Campaigners are pushing for Defra to make an economic assessment of its interpretation of the EU Habitats Directive with respect to peat policy, after chancellor George Osborne said he did not want to see "gold plating of EU rules putting "ridiculous costs" on business.
Osborne has told Defra to review the directive following the autumn statement, which opens the way to examine elements of this year's Natural Environment white paper. A key element was the voluntary ban on amateur use of peat by 2020 and professional use by 2030.
Industry figure Graham Ward said peat-raised bogs fall under the directive and were part of the justification for the measures concerning peat in the white paper. "Osborne's statement is extremely helpful in that it requires Defra to look at the economic rather than the environmental situation. Defra has not done an economic assessment of its policy."
Defra's June 2011 peat impact assessment cited the "biodiversity value to society recognised in the EU Habitats Directive that sets out additional requirements that good-quality sites be protected and uniquely degraded sites restored".
Costs to the industry of phasing out peat for domestic use could be £785m, the assessment found, but Defra has not looked at the cost of a professional phase out.
Ward added: "EU rules allow us to use peat and are not likely to change. The UK Government's interpretation puts us at a disadvantage against our EU colleagues and is a m isinterpretation of the Habitats Directive."
The Habitats Regulations transpose the 1979 Birds Directive and the 1982 Habitats Directive into British law. They make damaging developments on prime nature sites virtually impossible.
Spokesmen from both Defra and theTreasury said the scope of the review does not currently include peat. The Treasury said: "The Government is working to ensure that compliance does not lead to unnecessary costs and delays to development, while continuing to support the directives' objectives. The Government is committed to tackling blockages for developments where compliance is complex. This is not connected to the use of peat."
Defra said: "The approach to the use of peat in horticulture does not fall within the scope of the review. This commitment is to deliver benefits for biodiversity and climate change, and is not being taken forward under the Habitats Regulations."
How horticulture businesses responded to the chancellor's statement and its implications for peat
"Government regulations and EU regulations are killing business so this is a good sign for the future."
Steve McCurdy, owner, Majestic Trees
"Although George Osborne's comments help people to concentrate on the economic aspects of the political decision, we are fully engaged with Defra. We have hosted visits from Richard Benyon, Alan Knight and Defra itself and tried to get them to understand the needs of commercial horticulture and we wish to continue that."
John Hall, consultant, West Sussex Growers Association
"This has to be good news because the peat issue has been blown out of proportion by a vocal minority who thought about little other than their own interest. If UK horticulture is penalised against European and world markets, that is grossly unfair."
Neil Gow, director, Garden Industry Manufacturers' Association