I’ve only had a very quick look at the government’s planning policy that was unveiled yesterday. It’s not my area of expertise and I would have to be led by others as to its overall impact.
But I find it interesting to note that everyone seems to be claiming that they ‘won’ – which is a funny old result for any battle.
National Trust – welcomed the changes that have been made.
Wildlife Trusts – generally positive welcome. Not a word of criticism. Quite an interesting take on things.
CPRE – a very good and balanced analysis – this is worth a read.
RSPB – it’s a victory for wildlife (and the RSPB) and the RSPB welcomed the new planning guidance.
Buglife – can’t find a comment but they’ll be a bit worried, I guess, about the undesignated but very good brownfield sites.
Butterfly Conservation – welcomed the commitment to sustainable development but worried about the detail.
Friends of the Earth – definition of sustainable development (at least having one!) is good but the devil is, again, in the detail.
RTPI – welcome the changes but think that the document is confusing and ambiguous. An interesting read.
CLA -a very positive welcome just as you’d expect.
NFU – couldn’t find anything yesterday evening.
CBI – glad the government held its nerve and reduced the drag on growth from the planning system.
Caroline Lucas MP – the Government’s continued obsession with growth still poses a serious danger to our natural heritage
Zac Goldsmith MP – on Twitter, the greenest Tory of them all congratulated the National Trust and CPRE on their campaigning and Greg Clark on having listened. Zac made quite a difference himself. Glad I haven’t any chance of living in Richmond or else I would have seriously to consider voting for him. Phew!
So, everyone’s pleased apparently. Some through relief that it isn’t as bad as it could be and some because it’s not as good as it could be. But the game has changed and now Local Authorities need to get their plans in place. Has your’s? I haven’t a clue whether mine has.
I am very grateful to Natural England (that’s @NaturalEngland for those of you on Twitter, where you can find me as @MarkAvery) for sending me details of the Walshaw Moor management agreement. They were clearly eager that I read it, so I have, and so can you here. What do you think of it? I’d be very keen to hear from experts in upland ecology on the subject.
On the face of it, and since this apparently resolved ‘dispute’ was mostly about burning of blanket bog, the agreement seems to allow an awful lot of burning to go on – just as, I assume, the Estate wanted. The Estate can burn active blanket bog, wet heath and degraded blanket bog as well as dry heath.
Indeed, one reading of the agreement is that it makes burning of active blanket bog mandatory with 5% of the site having to be rotationally burned each year. Is that consistent with favourable condition of the habitat? I would need experts to tell me the answer to that question.
It is unclear to me, but what do I know, that NE has gained anything from reaching this agreement and, more importantly, it is unclear whether the internationally important blanket bog habitat has gained anything through NE reaching this agreement? I wonder whether the agreement meets all the concerns outlined by NE when they embarked on this case and if it doesn’t why they have reached an agreement? Was it because they were completely wrong to be worried in the first place or is it because pressure has been applied on them?
And you might want to wonder about it too since you will be paying through your taxes for the HLS agreement that will underpin this management.
I’m still rather puzzled by why NE reached this agreement so i will have to ask them and ask some other questions too. I think I’ll be writing a few letters at the weekend and asking NE why they were worried about burning of blanket bog on this site and why they now aren’t? And I will write to Defra to ask Richard Benyon whether he had any meetings, telephone calls or paper or electronic correspondence with NE about heather burning, particularly about heather burning at this site, over the last few months. If there are any people out there who’d like to suggest other questions, or more precise versions of those questions, then I’d be very happy to hear from you.
And this agreement is important as it seems that this has been a test case and similar agreements will apply over large areas of the uplands.
There is something about all this that sets my nostrils twitching.
A week ago a poll emerged which showed that the countryside is top of the list for what makes us proud to be British.
Tomorrow the government will unveil its conclusions on the future of the planning system in England and it seems that the presumption in favour of ‘sustainable’ development will remain. This pleases the CLA and the open letter from their President Harry Cotterell is worth a read.
It won’t mean the end of the green belt or less protection for European designated sites – but it will mean that the death from a thousand cuts for wildlife in the countryside will be accelerated by more and deeper assaults. And, remember, according to the legal advice of the RSPB it will mean weaker protection for SSSIs.
What will the NGOs say on the day and how will they react if their lobbying has been ignored, as seems likely? Will they put a brave face on it? Will they lay into the government? Will they plan to exact any retribution on the ungreenest government ever?
I mean this seriously – what will be the response? What political pain will the NGOs try to impose on the government? Because if the answer is ‘none’ or ‘not much’ then that lets the government get away with it. I look forward to seeing what the National Trust, CPRE, RSPB and others will say or do in response to tomorrow’s announcement.
