Ministers' decisions 'harm nature'
Ministerial decisions are "more likely to harm nature than to support it", experts have warned as they published research that found the Government is failing to meet nearly one third of its own environmental targets.
In an annual audit of the Coalition's pledges on wildlife and the countryside, charities found nine out of 25 key commitments were not being met while good progress had been made on just four.
Wildlife and Countryside Link's report raised serious concerns about the impact of controversial planning reforms on green belt land and Sites of Special Scientific Interest, warning that protections for such areas a re " uncertain" and do not appear to be a priority.
It also criticises the controversial badger cull for failing to be balanced or s cience-led, claiming it is a "costly distraction from the development of a more rigorous, effective and publicly acceptable" way of controlling the spread of bovine tuberculosis.
There has also been no progress on farm animal welfare, designation of a full network of Marine Conservation Zones and halting declines in wildlife, according to the report.
Using a traffic light system, the annual Nature Check report did give the Government a green light for its action on ash dieback, which has ravaged ash populations across Europe and has been found in some sites in the South East.
Work on the Common Fisheries Policy, which has led to improved fish stocks, and international work to protect elephants, rhinos and whales have also made good progress, it said.
A ComRes survey for the group found only a quarter of voters think the Government is doing enough to protect landscapes and wildlife.
Elaine King, director of the Wildlife and Countryside Link, which includes the WWF, The Wildlife Trusts, RSPB, CPRE and the RSPCA , said: "David Cameron promised the greenest Government ever. Using the Government's own promises as a yardstick, today's findings show he's failed to stick to his plan.
"Our survey shows that the majority of people want politicians to do more to protect nature and the countryside. The message from the public is clear - they want healthy seas and landscapes providing rich habitats for thriving wildlife. But sadly, most species in this country are in decline.
"We're told an economy in crisis is a higher priority than nature in crisis. Yet the Government is missing a huge opportunity - a healthy environment helps the economy and enhances people's health and wellbeing.
"Our wetlands alone provide a home for millions of migrating birds and other wildlife, but they also give us £350 million worth of flood protection a year through storing rainwater that would otherwise run off our roads and fields into our towns. Without wetlands, the cost of resulting flood damage would need to be met by businesses and Government and passed on to the public through higher prices and higher taxes."
A Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs spokeswoman said: " While this report acknowledges some of our achievements to date, many of the criticisms are unjustified and based on opinion, not facts. Our ambitions are long term and we are making good progress."
Environment Secretary Owen Paterson conceded that the Government may have "gone backwards" in some areas but said the report was a subjective and unfair opinion by groups including fierce critics of the ongoing badger cull.
He dismissed the suggestion that economic growth and green policies were mutually exclusive.
"They are being unfair. A lot of this is just an expression of opinion," he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.
"You won't be surprised to see that one of the signatories here is the Badger Trust - it is very public knowledge that the Badger Trust does not like our policy on the control of bovine TB.
"These are very active campaigning groups, we have vigorous discussions with them on many issues. On this, a lot of their conclusions are very subjective and I think they are being pretty unfair."
He went on: "I'm pleased they gave us a 'green' on some. I would dispute some of the 'ambers' where I think they are really being very hard and negative on us and I would disagree with some of the 'reds'.
"The environment is such a huge, vast, all-encompassing tableau. There are areas where we will have gone backwards, there are areas where we will have advanced."
He cited the privatisation of the water industry by the last Conservative government as an example of a policy that had made a big difference - bringing salmon and otters back to "technically dead" rivers.
The Government had also consulted on "biodiversity offsetting", he said, a move to ensure any "environmental assets" destroyed by developments such as roads are improved elsewhere.
And he defended moves to relax planning restrictions on the Green Belt, saying you "cannot freeze the country in aspic".
"We intend to leave the environment better than we found it."