Tuesday, 26 November 2013

False opposites in rewilding

A criticism of the rewilding debate at the moment is the artificial certainty that some have about what wild nature must have been like.  This is simply unknowable.  There is evidence but this can be interpreted in different ways and can give rise to apparently different models.  This is one criticism of George Monbiot’s book, and articles he has since published; he has a clear and unshakable view of the wild in Britain – dense woodland - a certainty that cannot be maintained.

The nature of a past wild state is only part any argument for a proposal for rewilding today; nevertheless, it may be helpful to go over some apparently conflicting ideas of “wilderness”. 

Ideas for pre-human wilderness apparently fall into two camps: the “closed canopy” model and the “open savannah” model.

The closed canopy model is probably what most people think of as “natural”.  Leave an area alone and it goes through the process of succession to climatic climax - bare land becomes colonised by small plants which give way to bigger plants, then scrub, then small trees, then big trees and eventually the trees form a closed canopy.  This is the “climax” vegetation which is supposed to be of a particular type for a given climatic zone – hence “climatic climax”.  It is said that once formed this climax stays basically intact with only small and temporary open patches within it.

At the other end of the spectrum is the open forest or savannah model.  The closed canopy model forgets the effect of most natural processes, especially the effect of large herbivores.  The savannah model, it is said, imagines a completely open landscape, dominated by grazed habitat, with occasional groves of trees.  A cycle is envisaged whereby you start with, say a grassland, trees become established in patches of spiny shrubs or when grazing happens to be low and then this patch develops into a grove of trees.  Large herbivores then shelter in these groves, eating regeneration so trees are not replaced so the canopy opens and grassland reforms.

Both models are probably just extremes; the reality of original wilderness probably included both concepts and a great spectrum of diversity in between.  But look at the two models a little closer and perhaps the models are not too far apart.

Once a range of natural processes are introduced into the picture, proponents of the closed canopy model generally accept that openings must have been present in the wildwood, not just small scale and transient but maybe including some that are long term and even quite large.  People talk of about 80% cover in trees, and even the wooded area would have been more diverse than we could imagine.

The “groves” in the open savannah model, however, (according to its major proponent) could well have been extremely large – say 700 hectares in size, and maybe would have joined up.  The model envisages up to 70% of the wildwood might have been in closed canopy groves.

80% trees in the closed canopy model against 70% trees in the open savannah model.  Not quite the divergence you might have imagined!

So, was the original wildwood mostly forest with occasional opening or largely savannah with joined up groves of trees – and does it matter?

In my view – no it doesn’t matter!  The point is that the original wildwood was probably far more diverse than we can imagine.  It would have included all the precursor habitats to the semi-natural habitats we know today, and probably a great deal more besides.  It only matters if people use a quasi-wilderness argument to push for the destruction of habitats that for some reason they don’t like!  We don’t know what the wildwood was like, we don’t know how it relates to current habitats and we don’t know how relevant it is to modern day nature conservation.  With all that uncertainly it seems a good bet to conserve the best of the range of ecological variation we have today.

This, however is also not an argument against rewilding.  But rewilding should be about putting the natural processes in place and heading towards an unknown end point – rather than recreating some supposition of the wild (and destroying things that don’t fit your idea).

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

A present day wildwood – nearly!

Sussex Wildlife Trust’s biggest woodland nature reserve is “The Mens” a fascinating ancient forest in West Sussex.  The name comes from the Old English “Gemenes”, meaning community woodland (German speakers might recognise links with “gemeinschaft” which means community) and, many centuries ago it was used by the local community for grazing and fuel wood.  For a long time now, however, it has been left unmanaged.

When the SWT purchased it in 1974 we took the brave decision to leave it entirely to nature. “Brave” because at that time the decision divided the SWT - some saw a dilapidated, untidy place that needed to be cleared up and replanted.  Fortunately, however, a non-intervention policy was established so we now have a rare example of “old growth” woodland, designated as of international importance.

This has given us an excellent opportunity to follow natural processes at work.  So, what have we learned about woodland processes and how might this help us in the current discussion on wild land?

The 1987 storm was perhaps one of the most informative events to hit woodland ecology for a generation.  People often thought of woods as stable, undisturbed places that predictably developed to form a dominant woodland type – the so-called climatic climax.  George Peterken (one of Britain’s leading woodland ecologists), however, had been explaining the vital role of natural disturbance in woodlands.  Forest ecology was not predictable, could be very variable and therefore very diverse.  Storms are examples of unpredictable, formative events that drive woodland ecology and benefit biodiversity.  Storms are good for woods and for the last 25 years I have been trying to put over this as the antidote to the “devastating damage of the 1987 storm” stories that we still sometimes hear.

Looking at The Mens you can get a rough idea of what might happen in absence of disturbance (or at least if disturbance is very light).  The wood was heading towards dominance by beech with an under-story of holly – two heavy shade-casting and shade resilient species.  Other species were gradually reducing.  Oak, hazel, hawthorn, much of the ground flora and woodland lichens were disappearing or becoming patchy.  Other species were doing well - such as fungi, fly species and hole-nesting birds.  The wood was becoming poorer in some respects but unusual species were doing well.

Oak is a good example.  Often assumed to be a woodland tree it does not, however, regenerate in dense woodland.  This was born out in The Mens – age class studies show that there were few very old trees, quite a lot of medium-aged trees but almost no young trees.  This is the classic sign of a dying population – there are no young trees to replace the old ones as they eventually die.

The storm, I thought, provided the answer.  Major gaps blown in the canopy every few centuries would provide regeneration opportunities for all the light demanding species that make up most of our flora.  Sure enough, in the 25 years that followed there was a huge pulse of regeneration in all the canopy gaps that were blown in the wood.  Broken trees sprouted, shrubs grew, ground flora colonised and we saw a few more birds inside woods that usually stay on the edges.

But the storm was not enough!

Oak has not regenerated in the wood and the canopy gaps are quickly returning to dense beech woodland.  Storms are indeed vital to create diversity and provide habitat for an array of species but alone they cannot explain the presence of species that we know have been present throughout history.

The storm, however, is just one case of natural disturbance.  By recognising the value of storms, it also opens our minds to recognising the function of a great range of other forms of natural processes.  Alongside storms is erosion and accretion by rivers and lakes, tree fall on steep slopes, gaps formed when fungi or insects damage swathes of trees and the disturbance caused by wild grazing animals as they move through the forest.  The behaviour of grazing animals would also be affected by the presence of predators which in turn would have affected the habitats they grazed or browsed on.

