This blog looks in a bit more detail at the volte face that Natural England has been forced to make as a result of my (our) legal challenge. A bit later today I will take a broader view of what Natural England needs to do to regain some credibility and public confidence.
Although the letters sent by Natural England to Calderdale and Pendle Council planning authorities cite a load of legal guff and ‘a broader evidence base’ for their about-turn on whether the proposed track across protected blanket bog was fine and dandy or damaging to a protected habitat the facts of the matter are that Natural England has opposed this track before, correctly, on the existing evidence and legal casework, and failed to do its duty this time last year. Natural England and Defra are gagging to get the European Commission off their backs over failure to implement EU-wide environmental legislation properly in respect of blanket bogs and were willing to give landowners what they wanted (and landowner Richard Bannister wants this track) in order to sign useless agreements that pretend to protect blanket bogs but in fact do not (see here, here and here for background).
There are serious questions to be asked about this case (and I will come back to the general issues later today).
Natural England was forced to review the information on peat depth along the track by the brilliant work of Bob Berzins who went out with a GPS and a metal rule and measured them. Bob – you are a star!
When Natural England measured the peat depths along the track it found that 70% of those measurements were of 40cm or greater depth whereas the information in the agreement that Natural England had signed stated that only 26% were of such depth. How did this happen? How common are such errors? What steps will Natural England take to make sure that it checks all the information on which such agreements with land owners are made in future? Why has it taken so long for Natural England to admit its negligence?
Back in early November I blogged about the fact that the Walshaw Moor Estate had applied for planning permission to build a track across its land. Why has it taken three months for Natural England to react to this? When were the new measurements of peat depth made? And in any case, having admitted its errors back in May, did Natural England liaise with Walshaw Moor Estate and make it clear that their proposal for a track would be opposed by Natural England? Did Pendle and Calderdale planning departments ask Natural England for their HRA and why has it taken so long to produce it?
I’d be a bit surprised if Richard Bannister gives up on his desire for a new track cutting through this protected habitat. I’d like to think that if we have to fight this battle all over again, and I wouldn’t rule it out, then Natural England will do its job properly. But if it doesn’t, then I’ll be coming back to you all and asking for your help in continuing the fight for our moorland to be protected from damage and our wildlife to be treasured and protected.
By the way, if we have a no-deal Brexit then this will be almost infinitely more difficult. If we have any sort of Brexit then it will be more difficult. If we Remain then it is difficult enough – not because of the EU but because Defra and Natural England aren’t doing their jobs properly.
The progress we have made in forcing Natural England to do its job, would not have been possible without a whole bunch of people. Thank you to Bob Berzins – an exceptional man. Thank you to our legal team at Leigh Day (especially Carol, Lewis, Tessa (now on maternity leave) and Tom (now joining the team), and thank you to those of you who supported the crowdfunder that has enabled this progress to be made.