Kwasi Kwarteng has tried to play down concerns that ministers plan to tear up a series of environmental regulations in their push for growth, after a furious backlash from wildlife and green groups.
“We’re not going to relax environmental rules,” the UK chancellor told BBC One’s Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg show, arguing the only aim was to reduce red tape.
“What the prime minister and I are focused on is the process. Too often in this country the process just takes too long. It doesn’t mean that you change the standards, but the process of the paperwork and actually getting consents is taking too long. And that, as you’ll appreciate, is an obstacle to growth.”
It remains to be seen whether Kwarteng’s assurances will reassure campaign groups which have reacted with anger to the apparent intention – unveiled in Friday’s unofficial budget on Friday – to loosen environmental rules in 38 proposed low-regulation “investment zones”.
Some have also expressed alarm to the apparent plan, revealed by the Observer, to scrap a post-Brexit scheme devised by the former environment secretary Michael Gove that would have paid farmers and landowners to enhance nature.
The Environment Land Management Scheme could be replaced by a plan to simply pay landowners a set yearly sum for each acre of land they own.
In a forcefully worded statement posted on Twitter on Friday, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in England said plans for changed rules in investment zones “potentially tears up the most fundamental legal protections our remaining wildlife has”.
It said: “Make no mistake, we are angry. This government has today launched an attack on nature. As of today, from Cornwall to Cumbria, Norfolk to Nottingham, wildlife is facing one of the greatest threats it’s faced in decades.”
In a statement on Sunday, the head of the National Trust, Hilary McGrady, said that it was “a crucial moment for our natural environment”.
She wrote: “Nature is in decline and we need bold action on climate change. These concerns are shared by the public. Poll upon poll show that further ambition on net zero and nature are widely supported.
“Rather than ramp up action to support our environment, this government appears however to be heading in the opposite direction. Environmental protections are dismissed as ‘burdens’, whilst investment and growth are pitted against nature and climate action.
“The new investment zones represent a free-for-all for nature and heritage, yet we know that green spaces and beauty are vital to attract investment and for a good quality of life.
“Likewise, a rumoured return to EU-style land subsidies will squander one of the biggest Brexit opportunities for nature, fatally undermining improvements to the nature, soil and water upon which sustainable food production depends.
“The trust will always defend protections for nature and heritage, and we will respond in full to any proposals. The UK has led the way in recent years on environment action – from farm subsidy reform to Cop26. It mustn’t abandon this for our future’s sakes.”