Cornish MP Derek Thomas, supported by Devon MPs Selaine Saxby and Simon Jupp, has tabled a Bill in Parliament this month that will transfer the power to create and protect nature reserves from Natural England to Government Ministers.

Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) are the best sites in the country for wildlife, supporting many species at risk of extinction, and covering 8% of England’s land area. They are protected by law from development or change of use that would damage their wildlife value.

Natural England is the Government’s statutory adviser on nature conservation meaning that the Government is required to follow its scientific advice. Currently, it designates protected sites based on scientific evidence and monitors their condition and use.

Under the proposed bill, any decisions on SSSIs would instead be made solely by the Environment Minister, currently, Steve Barclay, and Natural England’s independent role would be weakened. Wildlife and Countryside Link, a coalition of 83 wildlife organisations, warns that this could lead to the loss of nature protections for short-term political and economic considerations.

Only this week, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) conceded to a court that it had acted unlawfully and against the advice of Natural England.

The previous Environment Minister, Therese Coffey, unlawfully granted 28 licences in 2023 for the release of gamebirds in and around two nature reserves for the protection of wild birds, one of them in her constituency. The licensing decisions were made jointly with another DEFRA Minister, Lord Benyon, who personally knew the licensing applicants and runs a shoot on his 14,000-acre estate.

Similarly, Natural England stood alone in resisting the attempts of the Government under David Cameron in 2010 to sell off our National Nature Reserves. This followed a plan to privatise the Forestry Commission’s forestry estate, selling all 650,000 acres of the nation’s forests, which was met with such widespread public opposition that the sale was dropped.

Natural England is funded by DEFRA which has removed two-thirds of its funding over a decade. The Chair of Natural England, Tony Juniper, told the House of Lords in 2022 that “between 2010-19 pro-active work on SSSIs essentially stopped due to Government funding cuts”. The impact of this has been that a third of SSSIs are now classed as declining.

There are only six years for the Government to meet its legally binding Environment Act target to protect 30% of land and sea for nature and halt the decline in species by 2030. Nature reserves are key to meeting this commitment – and we need many more SSSI designations, not less – along with properly funded independent bodies that make decisions based on science rather than political considerations.

Government Ministers, who have already overseen the shocking decline of our rivers and beaches, cannot be entrusted to safeguard these special places for nature and people.