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UK Politics

Environment: Chancellor puts big business before any green concerns

It could almost have been an American Republican speaking, such was the scorn that the Chancellor showed for the environment in his Autumn Statement yesterday.

George Osborne further confirmed his reputation as a man for whom environmental policies are merely an annoying obstruction, not only with a series of anti-green and pro-big business measures, but also in language which verged on the contemptuous. He bemoaned the "endless social and environmental goals" with which, he said, British industry was burdened.

He promised a series of measures which angered environmentalists, from extensive relief for the pollution taxes on heavy industry to a shake-up of the protection for top nature sites, while reaffirming his plans to weaken planning constraints on development, which have caused great controversy.

But more than that, his language seemed deliberately aggressive towards the green lobby. "We are not going to save the planet by shutting down our steel mills, aluminium smelters and paper manufacturers," he said, announcing £250m of relief for such heavy industries from the levies and taxes encouraging them to reduce their carbon emissions. But Simon Bullock, of Friends of the Earth, said: "That just makes it more likely they will stay hooked on fossil fuels."

In his harshest denigration, Mr Osborne referred to the Habitats Regulations, the tough UK wildlife protection laws which have come out of the EU, as "placing ridiculous costs on British business". Conservationists see these same regulations as responsible for saving some of Britain's most important nature sites from destruction.

Mr Osborne made it clear that if the environment got in the way of our economic recovery– either with regard to industrial growth or his massive new infrastructure plan for road, rail and airport building – then the environment would have to go.

That is the reason for the controversial planning reforms, which he announced in the Budget in March, and which he said yesterday "strike the right balance" between protecting the countryside and permitting economic development that creates jobs.

It is also the reason for his proposed review of the Habitats Regulations, which transpose two very strong EU wildlife directives into British law. The Chancellor claimed the British version of the measures had been "gold-plated", meaning they had become even tougher than the European Commission originally intended, but this was roundly denied by conservationists.

"The Davidson report carried out in 2006 looked at the claim that the Government had gold-plated European legislation, and found there was no case to answer," said Martin Harper, conservation director of the RSPB.