Guest blog – Peter Marren

Following his article in The Independent, and the flood of views on the subject that have washed through this blog, I asked Peter Marren whether he would like to comment on the views expressed so far.  Here is his response:

 

When you embark on a new venture you feel very alone, so it is both a comfort and a huge encouragement to know that many people feel the same way. Briefly, we feel let down. Nature conservation in Britain has been under political attack for the past twelve months, and its defenders, to put it as mildly as possible, seem to have left the battleground. It is only now, as Mark reports, that some of the wildlife NGOs have decided they are not, after all, in favour of a developer’s free-for-all in the countryside; only, that is, after the National Trust has done all the hard fighting (whatever happened to courage of conviction?). It seems to me, and to many of you, that the existing system has failed. We need something better, but what?

To begin with the published letters in The Independent, Matt Shardlow, director of Buglife, points out that his offer (within a condominium of RSPB and two other wildlife NGOs) to meet Defra “to explain our concerns and strengthen our partnership”, fell on stony ground. Well, if they didn’t know before, they certainly know now. They are not going to get far with muffled coughing behind closed doors.

Dr Debbie Pain of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust says we are too insular and that conservation should address world issues. So it does, but the fact that central France still teems with nightingales does not compensate one iota for the loss of those harbingers of “easeful summer” in my Wiltshire village. Besides, does not charity start at home?

And so (skipping for reasons of space the briefer comments in the Indie) to the 50+ thought-provoking comments on Mark’s blog. Veteran conservationist Derek Moore is critical of wildlife NGOs, asserting that they have lost their ability to bark and bite, that they have become passive, obsessed with money (aka ‘resources’) as the solution to all problems, and that they tend to hide behind their membership just when leadership is required. I think he hits the bullseye. His concluding comment, that “nature conservationists are the biggest threat to wildlife” – and coming from such a source – should surely make every one of us pause. It occurs to me that my alter ego of Twitcher in the Swamp has been making much the same point for the past twenty years.

I also agree with the many comments to the effect that what we do not need is another NGO, least of all ‘a super-NGO’ either competing with others, or in some way acting as a mouthpiece for their corporate views. As Miles and Gethyn Williams note, that role exists already in the Wildlife & Countryside Link. Someone, not on this blog, characterised its recent utterances as greenish stodge produced in a blender. The compromised and corporate view of 25 separate bodies is unlikely to read like the Gettysburg Address. It follows that I do not think an umbrella body, a megaphone for the minnows, is the answer.

Martin Harvey is right when he says that it will be a tricky balancing act to get right: being outspoken on behalf of conservation while maintaining the support of conservationists. You have to agree, but isn’t it ironic that this should be a perceived problem! Rod Leslie, whom I admire for the clarity of his views and the energy of their expression, thinks we are at one of those break points when the plates begin to shift. I hope so. He points out, rightly, that the climate change agenda and that of wildlife have become hopelessly confused and even conflicting (as when they build windfarms on bird sanctuaries). He wants a broad and generous (as opposed to narrow and tetchy) view but doubts whether this brand of positive leadership is available at the moment. There I beg to differ. I can think of people who would be up to scratch.

Vince finds it ironic that Twitcher, who has so often poked fun at Natural England and its predecessors, is now wearing apparently new shoes as its defender. Point taken, but it was that body’s lack of conviction he was deriding, not its very existence. We need a state wildlife watchdog for the simple reason that we cannot do without one. Recent events have shown that.

Jon and others point out that we already have a surfeit of NGOs, which could have great lobby power if they acted in concert. I agree, but I do not think formal mergers would work because they work against the grain of human nature. We form societies because of a shared interest, and beyond that a shared concern. Not many people are equally interested in butterflies or sharks or fungi. There is more to a society, or a charity, than lobbying. All the same, I agree they might try a bit harder to cooperate and to produce joint press statements do not radiate half-apologetics and a quailing sense of insecurity.

Finally I agree with Graham that what we currently lack is a political voice. The attack on wildlife is a political issue because this government has made it so. We might not have much to learn from the Green Party, which is clueless about wildlife, but I think 38 Degrees has a lot to tell us about democratic power and how to exercise it. We need to start thinking more aggressively, about argument and democratic challenge. Too many rabbits, not enough stoats, see?

So to a conclusion. What do we need? Let’s say what we do not need. Not a committee, nor Trustees, nor a new NGO, nor a new umbrella body. We lack, and therefore need, a Voice of conviction. A voice that carries the respect and support of the wildlife movement without compromising its individual right to speak out. I am thinking in terms of an individual, or group of individuals, with resource to specialized knowledge, that might in some sense fill the emerging vacuum at the heart of the matter. In today’s environment, when so much depends on the effective communication of a few simple ideas, in the mobilization of thousands of unheard voices, I think it could be made to work. It isn’t up to me, of course. It will only work if enough people agree and sign up to it. A good public debate, as this blog is proving to be, is a start.

The environmental content of David Cameron’s Conference speech

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And comment here, here, here, here.