Even if we leave areas as non-intervention, as we have done in The Mens, we cannot simply assume that we have created wild land.  In effect we are making decisions by default by leaving areas alone – we have restricted nature (any non-intervention area is too small), we have excluded large grazing animals (they are extinct, not present or not allowed to behave naturally), we have excluded predators, we react against natural disturbance (by clearing up storm damage or preventing erosion) – and so on.  So non-intervention is a positive management decision which creates a human artefact as much as any other management decision.

So why do we keep The Mens as a non-intervention area? 

In spite of the fact that many natural processes are restricted in The Mens, any model for “the wild” would probably have included large areas of old growth forest where natural disturbance was indeed quite light.  So The Mens represents a type of habitat that would have been common in the wildwood but which is now extremely rare.  Although the site may be poor in many woodland species, it is rich in species that are restricted to old growth situations.  Also, The Mens exists in a landscape context.  Open habitat in areas around The Mens provide complementary habitat for many species that exist within the wood, so we do not need to create extra canopy gaps to maintain the biodiversity in the overall area.

The Mens is perhaps one of the best examples we have of what a “near” natural wood might be like.  It is a fascinating area to study.  But most of all – just go there!  It’s a magic place.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

The myth of the dense wildwood!

George Monbiot’s excellent book “Feral” has re-opened an interesting discussion on the idea of rewilding in the British landscape.  Included within it, however, is the myth of the dense wildwood – the idea that a dense forest once clothed the British landscape from coast to coast such that a squirrel could have covered the whole of the country without ever having to tread on the ground.

An attractive idea maybe – after all if you leave an area alone it develops, eventually, into a wood.  So, natural equals dense forest.  Or so the story goes.  But it is just a story.

The story, however, appears to be backed up by some science.  Pollen deposited in soils can be dated and identified so it should be possible to build up a picture of the species that were present at given times throughout history.  And, hey-presto, we have the answer.  Tree pollen takes over after the ice age finishes and non-tree pollen does not become common again until humans clear the forest for agriculture.  What is more, if you look at evidence from remains of beetles, which again can be identified and dated, then you get a supporting picture – woodland beetles, apparently, dominated throughout the wildwood period “proving” that ours was a land of dense trees before humans interfered.

Fundamental problems start to appear if you dig a little deeper though.  If dense forest was the natural habitat then how come about 50% of our plants and animals need open habitat, and about half of the rest need forest edges?  The traditional answer has it that these species were limited to small, transient patches where they struggled for existence only to emerge when human clearance gave them an opportunity.  A feeble answer but it seems to satisfy some, so, the closed canopy model is often unquestioningly adopted.  Britain should be dense with trees and anyone who tries to do otherwise is simple fighting nature.

Having accepted this model, conservationists then fall in to two camps.  One has it that these open habitat species are just a human artefact and we can do without them.  The other has it that humans have so influenced the natural environment that any emphasis on natural processes is miss-placed and it is human management that is the key tool for nature conservation.  The first is an argument against nature the second is an argument against natural processes. 

I disagree with both as I disagree with the model they both assume for wild nature.

If you look again at the evidence then all is not as it seems.  Indeed wild nature is far more complex, interesting and wonderful than is ever likely to be covered by some simplistic human model.

Look at the pollen evidence.  First there is a history of “fiddle factors” being put into the interpretation.  This is necessary because some plants are insect pollinated so produce little pollen; others are wind pollinated so produce vast amounts.  Understandable, but small changes here can make big differences to the interpretation.

More importantly, however, is the abundance of both hazel and oak throughout the pollen record.  The standard model ignores the fact that neither of these can regenerate under a tree canopy.  Indeed hazel does not flower, so does not produce pollen, even if it does manage to grow in a dense woodland. So we are missing something – how did all that oak and hazel manage to grow if there was very little open habitat for their seeds to germinate in?

How about those woodland beetles?  Well most of these are associated with trees, not woods, and the richest tree for beetles is oak.  Furthermore, when you look at the requirements of the individual beetle species you find that they require not just any oak, but oak that has grown in open conditions – indeed some need sunlight right down to the forest floor.  A similar picture emerges if you examine fly species that are specific to oak.  Today, old open-grown oak trees that get surrounded by dense forest loose all their specialist species and eventually die themselves.   So, in the wildwood we have a picture of common trees that need open habitat in order to regenerate, and their associated insect species that will only survive if those trees grow in the open.  A very different picture to the dense carpet of dark woodland that is constantly promoted.

The only sensible conclusion is that open habitat was present, probably quite common, in the wildwood. 

This is not to say that the wildwood was only open habitat.  Other shade tolerant species (such as lime, hornbeam, elm etc) were also common.  So dense forest would also have been there, probably abundant.  My guess is that the wildwood would have included far more complexity and diversity than we could possibly imagine today. 

How could this be possible?  It is pretty clear that the simplistic “closed canopy” model, which assumes the only significant natural process is the growth of trees, has major problems.  In particular the model ignores the role of natural disturbance; indeed some take it so far as to assume that disturbance is an unnatural, bad thing that should be avoided.  The 1987 storm, however, gave us a clue on the beneficial role of natural disturbance.  Dense tree canopies were opened up, flowers, trees and shrubs were able to regenerate and more species were attracted into a forest.  On top of that is flooding, erosion, insect damage, fungal disease, the effects of grazers and browsers and also the effects of predators on grazers and browsers.

Natural disturbance is not a bad thing that is imposed on an otherwise peaceful nature – on the contrary it is a main driving force within nature.

Any rewilding suggestions that do not consider the role of natural disturbance should not be considered rewilding at all – merely the construction of another human artifact.

There is a huge and fascinating agenda relating to rewilding; this will include the reintroduction (or mimicking) of natural processes – a range of processes not just a selected few.  Rewilding is not the same thing as neglect.

There are flaws in his argument but we owe George Monbiot a great debt of gratitude.  He has succeeded where many of us have failed – he has brought the subject of rewilding into the public consciousness and stimulated a fruitful discussion.  Something that I aim to continue in future blogs.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

What has nature ever done for us?

This is the title of a book by Tony Juniper which sets out to show just how vital nature is to us in all sorts of critical ways.  This book should be read by everyone, especially by decision-makers and those in any sort of position of power.  It is well-articulated and readable, and presents an unarguable case for what so many people seem to have forgotten – the indispensable value of nature.

Nature is of intrinsic value and there are moral, ethical and spiritual reasons to conserve it. Therefore nature does not need justifying in terms of its utilitarian value to us.  Nevertheless, there are also extremely strong, informed, self-interest reasons for maintaining a healthy environment.  We need nature, human life would be impossible without it.

