The Ventilator

Incorporating The Ranger's Blog

Isle of WightLegal matters

New island designation – is it just greenwash?

Matthew Chatfield

The idea of a special ‘Island designation’ for the Isle of Wight is making the rounds again, with MP Bob Seely and the Isle of Wight CPRE making recent interventions in favour of it.

The concept is one that makes for good headlines but is devilishly difficult to pin down. I fear it might end up as another empty exercise to placate the likes of me, before being diluted so far during the designation process that it becomes meaningless. Why do I think that? The legislative landscape is littered with the remains of previous efforts to designate and protect landscapes and habitats. Governments have a tendency to announce reviews and initiatives quite often, but actual results are less easy to spot. Anything new that seeks to protect wildlife and countryside tends to last as long as it takes for it to first encounter some overriding economic imperative.

One of the highest legal protections for land is the national designation ‘site of special scientific interest’ (SSSI), which has been around since 1949. To give you an example of how well that’s going, recent government figures show that only 9.9% of river habitats on SSSIs are in favourable condition. At the same time senior MPs are calling for nature watchdog agency Natural England – which lost 66% of its funding between 2010 and 2017 – to be stripped of its powers. Former environment secretary George Eustice is keen to ensure that the SSSI system is decided by politicians, saying earlier this year “It is not sensible for Natural England to have to make the decisions on SSSIs. Instead, ministers should take such decisions“. This proposal for gratuitous politicisation brings to mind Michael Gove’s notorious 2016 comment “People in this country have had enough of experts”. One pandemic later, and that sentiment has not aged well. We may have our doubts about science but we are far more sceptical of politicians.

So a new island designation would have to find some way to be supported by a system that, frankly, is often unwilling to implement the protections it already has. What’s more, there is an existing process that could achieve many of the planning-related improvements identified for the proposed new designation. Unfortunately it is dull, and moderately complicated, so doesn’t get much attention. We on the Island have the power to set out our own planning rules in what is called the Island Planning Strategy, but we haven’t done so. We are instead using rules last overhauled in 2012. Our local politicians have failed to agree on new ones, leaving the Island subject to national guidelines that are certainly not tailored to our Island situation. If we are looking for something we can do immediately to improve the protection of the environment across the Island – not just protected areas – my suggestion is that we should finalise and adopt the Island Planning Strategy now. Then by all means carry on waiting years for some ill-defined ‘island designation’ that may have no teeth anyway.

Matthew Chatfield

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

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