the Government’s definition of invasive, non-native species. The Bill states that “a species is ‘non-native’ if it is listed in Part 1 or 2 of Schedule 9 [of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981], or in the case of a species of animal, it is not ordinarily resident in, or a regular visitor to, Great Britain in a wild state.”

This definition could therefore be used to classify species once found in the UK but now extinct, such as the European Beaver (Castor fiber), as being non-native and thereby prevent or challenge their reintroduction. It is also unclear what the future status might be of species that naturally migrate into the UK from Europe as a consequence of climate change.  Schedule 9 also includes a number of species that were once extinct in the UK and have since been reintroduced, such as the Capercaillie (Tetrao urogallus) and White-tailed Eagle (Haliaetus albicilla), as well as some BAP priority species like the corn crake (Crex crex).

The Government state that the premise for the inclusion of these powers is to tackle the threat that invasive species pose to native biodiversity. However, it is clear that the Bill in its current form is failing to convince that these new powers will actually work for biodiversity rather than against it.

The Infrastructure Bill started its examination in the House of Lords, where it is currently at the Reporting stage. The opportunities for amendments to the Bill in the Lords are drawing to an end, with a final round of detailed examination expected to take place on 3 November. Following a third reading in the Lords, the Bill will pass through to the House of Commons where further debate and examination will take place with the potential for amendments to be considered.