Natural England spent over £1m of your money pursuing legal action against the Walshaw Moor Estate for alleged breaches (but a mere 43 of them) of the Wildlife and Countryside Act and the Habitats Directive. The alleged offences related to the building of tracks, paths, car parks, grips, ponds, butts and other associated infrastructure for which the Walshaw Moor Estate did not obtain Natural England’s consent.
Natural England refused to disclose the witness statement given by their director, Andrew Wood, in these legal proceedings even though, as I understand it (and NE has not at any stage denied this) that witness statement was made in open court and as part of Mr Wood’s job (for which you and I as taxpayers, pay him). It is my belief that that witness statement would spell out in some detail the gravity of the alleged offences and their environmental importance.
I repeated my request to NE to reveal that document as, as I understand it, if I, or you, had wandered into the court room at the time that Mr Wood was making his statement then I, or you, could have told anyone we liked about it. This was a public statement, from a public servant about a matter of public interest. And yet NE will not disclose this document to me or to the couple of dozen or so of you who have also requested to see it under the Freedom of Information Act and/or Environmental Information Regulations.
This is a shocking, truly shocking, state of affairs. It reflects very badly on the transparency of Defra and its agencies that this information has not been forthcoming. It can only raise alarm bells and suspicions that there must be some very embarrassing information in Mr Wood’s witness statement. This might be true as people who might know what they are talking about have described this statement as ‘dynamite’ – but I’d much rather see it whether it is dynamite or not.
Is this just stubbornness? Well, yes, I am occasionally stubborn, but stubbornness in a good cause is determination by any other name.
Is this a good cause? I think so, because the management of the English uplands is a matter of concern to me and to many others. Much public money goes into the uplands, and goes to estates such as the Walshaw Moor Estate, and that public money is spent to protect and enhance public goods such as landscape, clean water and wildlife so there is a real public interest in this type of event where an estate is at one moment held to have perhaps committed 43 offences and another moment all that is put behind us and legal proceedings stopped. We know that as part of the settlement the Estate has not been required to remove any of the existing structures.
Whatever the thinking behind NE’s volte face it may well have wide-ranging implications for the management of other similar designated sites.
Also, the handling of this affair by NE and by Defra does not meet the standards of openness that we should expect from public bodies. The long delays and scant disclosures are not what we should expect of public bodies. They can also be seen as being obstructive and seeking to make it difficult for further legal action to be pursued by interested parties.
Therefore, I have written to my MP, Louise Mensch, asking her to ask Defra to instruct Natural England to make Andrew Wood’s witness statement available, and to make a full statement about the Walshaw Moor affair. The text of my email to Ms Mensch is attached below and I would suggest that if you feel that the future management of the English uplands and/or transparency of public policy and decision-making are important matters then you write in similar ways to your MP. Thank you.
Dear Ms Mensch
You and I are unlikely to agree about much politically but [passage omitted].
I am writing to ask you to write to Richard Benyon at Defra and ask him to instruct Natural England to make publicly available the witness statement that NE director, Andrew Wood, made at a legal case earlier this year concerning 43 alleged breaches of the Wildlife and Countryside Act and EU Habitats Directive. I have asked to see this witness statement under the Freedom of Information Act and the Environmental Information Regulations and been refused twice by NE. Many others have also asked to see this document and also been refused.
The witness statement was made by Mr Wood as part of his work for Natural England (a public body) and given (as I understand it) in open court. If I had wandered in off the streets that day I would know what he said and would be able to talk openly about it. Not to disclose this information is, in my opinion, shockingly obstructive behaviour by a public body. I hope you agree, and I hope that your influence to ask for disclosure as an MP will be greater than mine as a taxpayer.
The importance of the witness statement is that it set out (I believe) the reasons why NE were taking legal action against the Walshaw Moor Estate and the seriousness of the alleged environmental damage caused by the estate to the moorland which is designated for its wildlife interest. The case presumably has importance for NE’s treatment of other upland areas designated under environmental legislation.
NE dropped the legal case against the Walshaw Moor Estate and have not offered a full explanation of why they dropped it. The legal case cost the taxpayers of Corby and elsewhere over £1m.
I am trying to get to the bottom of why the case was dropped after so much of my money went into preparing it and fighting it to a certain extent. Mr Wood’s witness statement is a key part of the explanation.
I am also concerned that Defra and NE have not responded properly to my FoI and EIR requests. In particular, Defra’s responses have been slow, uninformative and drafted by one of the staff closely involved in this case (which seems poor practice to me). Natural England have hidden behind Regulation 12(5)(b) of the Environmental Information Regulations as their reason for non-disclosure. They say that as the legal proceedings were not pursued then the witness statement remains an internal document. I believe, that the witness statement was made in open court and therefore that explanation is a weak justification for being obstructive. In any case, the dropping of the legal case was very strange in itself and a public body should not use its strange behaviour in one area to justify its strange behaviour elsewhere. If the case had not been strangely dropped then the witness statement would be publicly available right now, I assume. By taking undue time to respond to these requests and failing to be open in their responses Defra and NE are making more difficult the task of others who may wish to pursue these legal matters independently. For example, the time period for judicial review has now passed but other legal options remain. It looks as though Defra and NE are trying to cover their tracks and make legal action, which might embarrass them, more difficult.
If you wish to know more about this matter then go to my blog www.markavery.info/blog/ and type ‘wuthering’ into the search engine and you will find 23 blogs about this matter including my FoI/EIR requests and Defra’s and NE’s inadequate responses to them. Or i am happy to brief you further on this matter but i would ask you please not to delay writing to Defra.
In conclusion, please write, on my behalf, to Richard Benyon at Defra and ask him to instruct NE to make Andrew Wood’s witness statement available publicly as a matter of urgency. There is no reason why this should take Defra and NE any more than a week after receipt of your letter and please ask them to comply quickly. Please also ask him to put on the Defra website a full explanation for the mysterious and suspicious behaviour of Natural England in dropping their legal case.
Dr Mark Avery