Associated British Ports is leading a legal challenge to English Nature, the environmental agency, over plans to protect wildlife on three major estuaries used by the shipping industry. English Nature and its Welsh counterpart, the Countryside Council for Wales, propose to introduce the highest level of legal protection for rare marine species and habitats on the Humber, the Severn and Dee.
The rivers are home to rare, internationally-protected birds, fish, sandbanks, lagoons, reefs, tidal mudflats and Atlantic saltmeadows which are valuable enough to be designated as Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) under the European Union's habitats directive.
The environmental proposals, to be sent to ministers this year, have infuriated ABP, which controls ports on the Humber, the Bristol Ports Company on the Severn, and the Port of Mostyn on the Dee. They say SAC status could severely damage their development plans, including new ro-ro (roll-on-roll-off) terminals, dredging operations, and general business operations. ABP, which had a £340m turnover last year and has port interests on the Severn, has mounted an intense lobbying campaign to persuade English Nature's national council to accept ABP-inspired compromise proposals for the Humber.
Earlier this month, ABP executives took council members on a fact-finding tour of the estuary. ABP's watered-down plans would include a large navigational channel down the estuary, and allow it to continue with plans to build a six-berth ro-ro terminal at Immingham on the Humber.
English Nature officials are still studying their objections but have indicated they expect to press ahead with their full proposals, which span 40,000 hectares of the Humber estuary and covers ABP's terminals at Grimsby, Goole and Hull. ABP officials confirmed that if the agency fails to accept its proposals, they are likely to take legal action. Peter Barham, ABP's environment manager, said: "If there are genuine grounds for judicial review, we would have to consider that option." He insisted that ABP would support designating a more limited area, and was committed to protecting the local environment. But he added: "We've questioned the science they've used, and we feel we've been justified in questioning it."
Bristol Ports and the Port of Mostyn are also understood to be considering court action, which could eventually involve a legal challenge to the European Commission. Backed by ABP, they claim the habitats' directive has been inconsistently implemented. Environmentalists believe this controversy will result in the most serious challenge so far by British industry to the EU's nature conservation policies. The multinational gardening company Scotts is already preparing legal action over English Nature's plans to prevent it excavating rare peat bogs by making them SACs.
"This is just about big corporations trying to force their own views of how biodiversity should be protected over and above the interests of the wider public," said Matt Philips, of Friends of the Earth.
The industry claims that the Dutch were allowed to exclude a large navigational channel when they designated the Scheldt estuary which leads to Rotterdam, Europe's largest container port. English Nature wants to designate entire estuaries. The Severn area will be 73,400 hectares in size, stretching from shore to shore.
Terence Morden, chairman of Bristol Ports company, which has a £60m turnover, has lobbied ministers to relax the interpretation of EU directives. "If the UK is the only country which designates all its shipping estuaries, that will greatly inhibit the UK," he said. "That has to be a concern for the Government." But Ports of Bristol tried and failed to challenge the directive last year, when the European Court rejected its attempts to block English Nature's proposals.
English Nature and CCW are confident their interpretations are scientifically and legally justifiable, and would have little impact on local industries. As an island on the Atlantic, Britain's estuaries are regarded internationally as the most valuable in northern Europe.
"The point is to identify and protect the natural habitats which now exist," said Peter Clement, of English Nature. "We're not freezing any development activity. The port authorities say this ties up their ability to get planning permission over a certain amount of years. We believe that isn't so."
The natural heritage agencies privately believe other EU members could face legal action by the commission for failing to properly implement the habitat's directive.Reuse content