Protecting nature will be at the heart of the UK’s recovery from the Covid virus, Environment Secretary George Eustice has said.

Speaking to environmental organisations he said that leaving the EU allows Britain to develop smarter rules to safeguard green spaces.

He promised post-Brexit regulations tailored to enhance habitats without needless delays to development.

Green groups fear it means developers will be able to fast-track damaging projects.

But Mr Eustice said: “There is no point leaving the EU to keep everything the same. The old model (including EU farm subsidies) hasn’t stopped the decline in our natural world.

“We must think creatively, to innovate and to avoid clinging to procedures just because they are familiar. On environmental policy, we can do better.”

He announced a consultation in the autumn on changing the way environmental impacts are assessed as part of the planning process.

He said: “We can set out which habitats and species will always be off-limit, so everyone knows where they stand.

“And we can add to that list where we want better protection for species characteristic of our country and critical to our ecosystems that the EU has sometimes overlooked – things like water voles, red squirrels, adders and pine martens.”

He announced a £5m pilot project to improve the science determining what needs to be protected.

Environmentalists said his words were hollow as HS2 was already destroying scores of ancient woodlands. They said the planned £27bn roads programme would also harm the countryside.

Following the prime minister’s recent “build, build, build” speech in which he ridiculed measure to protect endangered species like newts, they fear the government’s deeds won’t match its rhetoric.

The RSPB’s Beccy Speight said the details of the planning review remain “opaque at best or catastrophic for nature at worst”.

She called for ministers to swiftly publish their planned reforms of agriculture and environment policy.

And she urged immediate action to bring in long-promised legislation to ban burning on carbon-storing peat bogs.

Crispin Truman from the countryside charity CPRE said: “Right now, we are seeing too many developments that both leave families dependent on cars and create more air pollution.

“Any new environmental impact assessment process must be stronger, not weaker, than what we already have.”

Sarah Mukherjee, chief executive of the environmental managers’ organisation IEMA, added: “There is potential to make Environmental Impact Assessments more effective, (but) any such review must recognise the economic, social and environmental benefits that the assessments deliver.”

Labour said the government wouldn’t be credible on environmental policy until it ended all financing of new overseas fossil fuel projects such as the new gas project in Mozambique.

Follow Roger on Twitter @rharrabin

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