The book is packed with stories that give a clue about just how much we rely on nature, often broken down into harsh economic terms. These values are often not realised or accounted for in traditional economic terms, but they are nevertheless very real and an attempt to ignore them as “externalities” is simply false accounting.  Here are just a few examples from the book: 
  • In Britain we have 10 billion tonnes of carbon is stored in our soils – that is more than stored in all the trees in Europe.  Peat soil loss in Eastern England, however, is emitting about 6 million tonnes of carbon to the atmosphere every year.  So looking after our soils is vital in terms of climate change, let alone all the other benefits they bring.
  • Global forests take up about one third of the carbon dioxide produced by fossil fuel combustion, whereas deforestation causes about a quarter of the climate changing emissions per year.  So clearing trees increases emissions and reduces carbon absorption – a double whammy.  If we halved the rate of global deforestation then the carbon captured would be worth $3.7 trillion by 2030.
  • Nitrogen pollution has caused a 10% loss of plant diversity over much of Europe, plus dead zones in the Baltic and Adriatic seas.  The cost of nitrogen pollution is greater than the cost of the bailout of the Greek economy in 2011, and is probably about double the economic value of food production achieved by nitrogen fertilisers.
  • Nature is also at the centre of innovation.  27% of the heads of global companies say loss of natural diversity could cut growth in their business.  25 to 50% of the pharmaceutical market is based on natural genetic diversity. 
  • Pollination is a vital element in a healthy environment and in food production.  About 90% of flowering plant species rely on animal pollination and two thirds of global crops rely on pollination, worth nearly $200 billion per year. In parts of China 40,000 people have to be employed to hand-pollinate crops because pollinating insects have been wiped out by insecticides. 
  • A body of research is building up to show significant benefits from providing boxes for owls and tits (they eat mice and caterpillars respectively), ponds for frogs and toads, and cover for song thrushes (they eat snails) and flowers to attract beneficial insects.  These generally unmeasured impacts have a huge beneficial effect on crop production.
  • In Scotland, over-grazing by wild deer due to lack of top predators (bears and wolves) results in a lack of forest regeneration and soils now have a reduced organic content so allowing lower carbon storage in the ecosystem.  Whereas the polar bear is a symbol of damage from climate change maybe the brown bear should be a mascot for part of the solution.
  • Healthy natural systems may also be having a fundamental and beneficial effect on weather.  For clouds to form water vapour needs nuclei to condense around, however dust and salt spray is not enough to account for actual cloud formation.  It turns out that cloud formation is aided by micro-organisms in sea that emit chemicals that seed clouds.  Further inland, temperate and tropical forests then also seed clouds effectively recycling water further inside continents.  This keeps continent interiors wetter than if forests were not there.
  • The sea is the main ecological engine driving the earth’s environment, a point that is generally ignored.  50% of our oxygen is produced by the sea and 99% of planetary living space taken up by the sea. Micro-organisms in the sea lock up carbon in their calcium carbonate shells to make chalk. This results in the long term sequestration of carbon out of the atmosphere.  However, 30% of the carbon dioxide produced since the industrial revolution has been taken up by the sea, increasing sea acidity causing “the other carbon dioxide problem”.  Last time this form of acidification happened in the sea was about 55 million years ago, and the effect was spread over thousands of years, not just 200.
  • Natural systems also provide an insurance policy.  For instance just 1 sq km of mangrove swamp, which grows around coasts, can be worth over $200,000 in terms of flood protection.  In Belize the generally uncalculated value of mangrove forest is worth about 25% of the country’s GDP.
  • A healthy natural environment is very beneficial in terms of physical and mental well-being.  The speed of recovery in hospitals is faster when patients can see greenery and people living near greenspace rated their health as better than those who didn't, the greatest impact was on lower income groups. There is lower blood pressure in dental patients, fewer reports of ill health in prisoners, increased self-discipline in inner-city girls and reduced mortality in elderly people with more exposure to nature. 
  • Studies have shown positive links between species diversity and psychological benefit.  Diverse habitats reflect improvements in personal identity, plant diversity was linked to an ability to reflect and bird diversity linked to emotional attachment.  Managing urban greenspaces to create habitat mosaics and enhance wildlife variety will enhance psychological benefit.

The book ends by exposing flaws in our economic system.  We simply don’t count these things so imagine they are not there (that is like building up a huge debt but imagining it isn't there because you haven’t measured it!).  A basic misunderstanding in our economic system treats nature as a set of flows, or dividends, rather than as capital.  Hence natural capital is liquidated to make profits. This is perceived as using dividends, whereas in fact it should be viewed as asset-stripping.

By presenting a large number of well-researched real-world examples, this book puts life into the discussions that are taking place in the National Ecosystem Assessment, the Natural Capital Committee, the Ecosystem Markets Task Force and the international project ‘The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity’. It is extremely timely and I encourage everyone to read it.

To conclude I would just like to correct Bill Clinton’s well-known phrase – “It’s the economy, stupid”.  Clearly this should now read “It’s the ecology, stupid”. 

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

An economy going in the wrong direction

The idea of a second runway at Gatwick Airport is building up a head of steam, promoted in particular by local business associations.  This is a great worry to the Wildlife Trust.  Gatwick Airport at present has a huge ecological impact and adding an extra runway will make this worse.  More than this, however, it is the sign of a local economy heading in completely the wrong direction.

The Sussex Wildlife Trusts opposes the construction of a second runway at Gatwick, a position we have held for many years.  Aviation strategy should be based on a planned programme of a significant and continuing reduction of its environmental impact.  This should have two elements: first the reduction of its direct impact from land take for the airport itself and any associated development, and second a programme of continuous reductions in greenhouse gas emissions to reach an 80% reduction by 2050 in line with government targets.

The direct impact of expansion on the environment would be unacceptable, causing significant damage to wildlife in the area.  A recent press release from the Gatwick Area Conservation Campaign (GACC) indicates the level of threat that Sussex is under.  A study by independent consultants jointly commissioned by the West Sussex County Council and the Gatwick Diamond business association indicated that between 30 and 45,000 new houses would be needed if a new runway is built.  The number of jobs created in the area would be far in excess of any available labour and so require a substantial influx of workers from other parts of the UK and the EU.  

This equates to a new town in Sussex about the same size that Crawley in now and could mean the urbanisation of much of that part of Sussex, possibly resulting in the towns of Horsham and Crawley combining and ending up as one continual conurbation.

