Charles calls for extra safeguards in wildlife areas

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THE PRINCE of Wales stepped up the pressure yesterday for a new wildlife sites protection bill to be included in the forthcoming Queen's Speech. In a letter to a conference celebrating 50 years of Britain's National Parks, he called for "tougher safeguards" for other "special areas of the countryside" that did not have the protection National Parks enjoy.

His message is clearly timed to fit in with the campaign to get renewed legal defences for the several thousand Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), Britain's network of wildlife havens, from mountain tops to marshes, many of which have been damaged or ruined in recent years by deliberate action or neglect.

Detailed plans to give them greater protection have been drawn up by the Environment Minister, Michael Meacher. However, these require primary legislation, so they must be given a slot in the Westminster legislative timetable, and it is by no means certain that this will be forthcoming.

In his message the Prince said that the National Parks were a "beacon of hope and good practice, from which we can all learn". But, he said, they covered only 10 per cent of the land area of England and Wales. "Perhaps this is a good moment to reflect on the fate of all those other special areas of the countryside which do not enjoy such protection," he said.

"In our crowded island, our landscape - and the incredible diversity of wildlife it supports will always be under pressure from insensitive and inappropriate development, intensive agriculture and forestry practices, road building and a host of other activities which, while they may individually seem reasonable, have a devastating cumulative effect.

"There is no simple answer to these problems, other than to seek tougher safeguards for these areas of special interest and to keep reminding ourselves of the price we pay for development."

New protection for SSSIs was specifically promised in New Labour's first major environmental policy document, In Trust for Tomorrow, published in 1994. It was promised in vaguer, but still firm terms in the 1997 election manifesto: "We will ensure greater protection for wildlife," it clearly stated.

But, although the Environment Department has made its backing for the new laws crystal clear, there is much less obvious enthusiasm from the Ten Downing Street Policy Unit, the high-level group of officials who will have a key say on what is included in the legislative programme. And, despite his promise to "put the environment at the heart of government," there is no evidence of support from Tony Blair. Any new bill would also be the vehicle for a number of new environmental measures, including the controversial right to roam.

It has been suggested that John Prescott, Deputy Prime Minister and the Environment Secretary, may have to be content with transport and local government bills when this year's Queen's Speech is put together, and the environment will have to wait.

The Prince's speech was warmly welcomed last night by environmentalists who have been campaigning for a green bill. "Once again the Prince has hit the nail on the head," said Charles Secrett, Director of Friends of the Earth. "Over 300 SSSIs suffer damage every year. The laws protecting them are totally inadequate."