Guest post on Friday – Peter Marren

Peter Marren will be the guest blogger here on Friday – commenting on the discussion that has sprung up here since he dropped a pebble in the wildlife NGO pond with his article in The Indpendent newspaper.

And the offer is open to the Chief Executives of any and all of the wildlife NGOs to offer a guest blog for this site, following on from Friday’s blog. Would you like to hear their views?

Do let me know if you have problems posting comments on this blog.  I only know of a couple of people who have had any problems but it may be that there are lots of you out there.

Chancellor mentions environment shock!

George Osborne felt confident enough to say it as he saw it at the Tory party conference yesterday.

Yes, climate change is a man made disaster.

Yes, we need international agreement to stop it.

Yes, we must have investment in greener energy. And that’s why I gave the go ahead to the world’s first Green Investment Bank.

But Britain makes up less than 2% of the world’s carbon emissions to China and America’s 40%.

We’re not going to save the planet by putting our country out of business.

So let’s at the very least resolve that we’re going to cut our carbon emissions no slower but also no faster than our fellow countries in Europe.

That’s what I’ve insisted on in the recent carbon budget.

Even if Mr Osborne has forgotten, do you remember the promise of the brand new Prime Minister David Cameron on 14 May 2010 in the Department of Energy and Climate Change? Then, the Tory line was:

“I don’t want to hear warm words about the environment. I want to see real action. I want this to be the greenest government ever.  In fact, we’ve made a good start. Someone pointed out when you mix blue with yellow – you get green.”

Well Mr Osborne took his boss’s words to heart – Osborne doesn’t bother with warm words about the environment at all.

Let’s not improve health and education faster than other European countries, let’s not cut crime and drug-taking faster than other European countries, let’s not do good in greater quantities than other European countries and let’s not reduce harm by more than other European countries.  No, we are the the Tories and we prioritise money above any of these things.  We will increase speed limits and concrete over the countryside in the name of economic progress but we won’t do more than a very narrow view of ‘our bit’ to save the planet, the people who live on it and the millions of other species with which we share it.  In Osborne’s Britain we win no medals at the Olympics and we show no leadership except in the scramble to grasp an economic mirage.

And just for Mr Osborne’s benefit, the UK is the 12th most polluting country in the world (in 2005) by total GHG emissions.

Where are the Lib Dems? Hello? Hello? Anybody out there? Apparently not.

Planning for wildlife

It was good to see this story in the Daily Telegraph on Saturday.  The RSPB have a legal opinion from Nathalie Lieven QC, the environmental barrister, who has “ no doubt the draft NPPF lessens the policy protection for SSSIs”.

I wrote in comments on this blog on 9 September the following:

Although European designations are pretty strong – requiring compensatory habitat if some is destroyed – the protection for SSSIs is much weaker, as is that for most species. So I should have said that the presumption in favour of development could well affect these sites and their environs.

Planning decisions are not usually cut and dried – they involve weighing up the pros and cons across a wide range of areas of interest – landscape, biodiversity, economics etc. 

Government policy is saying ‘weigh up the economic case more strongly from now on’. So a local authority is more likely to say yes than it was before – and less likely to impose conditions. If the playing field were level before, it will be sharply tilted by this wording of policy – and to be clear that is exactly what government intends it to do. Government is prioritising removing apparent barriers to economic growth over protecting wildlife. And wildlife is getting stuffed already.

Local authorities can refuse planning permission for ‘development resulting in the loss of irreplaceable habitats….unless the need for, and benefits of, the development clearly outweigh the loss’. Previously the ‘unless’ bit wouldn’t have applied. So you can see that this is a real shift in policy which it will be difficult for local authorities to ignore.‘.

The National Trust is also laying down the law to the Government on what it needs to change in the NPPF- although the NT’s view is notably wildlife-light and people-heavy, as might be expected.

Caroline Flint’s speech at the Labour Party Conference had a go at the Coalition Government’s proposals on the NPPF (where are the Lib Dems on this?), and made a little joke about the NT being treated as a bunch of lefties but, as might have been expected, there was little mention or recognition of the impact of the NPPF on nature around us.

If you have any doubt that the NGOs, for their varied and slightly uncoordinated reasons, are right to be worried about the NPPF then you only have to see a recent letter in The Times from the NFU, CLA and the Central Association of Agricultural Valuers which stressed their support for the government because rural areas need more development provided high-grade agricultural land is saved for food production.

If you share my concerns over the NPPF then you won’t get much sympathy from Francis Maude who regards our worries as, and I quote, ‘bollocks’.  The government is rattled.

The question is – will the NGOs mount some sort of protest, event or lobby at this week’s Conservative Party Conference to bring their views to the Tory Party faithful?  And will the NGOs opposing the NPPF do this together or separately – or not at all? It is an opportunity which should not be missed with all those NT, WT and RSPB members at this Party Conference, with the Tory Party’s favourite newspaper the Telegraph, campaigning against the planning proposals, and with the Prime Minister hoping that he has done enough to keep the NGOs quiet.