However, one of the greatest threats to wildlife and the environment is climate change.  The most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report presents even firmer evidence of the cause and effects of climate change and is an even stronger impetus for action to be taken.  Aviation is a major source of greenhouse gases and is also the fastest growing contributor to climate change.  This clearly needs to be reversed. Current improvements in the technology may deliver some increase in fuel efficiency, but it is difficult to see a situation where 80% reduction targets will be achieved against a background of airport expansion. 

If aviation is not able to reach its 80% reduction requirement then it will be necessary for the rest of industry to achieve a still greater reduction to compensate for the environmental failure of aviation.  We have seen little evidence that the rest of industry will even meet this need for an 80% reduction, let alone offer far greater reductions in order to compensate for the climate change effects of air travel.

In this way air travel is competitive with, rather than complementary to, other forms of business development. 

The situation with air travel may be an example of a wider issue for business development in the South East.  Attempts to continue business as usual whilst ignoring environmental limits, as well as being environmentally damaging in the short term, becomes damaging to business development and the economy in the not too distant long term.  In future green economic growth will become the only economic growth and this is the area in which the South East could excel.

The current reliance on air travel, let alone any increase in this reliance through airport expansion, will drive a highly vulnerable local economy that lacks resilience to likely future change.  The economy of the area around Gatwick now has the opportunity to develop in ways that support the environment rather than damage it.  A campaign for an expanded Gatwick Airport is to head in the wrong direction and promote an economy that is not fit for purpose.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

“Fracking” – is there a good side to it?

Well no, actually, I don’t think there is.  But I’d like to look at one of the arguments in favour of fracking to see if there is bigger picture here that we need to take account of.

An argument often used is that fracking provides us with a short-term, interim energy source that buys us time while we develop non fossil fuel based forms of energy generation.  Burning natural gas produces less carbon dioxide for the energy it provides, it is claimed, than other forms of fossil fuel so, as an interim fuel it could be a good one.

Let us put to one side all the other problems with this energy form.  Forget that this could industrialise Sussex, ignore the amount of water that is needed, the transport footprint from the lorry movements, the land needed to treat polluted water and the risk of air and water pollution and so on. 

If fracking gives us more energy for less greenhouse gas emissions then it has to be taken seriously. This sounds persuasive; it is often repeated and rarely challenged.  But there are problems.

Fracking gas is methane, which does indeed produce more energy for less greenhouse gas than, for example, coal.  Methane, however, is itself a very potent greenhouse gas.  An often quoted figure is that methane is 25 times worse than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.  This, however, is a 100 year long term average, as it does not remain in the atmosphere for long.  In the short term, say 20 years, methane is about 70 times worse than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.

This means that you only need a small amount of gas leakage to completely negate any greenhouse gas emission advantage that burning methane has.

Whilst they have been criticised, there are some peer-reviewed studies that indicate a leakage of around 10% of methane from wells in the USA.  So let’s play with some figures to see just how relevant this might be.

Instead of 10%, let’s be generous and say that only 2% of the methane is lost to the atmosphere.  And instead of 70 times as bad as carbon dioxide let’s say it’s 50 times as bad (it makes the sums easier!).  If my maths is correct this means that a 2% leakage of methane has the same greenhouse effect as the other 98% burned and emitted as carbon dioxide.  In other words (and even if my maths is not spot-on) it doesn't take much leakage to make exploiting fracking gas twice as bad as it appears in terms of climate change.  This could make it as bad or worse than coal and as such could not be considered an interim fuel.

Another problem with the interim fuel idea is that I've heard it before.  I am old enough to remember similar arguments when North Sea oil was developed.  Yes we were talking about wind and wave energy in the 1970s and it was said that North Sea oil would buy us the time to research and develop this properly.  Ideas quickly forgotten in the rush to develop. 

I am also unconvinced that an apparently lucrative gas supply will be abandoned before it is fully exploited as renewable energy sources are developed.  It is far more likely that, as with North Sea oil, attention will turn away from any thoughts on long-term sustainability and focus entirely on the apparent benefits of apparently cheap energy.

There are now highly emotive arguments being presented by the pro-fracking lobby: from dire warnings of the lights going out, to unchallenged claims that fracking will save the planet, that it is supported by the science, that it is good for the economy or that it will bring us out of recession.  Perhaps the worst thing, however, is the way that fracking has taken over a far more important agenda about developing an economy that is fit for purpose, delivering real prosperity while maintaining and improving the environment on which we depend.   

Thursday, 8 August 2013

A new body to look after the nations forests

Following the governments welcome change of heart over the sell-off of Forestry Commissions woods, an independent panel was established to look at how the estate could be managed.  The panel reported last year – a good report probably indicating the minimum of what we should expect from government if it is serious about looking after this public asset.  Since then government has produced a forestry policy and now a consultation summary for a new Public Forest Estate Management Organisation (PFE MO).  This is essentially government’s response to the independent panels report.  So what is the progress?

Unfortunately, in my view this government response falls at the first hurdle. 

In its very first recommendation the independent panel called on government “to pioneer a new approach to valuing and rewarding the management, improvement and expansion of woodland ecosystems for all the benefits they provide to nature, people and the green economy”.  It was clear from this that new ways of accounting for all the benefits provided by forests should be adopted.  Furthermore, at the same time the National Ecosystem Assessment (NEA) and the Natural Capital Committee (NCC) were providing the tools to do this. 

This “Governance Premises Summary”, however, falls back to a traditional approach of simply “maximising economic opportunities whilst maintaining public benefit” – a phrase that would not have looked out of place 50 years ago.  What is written in the governance summary is old fashioned language reflecting flawed economic thinking and is a huge missed opportunity.  It will mean that the Forestry Commission may just revert back to a narrow role of selling timber in the hope that a surplus can “pay” for other public benefits. 

The independent panel report itself showed that whilst the cost of the Forestry Commission was about £20 million, the public benefit it produced was valued at a minimum of about £400 million.  A 20 to 1 return on investment - if you actually did the sums.  To ignore this is like a business ignoring its income stream and then being surprised when the books don’t balance!

The governance summary appears to have been written as though the NEA and the NCC did not exist.  Many of the ecosystem services provided by forests are quantifiable, timber production is just one.  Many others are of such fundamental importance that they underpin all other values.  Forestry, as with any valuation from now on, must fully account for all these services.  Indeed forest management should be the natural cause célèbre for this new approach to valuation.  Only by doing so will we start to properly value forests – and foresters.

Forest economics must therefore be fundamentally reformed to reflect full natural capital accounting.  The full range of public benefits must be properly accounted for, with a hefty contingency allowance for all the essential services which cannot be easily reflected in financial valuation.  This is a requirement that flows from the independent panel report and should be a strong theme that runs through any proposals, yet there is no hint of this in the governance summary, its supporting “review of functions” or in the Forestry Policy.