You have one week to go before you can see the final results of the Nature of Harming ‘award’. Cast your vote now and ask your friends (you do have friends?) to cast their’s too, please. Nearly 1000 people have voted.
Here, at this late stage – is some rationale to go behind it:
We nature conservationists are too nice. We treat the world as though everyone is on our side but it’s quite clear that they aren’t.
We should let our nasty sides show a bit more and do more naming and shaming. Where should we start?
The easy place to start is with those who break wildlife laws – no-one will defend them publicly and so we can have a real go at that minority of gamekeepers who kill wildlife illegally. There are only 5000 gamekeepers in the UK but they are responsible for c70% of convictions for crimes against birds of prey.
Most wildlife losses in our countryside aren’t caused by people breaking the law, or even by people wanting to harm wildlife. No-one went out and shot half the country’s skylarks and yet they disappeared in the 1970s-1990s and haven’t come back, because our farming system excludes so much farmland wildlife.
Farmers as a whole are usually keen on wildlife, some are very keen and very knowledgeable, but that isn’t the impression you’d get from the utterings of the National Farmers Union whose President, Peter Kendall, made a speech last year denying that there is a biodiversity crisis and calling on government to switch public subsidies from the environment to food production – it’s almost as though he thought that the £2bn of taxpayers’ money that he and his members receive was his money rather than our money! Nothing could be surer further to reduce the flowers and animals in our countryside than more industrial food production.
And then there is the ‘greenest government ever’ – where do we start? Massive cuts to Defra’s budget handed on to the agencies that try to protect nature, a review of the habitats regulations that protect endangered species and wildlife sites, a badger cull, precious little progress on protecting marine wildlife sites, abolition of environmental watchdogs and proposals to weaken the planning regime in favour of development. When the Chancellor, George Osborne talked of the ‘burden’ of ‘endless social and environmental goals’ he moved the Government position to an anti-environment one. We nature conservationists are used to dealing with governments that are often uninterested in wildlife but never before with one whose leading figures are hostile to it.
So, make your choice – who is worst? Those who harm wildlife by breaking the law, such as a few criminal gamekeepers? Those who harm wildlife by denying the problem and seeking to remove the safety net of wildlife-friendly grants, like the NFU? Or maybe those who paint wildlife as a brake on economic development like the Chancellor George Osborne? You can choose in this online poll – the Nature of Harming ‘award’ which follows in the more distinguished wake of the Golden Raspberry and Turnip prizes.
Or maybe you think that there are other baddies out there – the supermarkets? economists? wildlife charities? or maybe we are all to blame?
The fact remains that nature conservationists rarely treat anyone as the enemy – it’s almost as if we believe that all can be talked round by reason and a smile. And yet we don’t believe that we can reduce the murder rate by praising people who don’t kill, and we don’t win wars by being even nicer to our allies. We should keep handing out carrots but remember to carry a stick too. And the stick can represent the courts, public opinion or the threat of losing votes in the next general election.
Those who are fighting for nature conservation are losing the battle – wildlife keeps declining around us – and some haven’t even realised that it’s a war out there.
I wrote a similar but much shorter and birdier version of this for my column in the April edition of Birdwatch. April Birdwatch also has tips on how to identify various gulls with white or off-white wings and a photograph which makes me very much want to see a Siberian jay.
2% of the public are officially stupid. That’s the only explanation for the result of a recent YouGov poll where 2% of people rate David Cameron’s government as the ‘greenest government ever’. Or perhaps, by chance, there were 35 Tory MPs in the random sample across the GB population.
Given that David Cameron’s coalition government is only in charge of wrecking the English environment (broadly speaking) it would be interesting to know quite why the Scots and Welsh were asked the question but the results don’t suggest that it made much difference.
In contrast to the 2% who believe that DC is living up to his promises on the environment, 7% believe this is one of the least green governments ever (and I think that they are right).
Men are a bit more gullible than women about how well the government is doing, and the youngest age group (16-24 year olds) are more gullible than their elders, but social class (whatever that is) and geography don’t make much difference.
You have just over a week to cast your vote in the Nature of Harming ‘award’ poll where DC’s coalition government is doing very ‘well’ and the total number of votes cast is fast approaching 1000.
Ancient history – in the old days, can you remember them?, one of NE’s predecessor organisations, English Nature, was active in protecting blanket bogs from destruction. Andy Clements, EN’s Director of Protected Areas once said: ‘Dumping and construction of tracks in this manner, without English Nature’s consent, has caused significant damage to this important site. We will try to maintain positive partnerships with owners and occupiers, but we will prosecute when necessary.‘.
