MP bids to strip Natural England of SSSI designation powers

A Cornish MP has tabled a Bill in parliament which seeks to remove Natural England’s powers to designate protected areas, known as sites of special scientific interest (SSSIs).

Derek Thomas, the Conservative MP for St Ives, has tabled a private members’ Bill in the House of Commons to take the powers from Natural England and return them to the Defra secretary.

See also: Cornish MP calls for independent review on Penwith SSSI

Natural England has been under fire over its handling of the Dartmoor SSSI, which led to an independent review last year and a ministerial debate at Westminster Hall.

During that debate, MPs first made the suggestion to strip the quango of those powers.

The debacle over Natural England’s controversial decision last summer to designate 3,044ha in West Penwith as a SSSI caused further anger and consternation among affected farmers.

Natural England’s powers to designate SSSIs derive from Section 28 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.

However, in light of the issues widely observed during 2023 at Dartmoor and Penwith, Mr Thomas is urging the government to take back powers from the beleaguered arms-length body.

“At the moment, Natural England is marking its own homework, and the experience of farmers in my constituency is that it could be better,” Mr Thomas told parliament.

Penwith has been farmed for at least 4,000 years and the richness of the moors’ exosystem is the result of careful management over millennia, which is why farmers were “shocked by the high-handed way in which Natural England approached the designation”.

Following confirmation of the designation, Mr Thomas said farmers in Penwith were subject to Natural England staff dictating how they could operate their farms.

“That includes their demanding that farmers apply for consent to milk cows or keep livestock,” he added.

This risked farm businesses becoming unsustainable, which would have an impact on the rural economy and food security, Mr Thomas said.

Consequently, farmers in Penwith were already selling their businesses.

One farmer based in West Penwith, who asked not to be named, said he welcomed Mr Thomas’ Bill as it would allow the government to take back control of the process.  

“Natural England chairman Tony Juniper has been allowed to build up a petty fiefdom and farmers have witnessed the institutional capture of a regulatory authority by vested interests and ghost lobbyists,” he said.

“Those appointees were unilaterally selected by Mr Juniper without ministerial oversight.”

‘Interrogate the science’

If his Bill is adopted by government, Mr Thomas said the main change would be that Natural England would still identify sites for designation and collate the data and scientific evidence to support this level of protection.

However, the Defra secretary would then “interrogate the science” and scrutinise Natural England’s decisions.

Mr Thomas said he had received support for his Bill from former Defra secretary Therese Coffey and two former Defra ministers, the chairman of the Environmental Audit Committee, Philip Dunne, the chairman of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Efra) select committee, Sir Robert Goodwill, and several other MPs.