The governance summary also assumes the PFE MO will be of similar size to current Public Forest Estate.  What is the basis for this statement?  This provides an answer without addressing the question.  The public forest estate should be led by its objectives and then the size would come out of that.  The question then should be “what size should the estate be in order to deliver its functions?”, rather than “it’s this big, what shall we do with it?”

I have worries about the phrase in the Mission statement “for the benefit of people, the economy and nature”.  This implies a balance between three competing elements which, on the contrary, should be complementary rather than competing.  This is reflected in the overarching objective - “the sustainable management of the estate to balance and maximise the benefits to people, nature and the economy”.  This is more a bland catch-all than an objective.  In practice it is meaningless – is it “sustainable management” (in which case what does it mean?) or “balance” (in which case of what for what?) or “maximising” (in which case of what?), you can’t have all three.

The Annex then gives fairly predictable, second-level objectives under economic, social and environmental.  The wording and organisation of these fail to get over recent thinking on how it is ecosystems and ecosystem services that underpin everything else.  Without healthy forest ecosystems there will be no economic and social benefits yet as it is ecosystems only appear in a rather confused last bullet point in the list.

In my view the overarching objective is not overarching.  It starts from the perspective of “here’s the Public Forest Estate, how are we going to manage it?”  An overarching objective should actually start from the perspective of “what is the purpose of the Public Forest Estate and therefore how should we manage it?”

Therefore, an overarching objective, I suggest, should read something like:
The purpose of the Public Forest Estate is to contribute to realising the full potential of England’s current and future ecological network, so that it provides an enhanced level of the full range of ecosystem services.  In particular the Public Forest Estate should deliver those aspects of ecosystem services that are not adequately valued in traditional economic terms and/or not as easily delivered by the private or charitable sectors. 

The sub-objectives in the Annex should then articulate how it will deliver high quality forest ecosystems, rich in wildlife and how is it going to deliver benefit for people.  Economic objectives must then be articulated in terms of delivering benefit for people whilst maintaining and enhancing the natural capital on which it depends.  It also means that any economic approach or valuation will have to rise to the challenge of saying how it has accounted for everything and how value is being provided to people.  At present “economic growth” is presented as a catch-phrase without any hint on what it means, how it will be measured or how it indicates benefit to people.

The administrative structures for the PFE MO are secondary to what it is actually required to do, we do not want the ideal structure delivering the wrong things.  Nevertheless, the right administrative structure should provide the capacity and legitimacy for a PFE MO to deliver public benefit.  There is a fear that the independent panel’s requirement for a Charter has been weakened and that the proposed role of “Guardians”, who should be accountable to parliament, has been toned-down.  One of the greatest benefits that the PFE could deliver is by providing the resource (i.e. the public land) for vibrant and diverse community and public engagement in forests.  I can see no reference to this so far but maybe it will appear in later detail.

I hope I am wrong, and I hope that people engaged in this can tell me so.  Maybe the bland phrase “maximising economic opportunities” does hide a far more sophisticated approach which really does mean proper accounting for all of the vital services that we get from healthy forest ecosystems.  I see nothing yet to give me any confidence though.

Monday, 8 July 2013

Roads to nowhere

We've been here before.  Governments at various times in the past have pushed the myth of aggressive road building as the answer to all our economic woes.  Many of us can remember the bitter arguments in the 1990s with the loss of valuable countryside, such as that at Twyford Down.  But here we are again.  The chancellor now proposes to throw over £28 billion of public money at the largest road building programme for half a century.

At a superficial level it seems to make sense.  If we had a bigger road then surely “this” traffic jam wouldn't be here and I could get to work – get products to market – get to the shops or whatever.  But, given a moments thought, it is clear that we can’t just build our way out of the problem.

Bigger roads generate more traffic, the congestion just moves to the next blockage and in practice hold-ups can get worse.  The predicted economic growth rarely materialises. In the process the environment gets severely damaged, greenhouse gas emissions increase and a treadmill develops building an expectation of never-ending growth in transport and so still more roads must be built.  In practice road building becomes a divergence in what should be a far more sophisticated discussion about how we deliver prosperity and well-being in ways that reduce our environmental footprint.

In fact government has less excuse for this approach today than it did in the past.  There is now a huge body of evidence on how the natural environment underpins the health of both society and the economy, and that investment in the natural environment is a cost effective way of addressing many of the UK’s future needs.  Investing in nature offers huge returns, even though those returns are often invisible.  The public value of Forestry Commission woods for example is 20 times the cost of managing the estate.  Other international estimates show that the benefits we get from protected wildlife areas can be 10 to 100 times greater than the cost of protection.  Cost – benefit ratios for roads, on the other hand, seem to have trouble to get much better than 1:1.

The Treasury appears to have conveniently misplaced its own Green Book guidance on assessing economic and environmental benefits.  Road schemes such as the proposed £1 billion extension of the M4 through the Gwent Levels in Wales have little or no economic justification and will cause irreversible damage to wildlife and valuable landscapes.  Instead of supporting the UK’s long-term recovery through investment in rebuilding our natural capital, the Chancellor is concreting over the countryside.  This is not just bad for the environment, its bad economics – bad sums!

Poor planning decisions, for development in general as much as for roads, are inevitable with today’s skew in our value calculations.  Simply by talking about the cost of environmental protection balanced against the benefit of economic regeneration the dice is already loaded against the environment.  The reality is that the environment delivers benefits far greater than the costs and so-called economic regeneration often results in costs that are greater than the benefits.  Get the sums right and then we are more likely to see some sensible decisions.

Earlier this year, an influential business-led Ecosystem Markets Task-force  established by Government, highlighted the “emergence of a new economy: one that fully integrates the real value of nature”.  Government is yet to respond to this but the Chancellor’s position suggests the Government is living in the concrete-led past and not the nature-led future.

In response to this the Wildlife Trusts are joining the Campaign for Better Transport in a rally against road building near Hastings on Saturday 13th July.  See details here.  It is being held on Sussex’s own road building site – the Bexhill to Hastings link road.  The Sussex Wildlife Trust has opposed this for nearly two decades.  It makes no more sense now than it did in the early 1990s.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

European Maritime and Fisheries Fund- a step backwards?

Unfortunately it feels like one step forward and two large steps back when it comes to reforming the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP).  Back in February, the European Parliament voted overwhelmingly to reverse thirty years of failed EU fisheries management in favour of an ambitious reform of the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy.  We were ecstatic.  This was a huge step forwards - at last we were putting an end to over-fishing.

