Guardian on impact of Freeports   ‘The looming cranes of the Humber’s four ports are surrounded by wildlife, from bitterns and marsh harriers to grey seals, lounging on the mudflats and hunting for fish in the estuary waters. Despite the steady flow of cargo ships in and out of the ports, wildlife has thrived – testament to the success of decades of environment policies, according to green groups.    Yet those groups are now increasingly alarmed that the government’s plans to turn ports like those in the Humber into free ports will have a “disastrous” effect on the seals and other wildlife across the UK. Ministers are considering excluding free ports from rules protecting birds and wildlife habitats – protections which George Eustice, the environment secretary, has previously attacked as being “spirit-crushing” and pledged to scrap.

Andrew Dodd, head of casework for the RSPB, said: “Removing those protections would be disastrous for the wildlife in those areas and a massive backward step in the way the UK looks after its most important wildlife places. It would undo a lot of the positive work that the ports sector has done with major environmental organisations over the last 20 years.”

Birds and habitats regulations derive from two EU directives which Eustice said during the referendum campaign “would go” in the event of Brexit. They are among rules that Boris Johnson has derided as “newt-counting delays” which hold up his Project Speed ambitions to “build, build, build”. The regulations enabled the creation of hundreds of special areas of conservation and special protection areas, which green groups say have delivered essential protections for Britain’s green spaces and wildlife such as the Humber estuary with its population of grey seals.

Tomorrow, Eustice will deliver a speech hosted by the Green Alliance when he is expected to outline how the government will reform planning.

More relaxed planning regulations are a key attraction for advocates of free ports, a proposal Rishi Sunak made before he became chancellor. Earlier this month he announced the creation of 10 free port zones which would allow tariff-free import and export. So far, 21 seaport and airport operators have shown an interest in becoming free ports, and many of them are represented by members of Port Zones UK, an umbrella group led by the British Ports Association.

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