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“Our economy depends upon everything that nature provides”: What does government deregulation mean for South Yorkshire's environment?

‘Investment zones’ of low-tax, deregulation and “streamlined” planning procedures could spell disaster for environment and wildlife in the region, say campaigners and experts.

Winter in Dearne Valley Park

Dearne Valley Park near Barnsley, a thriving wildlife site located on former industrial brownfield land.

Badics (Wikimedia Commons)

Campaigners and experts have expressed concerns about the scope of the government’s low-tax, deregulation ‘investment zones’ and what they could mean for critical natural environments in South Yorkshire, after it emerged that one or more of the zones could be established in the region.

South Yorkshire Mayoral Combined Authority (SYMCA) – the office of the region’s Mayor Oliver Coppard – has confirmed that it is in discussion with central government about investment zones, alongside the four South Yorkshire councils, but told Now Then that “we don’t have any details on sites yet”.

In wording that has alarmed many groups and organisations working to protect the natural environment, the government guidance asks applicants:

Whether the proposed development would be on land which is in:

  • a National Park;

  • an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty;

  • an SSSI or equivalent designation;

  • the buffer zone of a World Heritage Site

  • designated Green Belt.

It does not appear to exclude these types of land from investment zone applications, which could mean loosened restrictions on development. Alongside the upcoming Retained EU Law Bill, which could revoke hundreds of laws that protect natural environments and enforce standards for water and pollution, the news has sparked anger and concern in many quarters.

Dr Nicky Rivers, Living Landscape Development Manager at Sheffield & Rotherham Wildlife Trust, told Now Then that “our economy depends upon everything that nature provides” – a view that she points out is supported by the government’s own 2021 Dasgupta review of the economics of biodiversity.

“Cutting through the planning system, especially with no mention of protection for the environment, is extremely worrying and goes against previous promises made by the Conservative Party. This is on top of the government threatening to remove a suite of laws that protect wildlife.”

Dr Rivers also noted a recent Ipsos UK poll that shows that popular opinion tends more towards focussing on protecting the environment than it does towards promoting economic growth.

Approached by Now Then for comment, SYMCA declined to explicitly rule out the inclusion of national parks like the Peak District in its investment zone plans.

A spokesperson for SYMCA said its considerations would be “in line with our Strategic Economic Plan which states that we will ‘ensure land is developed sensitively and sustainably, protecting and enhancing key environmental assets’.”

“The MCA is to play a greater role in protecting and enhancing our environment through the [DEFRA-led] Local Nature Recovery Strategies in future, and we are committed to making South Yorkshire net zero by 2040,” they said.

Helen Ensor of the RSPB Sheffield Local Group said that while it couldn’t comment on investment zones due to a lack of detail about plans in South Yorkshire, the group would be “strongly opposed to any moves for investment zones to overlap or impinge upon the most environmentally protected areas of the UK, including national parks and sites of special scientific interest.

“Even in less protected areas the impact on nature needs to be fully taken into account. Many of our best local wildlife habitats – for example Orgreave Lakes, the Shirebrook Valley and parts of the Dearne Valley – are on former industrial and coal mining sites which have now developed into important havens for wildlife and it would be a tragedy if these were to be lost,” Ensor said.

Guidance issued by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities says that “areas with Investment Zones will benefit from tax incentives, planning liberalisation, and wider support for the local economy.”

Campaigners fear that "planning liberalisation" could mean the loosening of planning laws and the scrapping of environmental protections in order to encourage business growth, while planning experts have speculated that the deregulation brought about through investment zones could eventually be rolled out to the whole country.

Investment zones could reportedly mean benefits for businesses including cuts in employment taxes, the abolition of stamp duty and the writing-off of investments in machinery.

Prime Minister Liz Truss is under growing pressure from rural communities and her own MPs on her approach to the environment, as well as the National Trust, Wildlife Trusts and the RSPB, with the latter saying in a recent statement: "Make no mistake, we are angry."

A government spokesperson told Now Then that it "will not be downgrading the strong and established protections for National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and protected sites."

"National greenbelt policy will continue to apply and all proposals must have consent from local planners or National Park authorities. Those that do not will not be taken forward and cannot become an Investment Zone," they said.

by Sam Walby (he/him)

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