However, recently MEPs on the European Parliament’s Fisheries Committee have been discussing the future of the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF).  The EMFF provides funding to the fishing industry and coastal communities to help them adapt to changing conditions in the sector and become economically resilient and ecologically sustainable.  A truly sustainable CFP needs an EMFF that supports the end of overfishing and the rebuilding of fish stocks - one without harmful subsidies.  We are concerned, however, that the Fisheries Committee are considering the reintroduction of public subsidy through the EMFF to build new fishing vessels and engines.  This type of subsidy has been shown to contribute to overfishing and was phased out by the 2002 CFP reform.  You can read more about this here.

It is common sense that public subsidy should help move to a sustainable fishing sector.  Instead of subsidising the capacity to increase overfishing, investment should be increased to enhance control, improve enforcement , improve data collection, and to develop less damaging fishing gear to reduce discards and the environmental impact of fishing activity.

Let’s hope MEPs on the Fisheries Committee see sense before they vote on 10 July. You can help by writing to your MEP (find them here).

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Putting the “Wild” into “Wildlife”

BBC2’s Newsnight programme on 28th May had a fascinating discussion about the idea of “re-wilding”.  I haven’t read it yet, but this comes from George Monbiot’s book “Feral”, and it looks like it will give a welcome boost to a public discussion on the “nature” part of nature conservation.

Re-wilding is something I've been fascinated about for many years.  The whole idea of “managing nature” seems an oxymoron – why should we have to look after nature when, by definition, nature is something outside the human so should function for itself?  I used to give talks entitled “if it isn't bust why fix it?” – alluding to the idea that nature is not something that inherently needs tending by humans.  And I've represented the Trusts in meetings of the Wild Britain Initiative on occasions.  Also in Sussex we have established large non-intervention areas on our Reserves where nature is given more of a free hand and we work with one landowner in particular who is experimenting with naturalistic grazing in a large rewilding project.  So the Wildlife Trusts are not strangers to the idea.

It is, however, also true that we live in a “cultural landscape”, where the value of our landscape says something about the interaction between people and nature.  For thousands of years people in Britain have been interacting with nature so the wildlife and habitats we see today is largely a product of that interaction.  It is patently obvious that we do not live in a natural wild state, with the full grandeur of nature all around us, but in a heavily modified environment. Humans manage their environment in order to get products and services (like food and water).  In the process, however, sensitive management for farming and forestry should also be in harmony with nature.  Much nature conservation today aims to look after the best of what remains from this interaction, so very often it is traditional management that we focus on as it is this that has given us the wildlife we have today.

So we apparently have two opposing philosophies: one about nature being a system outside the human and so functioning for itself, the other about a landscape formed from the interactions of people and nature so needing continued management.

But these are not opposites in terms of having one or the other.  Unfortunately the Newsnight discussion did develop towards an all-or-nothing debate but this can be avoided if you see these approaches as being at two ends of a spectrum, rather than opposites.  However, (and here’s the surprise) neither end of the spectrum actually exists!

Nowhere in the UK is truly wild.  Many of the most important species, those that drive the country’s ecology, are extinct here.  Some perhaps never evolved (the mammoth should probably have evolved into a European elephant after the ice retreated).  Humans also constrain nature massively – even the biggest nature reserve you can imagine is tiny in comparison to the area needed for nature to have free reign.  So nowhere is wild, nowhere is natural.  But you might be able to get closer.

Alternatively, however, nowhere is truly artificial either.  Even a field of wheat – managed, sprayed, fertilised and cultivated – is not just the product of human hands.  Humans did not create the soil and soil organisms that are so essential to the crop, nor did we plant all the weeds, introduce the insects or create the water cycle and atmosphere that the crop lives within.  So even “artificial” systems depend entirely on nature.  Much of our landscape, however, is far nearer the artificial than it is the natural.

So, parts of our landscape could be said to fit at different points along this spectrum.  The idea of moving significant areas further along the spectrum towards the natural is an extremely valuable concept and one that the Wildlife Trusts have promoted for years.

To promote the wild we need a deep understanding of what this means in practice.  Wild nature should be one in which all the ecological processes are working – all forms of growth, decay, and in particular natural disturbance.  If some of this is absent then the result would be neglect, not wild nature.  So, to promote the wild, we need to understand natural disturbance – this includes storms, erosion, fire (sometimes), but particularly grazing/browsing and the effect of predators.  Miss out these processes and you do not end up with wild, you just end up with another human artefact. 

It is not possible to have the full range of ecological processes in the UK.  Areas for nature are too small and constrained.  People will not allow all forms of natural disturbance to take place - storms get cleared up, erosion is prevented, natural functioning of rivers is constrained and so on.  Furthermore, we do not have the wild free-ranging herbivores that drive vegetation ecology and we certainly do not allow wild free-roaming packs of top predators, who have a driving influence on herbivore behaviour (the “ecology of fear” effects where herbivores graze and therefore how vegetation grows). 

There are two answers to this shortcoming.  One is to endeavour to put back those ecological processes – and I am completely with George Monbiot on this.  We can re-wild river systems, and the Wildlife Trusts now have several examples.  We can increase the size of our reserves (see The Great Fen Project), and allow storms, erosion and other disturbances to take their natural course, and again we have several examples of this.  We can also put back some semi-wild grazing animals that are often absent (see the Knepp project).  It is perfectly reasonable to aim to reduce management intervention and re-establish natural processes.  We can sometimes get nearer to the wild in a spectrum, even though it may not be possible to actually get there (and in practice we do not know what wild looks like in the northern temperate zone anyway).  Furthermore, we have far too few examples in the UK from the wild end of the spectrum.

The other answer is human intervention.  Some management intervention can be good as it effectively re-establishes the diversity that is lost through a lack of natural processes.  Woods are too small to hold the full cycle of growth, disturbance and decay; so coppicing (for example) puts back a disturbance cycle.  Grazing can be put back in ungrazed areas and even cultivation and soil disturbance just mimics what wild boar would have done naturally.  In practice the vast majority of the English landscape will end up in this category, and rightly so – the continued positive interaction between people and nature in a cultural landscape.

