Gate zero and the West Pennine Moors

West Pennines-1You may remember that I asked for information from NE about the West Pennine Moors (see here and here) some time ago. The delay in returning to this subject is not that NE were very tardy (just a little bit) about responding but that they sent me a piles of stuff and I have been  trying to find the time to go through it carefully (and to ‘phone a friend too).

The most interesting paper appears to be this one (which would probably be even more interesting if it weren’t very heavily redacted): Natural England Board Meeting: 49; Date: 28 January 2015; Paper no: NEB 49 13; Title: Designations Strategy and Delivery Pipeline; Sponsor: Tim Hill, Director Evidence and Chief Scientist.

5.1.1 Our Designations Programme Board has responsibility for driving integration in how we fulfil our designations commitments. The Board comprises an Executive Director and Director level representatives for each of the designations strands and has agreed terms of reference. It oversees implementation of our improvements programme (see below) and, as we move to more strategic planning, it has a role overseeing the pipeline and the programme delivery. To improve the governance, we are establishing a control mechanism, a Gate Zero, to offer the Natural England Leadership Group (NELG) greater insight and assurance around the population of the designations programme for the year from the pipeline of potential sites. (See section 7).

7.1 The most pressing priority is to complete the suite of specialist national reviews of the SSSI series to enable full implementation of a strategic approach to designation and populating an SSSI notification (and re-notification) pipeline. Some progress has been made, but until we have a clear and comprehensive picture of the gaps in representation across habitats and species in a geographic context, our efforts to move from tactical (ie designating in response to threat or opportunities) to strategic choices will be constrained. The outputs of the Series Reviews, both the individual pieces and a coherent picture of what it all adds up to across all habitats and species groups, is a vital piece of evidence in the context of the Conservation Strategy. It is needed to enable us to be more confident:
• about the role that designation needs to play in the future as one of a range of tools, deployed strategically as we seek a flexible future building on systems like the Ecosystem Approach;
• that we are identifying and choosing the right sites, containing the right habitats and species in the right places to safeguard the key nodes an ecological network that will be resilient in the face of climate change.

7.2 We are establishing an additional control mechanism, currently termed Gate Zero. And then there is a large section which is redacted (blanked out so that the taxpayer/customer/stakeholder cannot see what was written).

7.4 Implementing Gate Zero and managing the current programme of work: We will establish and embed Gate Zero over the coming months and plan to return to the Board in autumn 2015 with a Designations forward look that is informed by our Conservation Strategy and our evidence. In the meantime, however, we do have a body of sites already in hand worked up in accordance with our Designations Strategy and a statutory duty to fulfil. Our discretion in timing of some of these cases is very limited, and there are others where we have already invested heavily over several years. And then there is another large section which is redacted (blanked out so that the taxpayer/customer/stakeholder cannot see what was written).

7.8 The Board will wish to note that whilst we operate our pipeline according to a plan, from time to time we become aware of an imminent threat to a previously unrecognised valuable site. In such emergency instances, it can become necessary to ‘leapfrog’ a site into the notification programme, with the Board unsighted in advance.
7.9 A summary of all of the Designations activity currently underway is provided in Table 2 overleaf. We distinguish between minor pieces of work (e.g. ‘housekeeping’ activities) which represent trivial quantities of resources and more substantial pieces of work. Within the latter category, there is considerable variation in resource requirement; for example, simple, new SSSIs are likely to require 0.1 FTE contained with one financial year, whereas a major notification of a large site may take 1-2 FTE for 2-3 years.
7.10 The Designations Forward Look, sharing our latest understanding of the work we will be taking forward over the coming year, is provided for information at Annex D. As Gate Zero conversations get underway, further sites may be added to the programme. And then there is another large section which is redacted (blanked out so that the taxpayer/customer/stakeholder cannot see what was written). Table 2 has the sites redacted. Annex D has the last site in the SSSI terrestrial category redacted – its name is later in the alphabet than ‘Tees’ – it might well be West Pennine Moors.

Sounds very dull doesn’t it? And is almost incomprehensible to anyone not steeped in the bureaucracy that is Natural England these days.

Clear as mud?

Well, the summary at the end is a little bit more informative perhaps. The process for notifying an SSSI is as follows:

1.Potential site identified (by national series review, detailed notification review, or other ‘ad hoc’ source).

2. Initial site survey & assessment by Area Team.

3. Case considered by NELG (Gate 0) for inclusion in Designations pipeline.

4. Informal consultation with interested parties.

5. National Environmental Specialist endorsement of proposal.

6. Area Team submits draft notification documents to Designations Team.

NATURALENGLAND2…and then there are another seven stages of the process. But what interests me, and has always interested me, is the insertion of this new Gate 0 which is ‘a control mechanism‘ which is there to offer ‘the Natural England Leadership Group (NELG) greater insight and assurance around the population of the designations programme for the year from the pipeline of potential sites.’  And the NELG get their say before the national experts get theirs. Hmmm.

The NELG role is to consider each case for notification to see whether it should, or should not, be included in the designations pipeline. This is new. We’ve never needed Gate 0 before, we’ve never had Gate 0 before, it’s a step where the more senior political bits of NE have their say before the scientific bits of NE. Smells a bit to me. Maybe the redacted passages would have explained it much better and more clearly – perhaps they would have reassured me, but then again, perhaps they wouldn’t.

