Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Re-wilding – an idea finding its time?

A few months ago I wrote a series of blogs on re-wilding – the idea that we can re-naturalise parts of the British countryside, reinstating natural processes as an alternative to management by people.  This was largely stimulated by George Monbiot’s excellent book “Feral”. 

The idea, however, is not new and discussions about nature versus nurture have been going on in ecology for decades.  It could, however, be an idea finding its time. 

In 1995 Bill Jenman and I wrote an article called “A Natural Method of Conserving Biodiversity in Britain”.  This contained many of the points that are being made today.  The Sussex Wildlife Trust has reprinted it with the kind permission of British Wildlife (Volume 7, Number 2, December 1995).

Re-reading it today I find that many of the ideas being discussed today were already well-advanced 20 years ago.  Some of the terminology might have changed (we didn't use the term “re-wilding”) and conservation management, rather than the promotion of natural processes, was perhaps more prevalent then than it is now.  Also some emphasis might have changed slightly.  We recognised the importance of top predators but today we would probably give even more prominence to the role that predators have in influencing grazing animals and through this the way that vegetation develops (the so-called “trophic cascade”). 

The article was, perhaps, too optimistic in promoting new wildernesses in Britain as we have not seen large areas reverting to nature.  However, progress has been made with some major areas of re-naturalisation being delivered by private landowners as well as charities (see my last article in “Natural World”). 

I also remain optimistic that a greater appreciation of natural processes has worked into the thinking on conservation management throughout nature conservation.  20 years ago management planning started from the perspective of managing nature, today we work from the perspective of how nature works before implementing management regimes.   Our whole Living Landscape theme is based on the idea that by working on a landscape scale we have to think about the processes that deliver a rich and varied wildlife – natural processes as well as human processes like agriculture and forestry. 


Take a look at this British Wildlife article today.  I don’t think we were either mindless dreamers or way ahead of our time.  It promoted many of the things that are being put forward today under the title of Rewidling Britain - perhaps the difference now is that there is a strong momentum building behind re-wilding, with more people involved and more people pushing for it.  Hopefully it really is an idea finding its time.  

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Another New Town doomed to fail?



Following the growing controversy over the proposed new town to the east of Henfield, Jane Simmons from “Locals Against Mayfield Building Sprawl" (LAMBS) has sent me the following article showing how some of the ideas here are not as new as we may think. 


As the promotion of Mayfield Market Towns rumbles on, it is easy to forget that Sussex already has a ‘New Town’; just 12 miles up the road.

This New Town is arguably not as ‘new’ as it was a generation ago; but it was at its concept, exactly the sort of visionary place described in Mayfields’ rhetoric.

This ‘New Town’ is, of course, Crawley; built as a post war initiative more than half a Century ago around a quaint Sussex market town in a near perfect location.

In June 1949, Anthony Minoprio proudly presented his Crawley New Town Master Plan to the Crawley Development Corporation as an aspirational blueprint which was, he said, “the framework of a beautiful and efficient town”.

In common with Mayfields Director, Peter Freeman, Mr Minoprio painted an idyllic picture of socially balanced neighbourhoods; built in sympathy with the surrounding countryside, around friendly village greens, a short bus ride from a vibrant town centre.

Mr Minoprio suggested, “The provision of small socially mixed residential areas, each with its own individuality and its own centre, in order to promote neighbourliness and the social development of the town. Practically all homes are within one-third of a mile (536metres) of their neighbourhood shops and within one and a quarter miles of the town centre.

“The character of the individual neighbourhood centres will vary and the design will spring from the natural features of the area,” he continued. “Local place names have been retained for the neighbourhoods in all cases and the affix 'Green', which is common in the Crawley area, has suggested the creation of a typical English Green at the centre of each neighbourhood.”

So what went wrong?

It is well documented that Mayfields’ master plan for Sussex is a scaled down version of a Garden City; very similar to those being promoted by this government, and in particular by Lord Matthew Taylor, the man behind the UK’s planning reforms (the NPPF). It is also well documented that Lord Taylor is one of Mayfield Market Towns’ Directors, and has been widely criticised for having a perceived conflict of interest. 

Earlier this year his fellow director, Peter Freeman entered the Wolfson Prize for a new garden city. What is most unsettling about Mr Freeman’s submission, titled ‘A Shared Vision’ is that it bears an uncanny resemblance to Minoprio’s “visionary” Master Plan for Crawley New Town.