There is space in the UK for more large areas at the wild end of the spectrum, even if they never become totally wild.  But it is essential that we have a good understanding of how wild nature functions and how we can put back some of the missing elements.  Otherwise, instead of getting the wild, you’ll just get degradation and neglect.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

The State of Nature

 For the first time ever, the UK’s wildlife organisations have joined forces to undertake a health check of nature in the UK and its Overseas Territories. The report looks at some of the wider issues involved in our changing countryside, the historical declines of habitats and species and asses the status of wildlife in eight different habitat types.   This is a national report but the trends shown nationally are probably reflected in Sussex.  Here are some of the headlines:
  • Quantitative assessments of the population or distribution trends were done for 3,148 species. Of these, 60% of species have declined over the last 50 years and 31% have declined strongly.
  •  Half of the species assessed have shown strong changes in abundance, indicating that recent environmental changes are having a dramatic impact on the nature of the UK’s land and seas. There is also evidence to suggest that species with specific habitat requirements are faring worse than generalist species that are better able to adapt to a changing environment.
  •  A new Watchlist indicator has been developed to measure how conservation priority species are faring, based on 155 species for which we have data. This group contains many of our most threatened and vulnerable species, and the indicator shows that their overall numbers have declined by 77% in the last 40 years.

  • Of 1,064 farmland species for which we have trends, 60% have decreased and 34% have decreased strongly.
  • 14% of all farmland flowering plants are on the national Red List: 62 species in all.
  • Some species groups, such as birds and bats, have benefited from conservation action, particularly through agri-environment schemes. Despite this, many widespread farmland species have failed to recover from the declines of recent decades.

Lowland semi-natural grassland and Heathland
  • Overall, 65% of the 923 species for which we have sufficient data have declined, and 35% have declined strongly. A warming climate may be helping some species.
  • One in four species of flowering plants is threatened in this habitat. Nitrogen deposition, disturbance, inadequate or inappropriate land management, and habitat loss and fragmentation all pose barriers to recovery.

  • Of 886 upland species for which we have information, 65% have declined and 34% have declined strongly.
  • More species have become extinct in the uplands (15) than in any other habitat: 137 upland species, including 131 plants, are on recent national Red Lists.

  • The area of UK woodland has increased, mainly due to conifer planting, but woodland birds have been declining since the 1970s and butterflies since the 1990s. 94 species of woodland moths have halved in number.
  • Of the 1,256 woodland species studied, 60% have decreased and 34% have decreased strongly.
  • 11% of woodland vascular plants are on the national Red List: 30 species in all.

  • Of the 682 coastal species for which we have trends, 60% have declined and 29% have declined strongly.
  • 13% of coastal plant species are regarded as threatened with extinction in the UK.
  • Habitats such as saltmarsh support internationally important bird and invertebrate populations. Huge areas of coastal habitat have been lost or damaged in recent history, as a result of coastal development, cliff stabilisation and changes to agricultural practices.

Freshwater and wetlands
  • 57% of freshwater and wetland species for which we have sufficient data have declined, and 28% have declined strongly.
  • Many characteristic freshwater species have declined significantly over the last 50 years, including the Atlantic salmon, water vole and the aquatic plant frogbit.
  • One in ten species of freshwater and wetland plants assessed are on recent national Red Lists. Some, such as the freshwater pearl mussel, are threatened with global extinction.

  • Of the 550 urban species for which we have data, 59% have declined and 37% have declined strongly. Invertebrates are doing particularly poorly in urban environments and 42% of species (183) are showing strong declines.
  • Despite the fact that brownfield sites provide important refuges for a diverse range of wildlife, including many rare and threatened invertebrates, they are often viewed as ripe for development and receive little protection.

  • UK seabirds have had mixed fortunes since 2000, with some species showing sharp declines. Harbour seals have also declined significantly, especially in Scotland.
  • The state of UK fish stocks has improved recently, but overall, 75% of EU fish stocks continue to be overfished. Skates and rays are no longer viable commercial species in many areas.
  • There is increasing evidence that climate change is affecting the breeding success of UK seabirds, particularly in Scotland.

Monday, 20 May 2013

Balance of Competences - an audit of what the EU does, and how this affects the UK

I recently received this important and potentially worrying blog written by Joan Edwards, the Head of Living Seas in the Wildlife Trusts National Office so simply reproduce it here as I believe there will be many in Sussex who will be interested:

The UK Government has just launched its review into EU environment and climate change regulation. This forms part of a review of the Balance of Competences between the UK and the EU - an audit of what the EU does, and how this affects the UK.

European legislation helps us to manage common resources such as our climate and has brought in policies to help improve our water and air quality.  It has provided strong protection of our habitats and species, especially at sea where national legislation is lagging far behind and, recently, has stalled again (see my recent blog on this).

In many cases, EU policy has led the way, resulting in far more stringent legislation, including the bathing water directive, habitats and birds directive and the air quality directive than may well have been in place if we had relied on national policy.

There are areas where these EU policies can be improved, and certainly areas where guidance and information about the regulations could be made clearer and more accessible. However, what is clear is that many of the decisions we take about the environment have huge impacts, not just nationally but internationally as well. For instance air and water quality can have impacts that are more far reaching than national boundaries and decisions on the quota of fish that we take from our seas clearly affect many nations. One of the biggest challenges facing us at the moment, climate change, cannot be tackled at a national level alone. We need to work in collaboration with neighbouring countries, and wider to ensure that decisions taken have the biggest impact.

From The Wildlife Trusts point of view, what is clear is that we need to continue to make the case for the importance of protecting and improving our environment. Our environment provides us with vital services that underpin our economy. We will robustly respond to this review, to highlight the importance of environmental legislation. We need to ensure that short term economic aims do not end up undermining our environment and ultimately, our economic future.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

The Brighton and Hove and Lewes Downs Biosphere project

Last chance to have your say.

The public is being urged to make sure they have their say on the Biosphere bid in this last week of the consultation.  With over 1600 responses to date, and over 90% support for the Biosphere amongst responses received to date, the consultation is due to end on 22 May.

It was recently extended when the Biosphere boundary was altered to include Southwick and Shoreham and to bring in two new areas near Ringmer.  The proposed Biosphere Reserve covers the whole area between the River Adur and the River Ouse, including the sea.  To the north it follows the South Downs National Park boundary except around Ditchling.  It now has almost exactly the same area as the Isle of Wight.

The Brighton & Hove and Lewes Downs Biosphere Partnership is pleased with the response so far.  However, it would like to get more support by next Wednesday if it can.  The more support and feedback from the public, the better it will be for the bid.  However, it’s also important to hear what people value in their local area and would like to see improved.  This information will then be used to bid for funding, where possible, to help realise local residents’ aspirations for the area.

So if you haven’t managed to fill in the questionnaire, please do so now.  Remember it only takes 30 seconds and 7 clicks of the mouse to answer the first two questions, the only ones you are obliged to respond to.  All the others you can skip over, although if you can spare a little time saying what you care about in the area and what you’d like to see improved, it would be helpful. 