NATURALENGLAND2How might the NELG gain their ‘assurance’ around the sites entering the pipeline, such as, we all hope, the West Pennine Moors? Might they decide, as I’ve always feared, that they aren’t terribly keen that sites which are in unfavourable condition, and which might well stay in that category, do not adversely affect the chances that NE and government meets its 2020 goals of 50% of SSSI being in Favourable Condition whilst maintaining 95% in favourable/unfavourable recovering condition as set out in Outcome 1a of the Environment Biodiversity strategy? In other words, might the political grouping of the NELG have different criteria from the scientists involved in checking which sites should be notified? Might the West Pennine Moors be an awkward one to include?

There is a suggestion of this in calling Gate 0 a ‘control mechanism’ – NATURALENGLAND2controlling what? The number of sites which satisfy the scientific criteria for notification which get notified?

Gate 0 is now, all of a sudden, the third part of a 13-part process.  Looks very dodgy to me.  I’ll be asking a lawyer to look at this. And so too, should NE Board members such as Andy Clements, Simon Lyster and others. I’d be reassured if they said they knew all about this and there was nothing dodgy going on – but I’d still like a lawyer to look at it.

Because of the redactions, and because of the ghastly version of English used in this paper, it is quite difficult to be sure of what Gate 0 is, but it is absolutely clear that you don’t need a gate which is always left open.  When will Gate 0 swing shut?

 

 

 

 

 

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18 Replies to “Gate zero and the West Pennine Moors”

  1. The document is indeed a masterpiece of managementese! The FOI and the EIR both provide exemptions under which the information requested can be refused and, as I understand it, these exemptions may be applied to a whole document (in which case it is not supplied) or to parts of a document (in which case the exempt parts are redacted as has happened to document NEB 49 13). In either case the body to whom a request for information has been made is required to specify the reasons for withholding information with reference to the exception that is being applied and the reason why the public interest in maintaining the exception outweighs the public interest in disclosure. I would be interested to know whether such an explanation ha been provided in relation to the redacted passages in this document.

    The exceptions provided under regulation 12 (4) of the EIR - which turn around the reasonable practicality of providing the requested information - are manifestly not applicable in the case of a partly redacted document so it must be presumed that it is the exceptions provided by reg 12(5) that have been applied. It is very difficult to conceive of how any of these might be applicable to paragraph 7.2 of the NE document which appears to explain how Gate Zero is supposed to work. The purpose of the exceptions in the regulations is not to prevent Ministers or their officials from looking a bit shoddy and I would think that the public interest in disclosing the full working of the process for designating or re-designating SSSIs, especially any mechanism for filtering out candidate sites prior to a scientific assessment, would greatly outweigh any public interest in not disclosing the information. If there is an overriding public interest in not providing the information in the redacted paragraphs it would be very nice (and our legal right) to know what it is.

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  2. Fantastic journalism from Mark.
    Why haven't opposition politicians done something about this?
    Isn't that supposed to be their job?
    Kerry McCarthy, make your mark!
    And come on Guardian, isn't this worth investigating.

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  3. Thanks very much indeed for obtaining this information under FOI and for publishing this summary. Here at Fineshade we’ve been trying to get Natural England to notify Fineshade Wood as SSSI (see here: www.fineshade.org.uk/#!sssi/cjj8.) Your summary provides greater clarity of the process than we have so far managed to obtain from NE directly. It’s not encouraging to know that it’s now a 13-stage process with this extra, and very fishy sounding, Gate Zero option.

    At Fineshade I think we are still at stage 1: Potential site identified (by national series review, detailed notification review, or other ‘ad hoc’ source). I guess we may be described as an ad hoc source! But perhaps we can take comfort from this section:

    7.8 The Board will wish to note that whilst we operate our pipeline according to a plan, from time to time we become aware of an imminent threat to a previously unrecognised valuable site. In such emergency instances, it can become necessary to ‘leapfrog’ a site into the notification programme, with the Board unsighted in advance.

    Is there really an imminent threat to Fineshade's wildlife? The Forestry Commission and Forest Holidays are saying that another planning application for a luxury cabin development will be submitted before the end of the year.

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  4. Natural England clearly not signed up to plain English then! I've always held a dim view of people and organisations who feel the need to dress matters up in managementese.

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  5. Shakespeare had it right; 'Full of sound and fury, sygnifying nothing' would make an excellent description of this document. One thing is certain; any document drafted in such appalling language and still so heavily redacted must indicate that the originator has more than a little to hide. Let's have a lawyer's view and his services too if that will shed more light. That will no doubt cost money, but I'm sure that there are many readers of this blog who will chip in. If such is required I'm very willing to get the ball rolling.

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  6. You are absolutely right to get a lawyer to look at this. With NE having duty to notify sites that come up to standard it cannot be right to have a 'gate zero' that can close before there is a full and proper consideration of the site's value by specialists. Thanks again, Mark for pursuing an important issue.

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  7. Well done, Mark. I imagine that "Gate Zero" is intended to give the NE executive much greater control over what gets into the pipeline and, by doing so, reduce the risk of subsequent difficulties at the point when the only proper (i.e. legal) test is whether the proposed site is of special scientific interest. In the past (that is, up until January) the pipeline was governed by science and, to some extent, urgency. Local teams and national experts worked hard to resolve any issues with owner occupiers or users of sites before the proposal was put to the executive. But where these issues remained unresolved, they were not a material consideration in deciding to designate. This sometimes meant that there were objections and the matter would be taken to the NE Board. The Board would then take a decision, in public, on the science. I imagine that "Gate Zero" might be helpful in avoiding the Board having to do this. But, of course, I don't know.

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    1. Andrew - welcome and thank you for your first comment here. Given your background in NE it is very good to hear from you. best wishes

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  8. I wonder whether Defra has had any hand in this? Are there any on or off the record chats with them before a site is allowed to pass gate zero? Is this a way of Defra getting a say in a process which would otherwise occur independently of them?

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