“We all love villages,” Mr Freeman begins, enthusiastically. “Our Garden City comprises a series of walkable neighbourhoods within a radius of 500 metres (exactly the same size as Minoprio’s). Enough people would live in each neighbourhood to populate a two form entry primary school and to support a viable cluster of shops, restaurants, hairdressers… We envisage that Village Green would be on a main route through the neighbourhood to boost customer support for local traders and bus services.”

And in common with Mr Minoprio, Mr Freeman is also keen to embrace the countryside in his design; which he says would include, “at least one linear park running through the town (incorporating landscape features like a stream or ancient woodland).”

Both plans extol the virtues of public transport (despite the fact that Mayfields would have no railway line) and both envisage the town becoming so successful that local people will be happy to live, work and play within its parameters.

Crawley is to be a self-contained and economically balanced town,” stated Mr Minoprio. “Not a dormitory town to London”.
Once again, Mr Freeman agrees with his predecessor;

“The New Market Town is not designed to be a commuter town to serve London, but rather a town which concentrates on keeping travel local”. (It goes without saying that without a railway line, residents would have little choice).

But perhaps the most worrying thing about this comparison is that Crawley was already failing in its promises just months after the first brick was laid. Despite pledging, like Mayfields, to provide adequate affordable housing for young families, this vision was never realised, even for its very first residents. Crawley’s location in an affluent part of Sussex made this promise impossible. In May 1950 Hansard reported that rents on homes in Crawley New Town were already “beyond the reach of the average wage earner” (475).

 It is too late to go back and correct the mistakes made in Crawley, but we can at least do our best to prevent a repeat. The NPPF promises to allow local people more say in housing decisions because they know the needs of their area best of all. However, in reality these decisions all go before a Government Inspector and are ultimately still made at a national level.

Two years ago (Speaking at the Institute of Civil Engineering in March 2012) the Prime Minister, David Cameron cited planners like Minoprio and his contemporary, Patrick Abercrombie as an inspiration, saying;

“It seems to me that our Post War predecessors had the right idea, embodied in a visionary plan prepared by Patrick Abercrombie in 1944. His plan underpinned the South East’s economic success by proposing well-planned and well-located new towns…”

Maybe Mr Cameron was unaware at the time that Mr Abercrombie was also a founding member of the CPRE; an organisation which is bitterly opposed to lack of protection offered to the countryside by the NPPF and is fighting hard against Mayfield’s proposals.

One thing that we can be sure of is that Crawley has fallen rather short of Abercrombie’s vision for a “beautiful and efficient” new town… and Mayfields (should it ever be built) looks to be heading for the same fate.



Friday, 5 September 2014

Game-changing response required to tackle State of Nature crisis

Finding game-changing solutions to the crisis facing nature was the theme of the landmark Conference for Nature, held on 3rd September this week.  The event featured high-profile delegates including Sir David Attenborough, The Rt Hon Nick Clegg MP, Germaine Greer and key people from business, politics, the utility sector and conservation.

In May last year, the UK’s leading wildlife groups released the State of Nature report, which revealed 60 per cent of our native species are in decline and one in ten are heading for UK extinction.  This national picture is probably reflected in Sussex where we have noted long-term declines for example in woodland butterflies, bird species and flower-rich hay meadows.

More than a year on, the State of Nature report partners, with support from Sir David Attenborough, are striving to encourage new ways of tackling the crisis facing our wildlife.
Commenting ahead of the event, Sir David Attenborough said:  “From the food we eat to the popular bedtime stories we read to our children, nature touches everyone’s lives more deeply than we can possibly imagine. The escalating erosion of wildlife from our planet is a direct threat to many facets of our own quality of life. Because of the complex relationship society has with nature, it is obvious that our response to saving it must extend from every possible quarter too. From you and I in our own domains, from business magnates to politicians, and from farmers to faith leaders, everyone has an opportunity to save nature. With an increasing global footprint, mankind is intensifying the crisis for wildlife, but as individuals we can all be a part of the solution for saving it too.”

More than 250 people attended this seminal conference including leading figures in industry and Government as well as all the UK’s major wildlife and countryside organizations; demonstrating the level of ambition for tackling the huge challenges facing nature.

Mike Clarke, is the RSPB’s Chief Executive. He said: “Last year’s State of Nature Conference set out the context for the devastating declines in some of our best-loved species, such as the turtle dove, common toad, and Atlantic salmon. However, saving these and other threatened species requires inventive solutions and creative partnerships with many sectors, underpinned by a meaningful commitment from Government. This conference is the platform for all to come together and achieve just that.”