How the Telegraph saw things – apparently the whole of upland Britain would be covered in scrub, lack any birds and be populated by unemployed gamekeepers if Natural England’s querying of the frequency of burning of blanket bog had been pursued to a successful conclusion. This would have led to the collapse of the upland economy and life as we know it. It seems that burning has been going on for a long time and makes money for some people and therefore should continue – time to repeal laws against slavery, drugs and pimping then?
As stated earlier this week on this blog, this case is about two main issues, it seems to me, at the moment. First, is the frequency of burning, particularly of blanket bog, consistent with environmental legislation covering SSSIs, SPAs and SACs? I can see that this might be difficult to decide and requires studies and evidence. A test case to clear the air would most probably be valuable. Maybe that was NE’s idea at the start.
Second, to what level was there any Ministerial intervention in this case? And if there was any, to what extent might that be seen as political interference in a quasi-judicial process? I don’t know the answer to these questions but am very interested to find out. As you may have guessed, this is an issue on which this blog is going to pay a great deal of attention and actively pursue the truth. Watch this space.
The importance of UK blanket bog peat soils:
Richard Benyon, 22 July 2010: Peat soils provide a wide range of ‘ecosystem services’ or functions for society, including carbon storage. UK peat soils are estimated to store around 5.5 billion tonnes of carbon, equivalent to 31 times the UK’s total annual greenhouse gas emissions if it were all lost to the atmosphere.
Peat soils also support valuable wildlife and biodiversity and a range of peatland habitats in both upland areas (for example, blanket bogs and moorland) and lowlands (for example, raised bogs and fens). The importance of peatland habitats is recognised by the designation of 68% of English upland blanket bogs as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), and 85% of lowland raised bogs.
- 10 million tons of carbon dioxide are emitted from the UK’s damaged peatlands each year
- Of the world’s 175 peatland nations, the UK is among the highest emitters of CO2 from damaged peat, largely through drainage, burning, agriculture and forestry
- Peatlands support many important species and unique ecosystems. Much of the UKs peatland is identified as internationally important under EU wildlife legislation
- Peatlands play a key role in water resource management, storing a significant proportion of global freshwater resources and maintaining water quality
- There are global calls for urgent action to restore damaged peatlands to stop carbon loss and benefit from the ecosystem services of a healthy peatland
‘It is of great concern that the Inquiry found that much of the UK’s peatlands have been damaged, with severe consequences for biodiversity and valuable ecosystem services. A significant amount of carbon is leaking into the atmosphere from drained and deteriorating peatlands. This is particularly alarming as a loss of only 5% of the carbon stored in peat would equate to the UK’s total annual green house gas emissions. On the other hand, healthy peatlands and those that have been restored and enhanced can make a positive contribution to tackling climate change.’.
Julia Marton-Lefèvre, Director General, International Union for the Conservation of Nature: “Peatland conservation is a prime example of a nature-based solution to climate change but we urgently need to switch from aspiration to action to secure the benefits that peatlands provide.”
Achim Steiner UN Under-Secretary General and Executive Director UN Environment Programme (UNEP): “Restoration of peatlands is a low hanging fruit, and among the most cost-effective options for mitigating climate change.”
In other words, the UK is important for blanket bogs on an international scale and blanket bogs are important for the UK as they store carbon (if treated well), maintain important wildlife populations (if treated well), regulate water flows off upland areas and therefore regulate flood risks (if treated well), provide clean water supplies (if treated well) and look rather pretty too. Under these circumstances one would expect government agencies (or delivery bodies) and government Ministers to be doing all that is possible to make sure that blanket peats are protected for the wider public good.
The Heather and Grass Burning Code of 2007 may have escaped your attention although it is a quite remarkable document carrying, as it does, the logos of Defra, Natural England, the Moorland Association, the CLA, the NFU, the Heather Trust and the National Gamekeepers’ Organisation.
In paragraph 10 that document clearly states that:
There should be a strong presumption against burning sensitive areas. Doing so may permanently damage the environmental interest of the land and may be unlawful. In special circumstances, the advantages of burning on sensitive areas may outweigh the disadvantages. If you feel a sensitive area on your land falls into this category, you may wish to contact Natural England for advice.
Now this is a voluntary code – I guess it was the Labour Government’s go at a ‘Big Society’ approach where you get everyone together, decide what is sensible and then rely on their good will to implement the code and not to cheat when it suits them. You may recollect I am a bit sceptical about such approaches.
The code goes on to make it clear that peat bogs, including blanket bogs, raised bogs etc should not be burned unless in line with a management plan agreed with Natural England.
The Walshaw Moor estate is part of the South Pennine Moors SPA, the South Pennine Moors SAC and the South Pennine Moors SSSI – yep! it’s a moor in the South Pennines with just about every nature conservation designation that it could feasibly have. So the crux of this matter, at least the biological crux of this matter, is whether ‘too much’ burning damages this protected habitat and what is ‘too much’.
