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A challenge worth rising to

Matthew Chatfield
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The Red Tape Challenge! Wow, this has got to be good! The government is asking us all to get together and sweep away all the burdensome red tape that “hurts business, doing real damage to our economy”. What a great idea. Isn’t it? Well, isn’t it? Actually, no, it isn’t. And I’m going to tell you why not.

Red tape

Firstly, the good news – it’s actually not a bad idea to have a review of legislation. Like any legal system, we have a load of repetitive, poorly-drafted, ambiguous laws and regulations. That’s just the way laws work. And reviewing and changing them is not sexy, quick or exciting so it tends not to ever get done. Governments find it easier just to make nice new shiny laws and hope that everyone just forgets the old ones – and often we do. But here’s the bad news. Putting 21,000 bits of legislation on a website and asking for comments is a very poor way to do a review. Especially when you’ve already told everyone what to say, and what you’re likely to do about it. It seems that the government has anticipated that people might not come up with the conclusions they expect, and so, oddly, the consultation process is tilted dramatically towards weakening legislation, and strengthening business. The terms of the Red Tape Challenge imply that all legislation, by its very existence, is undesirable if, and only if, it limits business and the economy. Of course, by doing this the Challenge also gives life to that canard of an idea that business and regulations are two opposing forces which must be balanced. Or, in the case of the environment, the damaging and misleading fiction that success in business equates invariably to damage to the environment – and vice versa. Nothing could be further from the truth, and to see this schoolboy misconception at the heart of the Government’s review of legislation is deeply worrying. Now perhaps it’s time for some balance from me. I’m going to discuss the bits of law I’ve got some knowledge of – environmental ones. But the thrust of my argument I think could apply to any legislation subject to the Challenge. I’m not against revision to environmental laws. Not at all – I’ve worked with enough of them to realise that there’s plenty of room for improvement. So here’s my top three suggestions for change – which I’ll also be passing on to the Red Tape Challenge, naturally:

1. The Hedgerow Regulations 1997. A botched-up bit of legislation that only half-achieved what it set out to do. Introduced in the dying days of the last Conservative government, it was hopelessly weakened by landowning interests, making it a recipe for burdensome delays for those with legitimate proposals, and expensive work for local authorities. It also saves hardly any hedges, although it’s certainly better than nothing. Recommendation: scrap the regulations and instead include a new class of Hedgerow Preservation Order in the existing TPO regulations, using some more realistic criteria, including landscape amenity. 2. The Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. Wikipedia calls this “a piece of rushed legislation which was an overreaction to a transient public mood”. I agree. There’s certainly a need to control dangerous dogs, but this Act isn’t it. In fact, since the Act, antisocial behaviour involving dogs has become far more serious. I’m not suggesting the Act made anything worse, but it certainly isn’t the tool to make it better. By focusing on a few ill-defined types of dog, the Act diverts attention from wider problems with any dog which is not being properly looked after. Recommendation: it’s pointless. Scrap it, and find a better way to control nuisance dogs. 3. UK wildlife law is all about protecting species. European law is much more about protecting habitats. There’s a kind of uneasy stand-off between the two, and it more-or-less works as there’s a role for both. However the result is some very inflexible requirements, particularly when protected species are concerned. Huge sums are spent on fairly fruitless species protection exercises (especially for herptiles) during developments. Recommendation: research. There has to be some way to better solve the problem of encouraging wildlife and conserving it whilst human activity goes on. There’s also a complex legal minefield with the interaction of domestic and international law.

These three examples I chose deliberately from many possible candidates. You’ll see that in none of them a simple abolition of the regulation or law is what is needed. In fact, all three – arranged in order of complexity – will require careful research, negotiation and then new or amended legislation to ensure that what has been achieved is not lost. In all three cases this would be well worth doing and could result in an improved legal framework, and less burden to society. But this cannot be done in the three months allowed by the Government. It’s more likely to take years, especially if 20,996 other bits of legislation are being done at the same time. This is the core problem with the Red Tape Challenge. It’s not just that it’s been set up with preconceived and rather facile outcomes. It’s not even that it makes some rather uncomfortable assumptions about the stand-alone paramount importance of business. It’s the fact that even if it were the most even-handed review ever, it just can’t achieve its goals in the timescale given, and therefore is more likely to cause harm than good. It boggles my mind that anyone imagines that this Red Tape Challenge is likely to improve anything. Perhaps the only legal process that needs to be halted for now is the Challenge itself.

The Red Tape Challenge is online at Legislation which unless otherwise argued will be repealed includes:

  • The Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981
  • Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000
  • Environmental Protection Act 1990
  • Wild Mammals (Protection) Act 1996

Do go and have your say!

Matthew Chatfield

Uncooperative crusty. Unofficial Isle of Wight cultural ambassador. Conservation, countryside and the environment, with extra stuff about spiders.

3 thoughts on “A challenge worth rising to

  • The Virtual Ranger

    Yes, that business with the US budget is bizarre in the extreme. I do hope they sort it out. Obviously we’re watching it, popcorn in hand; but really, it’s not quite as entertaining as it ought to be as it’s so deadly serious.

  • pajamadeen

    I only started reading this article because you wrote it, smiles. I have to agree, the governmental website sounds dreadful. I’ll spare myself a look at it and take your word for it, seeing as how I’m not in the U.K. anyway.

    Now, if you REALLY want to see ineffective legislation and ineffective legislators, or you just want a good giggle, one has only to look at the current pickle in the U.S. Congress, where everyone is so concerned about grandstanding that they seem now to be paralyzed and unable to find enough common ground to put a budget into place. Meanwhile, global markets continue to sink and Americans are frustrated almost beyond belief. In some cities, there are demonstrations due to the failure to create a budget. There’s a cheery thought.

  • Wild_Bill

    I’m not sure how it works in Britain, but in the U.S. laws are passed that based on what is popular at the moment rather than what is correct. Not to say all problems can be solved by legislation, but there at least needs to be a serious investigation into a problem to determine the best solution before a new law may be passed.

    Environmental legislation is necessary to protect our natural resources as humans are greedy organisms and will leave nothing for future generations if left to their own devices. History has proved that.


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