Helen Ghosh, Director-General of the National Trust, said: “The evidence that nature is in trouble is overwhelming. Our challenge is to find radical and practical solutions to restore the health of our natural environment, which we know is loved by people across the UK. At the heart of this approach must be collaboration and partnership – working together to think big, be bold and to deliver real change on the ground.”

Stephanie Hilborne OBE, Chief Executive of The Wildlife Trusts, said:  "As a country, we are experiencing increasing levels of obesity and diabetes; and one in four of us will suffer with our mental health at some point in our lives.  Active contact with nature can help prevent and cure these health problems so we need to help our natural environment to recover and get back in touch with it.  That’s a big change and Society will only prosper when genuine political leadership is shown on this issue.”

The Conference for Nature was organized by the State of Nature Partnership, a coalition of 26 NGOs, including RSPB, The Wildlife Trusts, Buglife, Butterfly Conservation and Plantlife and was attended by figures from a wide range of other industry sectors including housing development, water, retail, agriculture, mineral extraction, finance, transport and infrastructure.

For more information and to read a digital version of the report visit The Wildlife Trusts’ webpage here 



Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Road building – Its yesterday once more!

Nostalgia is not, as they say, as good as it used to be.  The current push for new roads seems to harp back to an imagined golden age when, it was thought, all you had to do was invest in infrastructure and everything would then be fine. 

Indeed, if I remember correctly, around the mid 1990’s there was a proud boast of the biggest road building programme since the Romans left.  So, as there seems to be some attempt to live in the past again, perhaps it is worth reminding ourselves of the level of environmental damage that would have resulted from this previous rush for roads.

Going from east to west the list of devastation seems almost unimaginable today:

First at Rye there were proposals for a major road changing the character of the old town and extending across Rye Harbour.  This would probably have impacted on a Special Area for Conservation - an internationally important wildlife site appreciated by hundreds of thousands of visitors a year. 

Then a road was proposed to run the length of the beautifully tranquil Brede valley, devastating the wetlands there before sweeping through the ancient woods north of Hastings and carving across the Combe Haven Site of Special Scientific Interest. 

Then there was a proposal for a dual carriageway running across Pevensey Levels and through our own nature reserve.  Again Pevensey is an internationally recognised wildlife site and one of the most important wetlands in the whole of Britain, to say nothing of its historical interest and landscape quality.

Further west there were proposals to run a length of dual carriageway from Eastbourne to Lewes through what is now the National Park. 

Then we got to Worthing and proposals for a dual carriageway cutting through the Downs and passing under Cissbury Ring – a fantastic Iron Age Hill fort and also a nationally important wildlife site.  The quiet setting here would have been destroyed in a futile effort to push traffic away from Worthing itself.

A little further west and of course there was a cluster of proposals to run a dual carriageway through the largest ancient woodland on the coastal plain in order to build an Arundel bypass.

It didn’t stop with the south coast trunk road either.  A recognition that this would drive congestion elsewhere meant that proposals for new roads throughout Sussex came thick and fast.

“Improvements” to the A24, A23, A22 and A21 going north–south, some of which have now happened some have not.  But a dual carriageway was gong to be run through Ashdown Forest, the biggest heathland in the south east, appreciate by thousands and again internationally important for wildlife. 

An A272 upgrade was proposed, that would have impacted at several places, including our own nature reserve at The Mens near Wisborough Green and driving up traffic through several villages. 

There were even suggestions for an “outer” M25 running roughly through the middle of the Weald of Sussex to relieve the pressure on the current M25.


I suspect that half the people reading this today might say that it couldn’t be that bad these days.  The other half might feel that a road building programme like this is a good thing.  We need roads, so wildlife, once again, will have to be compromised.  But look again at the ever expanding list and, even ignoring the destruction of rural Sussex, you don’t see a solution, you see a treadmill.   What starts as just a little bypass here and there ends up as a treadmill with travel increasing and congestion getting worse.  Road building is not a solution – it is a politically expedient waste of public money.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

There’s never been a traffic jam on the M25!!

One of the most worrying features of the current rush for road building is the severe lack of strategic thinking in the proponents. 

The solutions put forward are surrounded by the appropriate jargon – “route-based strategies”, “transport infrastructure”, “strategic road network” and so on – but they are all basically knee-jerk reactions.  Traffic jams are predicted and a new road is pushed as the answer.  Predict and provide in its simplest form. 