That is the biological crux. The political crux is whether pressure was put on NE to give up this case, where that pressure came from and whether it was legitimate or not.
Last Wednesday all Natural England staff received an email entitled Natural England’s work in the uplands.
It tried to explain why NE’s Chair, Poul Christensen, had been reported as saying that NE’s Vital Uplands document had ‘let his organisation down badly’.
Because not everyone agreed with the NE vision, which you may have noticed was produced before the last General Election and before the neutering, emasculation and silencing of NE, it will soon be taken down from the NE website and will no longer form the basis of …well, of anything really.
The same email drew staff’s attention to the statement about the Walshaw Moor case.
Many NE staff across the organisation are wondering what will be next. It seems to many that a perfectly good piece of work on the future of the uplands has been unceremonially ditched on instruction from Defra and that a crucial piece of regulatory casework has been conceded. They may be wrong to interpret events like that but that’s how they feel.
In many ways the repatriation of the policy function by Defra, and removing it completely from NE, is a good thing in terms of democratic accountability. It means that Ministers should answer for the actions of their delivery bodies such as NE.
And so we should expect Richard Benyon to be keen to answer the following questions:
Has he written to NE or spoken to senior figures within NE concerning Walshaw Moor? If so, what was the nature of his input and did he instruct or advise NE on the line they should take? If so, what was the nature of his instruction or advice?
Does the agreement reached between NE and the estate lead to more, less or similar amounts of heather burning over blanket bog areas? And is that outcome consistent with the scientific advice that the Minister has received?
Does the agreement with the estate include agri-environment payments under HLS and, if so, are these payments entirely in line with the level of payments received by other land owners with similar habitats and issues?
Does the Minister have any interests himself in grouse shooting?
I wouldn’t expect an answer from Richard Benyon as a Guest Blog here (although Minister, you’d be very welcome) but I will jot down these questions and put them in a letter to the Minister soon. Perhaps there are people out there who could help me with some other questions that are worth asking – or maybe could guess at some answers even?
Last week Natural England ‘reached an agreement’ with the Walshaw Moor estate which is feared by some to be a euphemism for caving in to intense pressure from grouse shooting interests.
The joint statement, which reads to me as though it were made through clenched teeth, from NE and the estate, reads as follows:
“Walshaw Moor Estate Ltd and Natural England are pleased to confirm that they have resolved their ongoing dispute regarding management activities conducted on the Moor, and confirm that they have entered into a new management regime which is considered beneficial to the environment and biodiversity of the Moor as well as the economic interests of the Estate.
Walshaw Moor Estate Ltd and Natural England look forward to working together in a constructive partnership to further the interests of both conservation and the Estate, to the parties’ mutual benefit, and in the public interest.”
The dispute centred around the management of moorland for grouse shooting – how much burning can the internationally important blanket bogs take? This land is part of the Special Area of Conservation designated under the EU Habitat Directives – the implementation of which, in England, the coalition government is reviewing as we speak.
There are at least two areas of concern here. The first is the ongoing debate over whether heather burning in order to produce unnatural and artificially high densities of red grouse harms or benefits other wildlife and the habitat on which all upland species survive. And part of this debate is the role of regular burning in carbon balance, water discolouration, water flows off the uplands etc. In other words there are a whole bunch of questions about whether this form of upland management is ‘a good thing’ or not. These questions can be answered by science – at least to start with.
The second area of concern is why NE caved in so suddenly and spectacularly. Given that NE’s role has been revised by the coalition government (including the almost completely useless Liberal Democrats) there is a fear that the game-shooting-friendly Defra Ministerial team might just have had a word in NE’s ear. Let us hope that this fear is misplaced. Does anyone out there know by any chance?
It’s very surprising that we don’t have the scientific evidence on which the first set of questions can be settled. Or maybe we have? Maybe all the relevant information would have come out if NE had not ‘reached an agreement’ with the Walshaw Moor estate? The critical issue is not heather burning on dry(ish) ground but on the blanket bogs, which are formed by Sphagnum mosses over thousands of years. Notice, in the Guardian’s coverage of the story, two academics, Mark Reed from Aberdeen University and Joseph Holden from Leeds University, speak out about their worries about burning of blanket bogs.
Clearly the RSPB are a bit puzzled by what is going on too. The RSPB Chief Executive Mike Clarke has written to Natural England’s Chair Poul Christenson asking for some explanation of NE’s sudden exit from the scene.
This seems a very murky business – maybe it is shrouded in the smoke of heather burning. What would Emily Bronte make of it – wuthering indeed. More on this tomorrow.