I view the north of England pretty much as an enigma wrapped in a cloth cap and walking a whippet. I’m better on the east of the country than the west where everywhere seems to be a town beginning with B, and it is indeed the area between Bolton and Blackburn with which we are concerned in this blog. Well, we are concerned because it seems that Natural England has lost the West Pennine Moors off the map.
These are moors that qualify at least as SSSI and perhaps could be even higher rated – but they are certainly of SSSI quality – with that, it seems, no-one disagrees. And so, it could be just the matter of a few days, weeks or months for Natural England, once known as a nature conservation organisation working on behalf of nature, to notify them as SSSI. But no, the information has been available for years to notify this site of 7000ha of mostly moorland and blanket bog and yet it still remains unprotected. This lack of designation means that the area shows up on the developers’ maps as open ground with few people and little constraint to development. One windfarm has already been built on the deep peat (which is such a bad idea).
This site was surveyed by the Nature Conservancy Council back in 1991 but its successor body, English Nature, passed on the file to Natural England in 2007 and more surveys have been completed since 2012. Local naturalists, many of whom helped collect the data, were hopeful that the site would be notified by December last year, but it wasn’t. It’s so easy to forget things at the tops of hills in the north of England.
It has taken a certain amount of ingenuity for NE not to notify this site. Late last year they introduced a concept of ‘Gate Zero’ – perhaps a gate through which no useful designations can pass? Gate Zero (for heaven’s sake!!), means that the NE Executive Board will pick and choose which sites should progress to attain the protection that the surveys on the ground indicate are merited. No longer will notification be judged on nature conservation criteria, but now one fears that a very large dash of politics is thrown in too.
Could it be that NE would not want any large extra upland SSSIs to be added to the suite of existing sites if their arrival could prejudice the chances of NE, and Defra, meeting their targets for favourable condition? A bit like doctors turning away ill people so that the hospital doesn’t have too many deaths on its records?
This is how NE, in a recent letter, describe what they are up to:
To date our forward notification programme has often lacked a strategic approach, where early consideration is given to the environmental outcomes, benefits and desirability of developing the case for a new SSSI. As a consequence of this, the past few years has seen the growth of a long list of possible sites in which it is unclear where the priorities for designation should be, and why. As you are only too well aware, some sites on this now substantial list of possible sites have been there for many years and, in some cases, considerable efforts by our own staff and a variety of interested stakeholders has been expended.
In order to break out of this cycle and to provide us with a more manageable, transparent and strategic programme, we have, therefore, established a new step in our processes which will enable the Executive team to make clear decisions on which sites should be taken forward as part of a coherent designations programme and when. All of the potential sites currently in hand will go through this screening process. This is part of ongoing work to develop our conservation and designation strategies, and this new process step will be really important in the coming years to give us confidence that we are using our resources to best effect on the sites that really matter.
So, the NE Executive Board, that is, staff of NE (not the appointed Board members) will be using a bunch of unknown criteria in secret discussions in order to choose which qualifying sites should be allowed to progress to their deserved protection. What is going on here?
No, really – what is going on here? Does the real Board of NE (Andrew Sells, David Hill, William Cockbain, Teresa Dent, Andy Clements, Simon Lyster, Julia Aglionby, Joe Horwood and Nigel Reader know that SSSI notification is being ‘filtered’ and notification is being delayed and ‘prioritised’?
The West Pennine Moors qualify for SSSI protection, and that has been known since 2007 (if not earlier), but they may fall by the wayside if their protection is deemed not to be ‘manageable’, ‘strategic’, ‘coherent’ or ‘desirable’. This isn’t industry talking – it’s the statutory nature conservation agency (sorry – delivery body).
Derek Ratcliffe must be spinning in his grave and even many of his less renowned and less deceased successors must be shaking their heads and wondering what on earth is going on these days. Maybe NE would like to tell us their plans?