A bypass here, a dual carriageway there, then it all needs expanding again.  Some wish to see the whole south coast with dual carriageways of motorway proportions along its length.  Bigger, then bigger again until we have something like the M25 running through Sussex – and after all, as well all know, there has never been a traffic jam on the M25!

Simplistic road building strategies fall apart when you start to consider what then happens.  Build a road in one place and the jam just moves to somewhere else – and demands increase for a new road there as well.  Traffic then increases elsewhere and again road developments are demanded.  Environmental damage is bad in one place, but magnified up by all the increasing demands for new roads and it becomes much worse.

This would be bad enough with a constant level of traffic, but new roads generate new traffic.  Even if one location is eased, people will then perceive the slight ease in congestion so will travel more often, so increasing traffic.  Those who believe that new roads will reduce congestion are fooling themselves.  A few favoured locations may be relieved, but overall the level of traffic throughout Sussex will increase.

Bear in mind also that many are proposing these roads specifically to drive an increase in traffic.  Road building is wanted in order to “unlock areas for development” – to enable more of the countryside to be built on.  Tarmac over part of Sussex so you can concrete over other parts.  Development may be needed, but this has to be carefully designed sustainable development, not just a rush to build roads and houses.

So what are the answers?

First we have to question a few “truths” we are told.  Road traffic is not shooting upwards, indeed some think that road traffic has peaked across the developed world.  People are finding other ways of gaining access to their needs and a focus back on roads risks bucking an otherwise good trend.  Also I’m old enough to remember nearly 20 years ago we were told that if we didn’t get bypasses round Arundel and Worthing then the economy would collapse.  20 years later we have been through a period of strong economic growth.  Sussex did not become destitute.  We were told cycling would never increase – it did.  People wouldn’t use buses – they do.  There would never be more people working from home – there are.  Teleconferencing is impractical – it isn’t.  And so on.

The truth is, as we’ve learned many times before, you can’t build your way out of the problem.  Answers have to be sophisticated not simplistic.  They may include some minor on-line improvements to roads, but to ease flow not to add capacity.  Improvements to public transport will be part of the mix and, as most journeys are short, cycling and walking are perhaps where some large gains could be made.  But the key long term solution is to reduce the need to travel – modern technology, developments in communication, management systems improvements integrated planning and so on all aiming to reduce travel.

We live in a small over crowded part of the country, imagining that there is always unlimited space to expand roads into is a dream world.  Building roads to add to the congestion is no solution.


Monday, 4 August 2014

Fracking and River Management

One of the concerns about hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) is the potential impact it might have on the water environment.  Large amounts of water are needed as the injection fluid in the process and the waste water flowing back then has to be disposed of.  This clearly has implications in terms of the available water resources and then there are concerns in relation to how large quantities of polluted water are treated.  In turn this could have impacts on the ecology of rivers, water bodies and the way they are managed.


An excellent article written by Simon Dixon on “The River Management Blog” reviews the current state of knowledge regarding this aspect of fracking.  I strongly recommend those with an interest in the subject to take a look at this blog (and, bearing in mind the possible threat to the Sussex countryside “those with an interest” should include the entire population of Sussex!).

Friday, 25 July 2014

Using Less, Living Better

With economic development seemingly drifting back into a 1960’s model of unrestrained expansion, ignoring the environmental consequences, it is refreshing to realise that there is a large movement now towards a far more strategic approach to development. 

In my last blog I criticised an approach to road building that is based on the assumption that continued expansion will cure our problems.  This is a symptom of a bygone approach – prosperity can only be provided by continual physical expansion.  We live in an overcrowded county, in a highly populated country, in a world that is living far beyond its ecological limits.  Damage to wildlife is a symptom. 

The old-school approach is to carry on regardless and hope we can wrestle just a bit more GDP growth out of a reluctant natural world.  To read much in the press one could be forgiven for thinking that this is the only development model on offer.  However, as David Attenborough said, continued expansion in a finite world is only believed possible by madmen – and economists!

This old fashioned approach, however, is not the only game in town.  Solutions are being found by people with a much more strategic view about the future and this is exemplified by West Sussex’s “Environment and Climate Change Board” – an independent board established by the County Council a few years ago. 

The approach taken by the Board is summed up in the mission statement “Using Less, Living Better” – a simple but fundamental statement and, when you think about it, if we meet this aim then the world does have a future!  The Board is chaired by Russell Strutt who has now written an excellent blog investigating some of these concepts.  I would very much encourage people to read this, and maybe look at some of the sources he quotes.


Our battle against the environment looks like something we are in danger of winning!  Read Russell’s article for an alternative view.