Ministers are moving to undermine protection for Britain's most important wildlife sites, to make it easier to build ports, airports, roads and other major developments on them.
The drive – which will enrage nature lovers and bring the Government into conflict with the European Commission – is being led by Lord Falconer, Tony Blair's closest political friend, and is being undertaken with the Prime Minister's full backing. It is linked to their plans to curb public inquiries and radically change Britain's planning system.
Ministers are hoping to unveil the first concrete results of their campaign by approving the carving of a 300ft long white horse on specially protected downland at the entrance to the Channel Tunnel near Folkestone, a proposal bitterly contested by English Nature, the Government's official wildlife watchdog.
The ministers are concentrating their fire on the EC's Habitats Directive, under which strict protection is given to the continent's finest wildlife sites, called Special Areas of Conservation (SACs). Britain's 595 existing or planned SACs cover a smaller part of its land area than those of any other European country except France.
Nevertheless, ministers – and Downing Street – have decided that the directive, agreed by the last Conservative government, poses an obstacle to their development plans.
As well as the Folkestone white horse, they are frustrated that the directive hampers their plans to build a giant port at Dibden Bay in the New Forest, which are now before a public inquiry. It also gets in the way of their proposal for a new airport at Cliffe, near Rochester, and proposals for expanding port facilities in the Humber, building a road through Heathcliffe Down in Dorset, and extending Derry Airport in Northern Ireland. Under the Government's proposed planning reforms, these projects could be whipped through Parliament and not be challenged at public inquiries.
"This administration promised to put the environment at the heart of government," said Craig Bennett of Friends of the Earth. "Now we learn of secret plans to rip the heart of one of the few bits of decent environment legislation we have.
"It's clear that Tony Blair is prepared to sacrifice Britain's finest wildlife areas to the bulldozers of big business even if this means breaking the law."Reuse content