Outlining plans to standardise post-Brexit environmental protection within the planning system in a speech earlier today, George Eustice earlier said: "If we are to protect species and habitats and also deliver biodiversity net gain, we need to properly understand the science to inform these crucial decisions. And we should ask ourselves whether the current processes are as effective or efficient as they could be."
The questions to be asked, he said, would include: "Do local authorities adopt a consistent approach to the screening process through environmental impact assessment? Do they have the capability to engage over the lifetime of a project?"
Eustace went on to say: "Later this autumn, we will be launching a new consultation on changing our approach to environmental assessment and mitigation in the planning system.
"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 that are 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.
"We want everyone to be able to access an accurate, centralised body of data on species populations so that taking nature into account is the first, speedy step to an application."
The secretary of state said ministers were keen to change existing European Union (EU)-based environmental rules, adding: "There is no point leaving the EU to keep everything the same."
Elsewhere, Eustace said the government would "shortly" publish a paper setting out its "approach to setting long-term targets on biodiversity, waste, water, and air quality through the new Environment Bill, so they are established in time by October 2022".
Over the weekend, 20 environmental and development charities including the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) and the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA) co-signed a letter to the Prime Minister Boris Johnson calling on him to avoid a "deregulatory race to the bottom" in his push to make fresh changes to the planning system.
In response to Eustace's speech, Crispin Truman, CPRE chief executive of CPRE, said: "For nature and the countryside to truly be at the centre of our recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, the government must ensure that we strengthen protections and avoid the damaging short term gains that deregulation would bring.
"Planning should deliver for people and nature. Environmental impact assessments are the foundations for this, protecting not only vulnerable wildlife and nature but landscapes, our built heritage and our health.
"Critically, they are the means of scrutinising the potential air quality impact of proposed developments. They give planners the evidence to refuse schemes that would make air quality problems worse. This has never been more important."
In a speech last month, Johnson blamed environmental protections for slowing down housing delivery.
After asking why Britain is "so slow at building homes by comparison with other European countries", he answered: "I tell you why - because time is money, and the newt-counting delays in our system are a massive drag on the productivity and the prosperity of this country and so we will build better and build greener but we will also build faster."
In October 2018, the government published regulations that meant the system of environmental impact assessment (EIA) and strategic environmental assessment (SEA) would be substantially the same after the UK leaves the EU.
However, the withdrawal agreement that was passed by Parliament in January removed these previous commitments to align environmental regulations with the EU.