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Ambitious reform of the Common Fisheries under threat?

People across Europe have shown their support for ambitious reform of the CFP. It is crucial that EU Fisheries Ministers don't water down proposals.

At the beginning of February, Joan Edwards (the Head of Living Seas for the Wildlife Trusts) wrote a hopeful blog after the European Parliament voted overwhelmingly in favour of an ambitious reform of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). A meeting next week of EU Fisheries Ministers will reveal whether this promise is likely to be fulfilled or whether the reform process might break down entirely.

We need Fisheries Ministers to commit to an agreement that includes a timeline for fish stock recovery, targeted measures to eliminate excess fishing capacity and the promotion of low-impact fishing. The UK Fisheries Minister, Richard Benyon, does seem determined to do the right thing, but we need him to show real leadership and take control of the talks to ensure that reforms are not watered down. The next meeting of EU Fisheries Ministers, on 13 and 14 May 2013, could be one of the most important meetings in the reform process.

Millions of people across the EU have expressed their support for proper reform of the CFP and MEPs in the European Parliament have voted for ambitious reform. Despite this, a number of EU Fisheries Ministers seem unwilling to compromise on proposals, refusing to negotiate on key issues such as fleet management and discards. Indeed, the only area at present that it seems there is partial agreement on is fish stock recovery plans that can support Maximum Sustainable Yield.

We therefore need your help. We need you to let our Fisheries Ministers know how important this reform by contacting them at: allaboard.panda.org/en/. This is the best opportunity that we have to recover our fish stocks and rebuild a sustainable fishing sector - we need to ensure that our Fisheries Ministers take it.

Friday, 12 April 2013

Welcome call for action to protect the marine environment

The Commons Science and Technology Select Committee published the results of its inquiry into marine science on 11th April.  This influential group of MPs warns that the Government’s failure to push forward with the designation of Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) is creating uncertainty for sea users and risks putting important habitats at risk.

We in the Wildlife Trusts have voiced our concerns for some time that Government’s commitment to protecting the marine environment is failing.  The need for Marine Conservation Zones is well known, yet the Government is still refusing to act with the urgency required.  In Sussex just 3 of the proposed 9 Marine Conservation Zones are being taken forward to consultation.

It is difficult to see why there is such delay and why, nationally, less than 25% of what should be considered a minimum is going forward to the next stage.  Lack of information is often given as the reason yet there is ample information on which to base a decision.  Indeed, I wonder what information the government has to justify the idea that a functional marine ecological network can be created with less than 25% of what the scientists say is necessary.

The Committee’s Chair, Andrew Miller MP, said the Government must end the uncertainty and set out a clear timetable for the designation of the MCZ network.

The MP’s report said the Government had ‘moved the goalposts’ during the MCZ process and that it was unclear how they had chosen the 31 sites out of the original 127 to put forward for designation this year.  The Committee also questioned why some sites identified as being ‘at risk’ were not being taken forward for protection.

Andrew Miller MP, said, “Properly managed Marine Conservation Zones will protect marine life in the UK’s coastal waters and ensure the fishing industry has a sustainable long- term future.  The Government is currently letting the project flounder while sensitive environments are further degraded and the industry is subjected to further uncertainty.

Joan Edwards, Head of The Wildlife Trusts Living Seas project added:  The Science and Technology Select Committee’s report is clear that the Government has no reason to delay the designation of the MCZ network. We have been calling – and shall continue to call - for a clear timetable for action.  We hope this Committee’s report will encourage some renewed commitment to protecting our fragile seas.”


Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Unprotected countryside – unconstrained development.

I was very pleased to attend the CPRE conference entitled “Future Proofing Sussex” last Saturday.  In general the Sussex Wildlife Trust and CPRE are tending to work even closer together these days so it was good, if worrying, to hear some excellent presentations on the development threats that Sussex is under.

In particular Roger Smith, Chairman of CPRE’s Horsham branch, exposed some very important issues that we should all worry about. 

Much of our countryside is unprotected.  In the language of developers this means that it is unconstrained – locations ripe for development.  Indeed even that which is protected in some way can still often be under threat.

We have housing needs, and figures are always marshalled to show how we must “predict and provide” in order to meet these needs.  Even though they are accepted unquestioningly by the media, such figures are often extremely dubious, but this is not the element I wish to point out here.

The South East Plan was revoked this week.  I was no fan of the SE Plan so you may think I’d be pleased.  The plan imposed top-down figures for how much housing had to be built.  Local Authorities simply had to do their duty and find locations for the dictated housing.  This inevitably bred conflict and the incoming coalition government vowed to make the situation much more locally led.

This clearly is the intention of many politicians of all shades, and it was good to hear MP Nick Herbert at the same conference speaking strongly in support of a locally led approach.

Roger Smith’s presentation, however, showed that we should still be concerned. 

Many in government are very pro-development.  They still push for the availability of a 5 year supply of land for housing, to house a growing population or drive economic growth or whatever.  All the presumptions about house building can be questioned but these “needs” for development are still pushed down from above.

So Local Authorities still have to identify land for housing.  How much land must they find and where do they go for figures on this?  You've guessed it – the South East Plan! 

It would appear that the top-down approach to housing numbers remains, even after the plan has been revoked.  The Planning Inspectorate may therefore still consider the house building targets set in the SE Plan to be the yardstick by which they assess housing numbers put forward by Local Authorities.

The South East Plan is dead – long live the South East Plan!

We may end up with the worrying worst-case scenario where all the best parts of the South East Plan have been revoked (the policies for environmental enhancement, the protection of our natural assets etc) but all the worst parts are still just as strong as they were before.

But it gets worse.

Developers are sitting on hundreds of permissions - land where they already have permission to build houses.  They are not building them because they can’t sell them and this is part of the reason why housing figures are not being met.  Nevertheless developers still claim they need more land to build more houses even though they are not building on land where they already have permission.  Could it be that developers are banking large numbers of permissions so storing up a wave of development for a future date when they feel they can sell houses again?

So we can look forward to another house building boom where the few remaining fragments of the Sussex countryside are built on.  But at least it means everyone will have a house.  Well will they?  I’ll finish with a silly statistic. 

A main drive to the need for housing isn't just population growth or immigration; it is a trend for there being fewer people per house.  Fewer people per house – so you need more houses.  If we guess the rate of reduction of household size (there were about 3 people per house in the 1970s, there are about 2.5 people per house now) and extrapolate forward then you get to a point in about 250 years when the graph crosses the zero line - nobody will be living in any houses no matter how many you build – and people will still be homeless!  This shows the fallacy in adopting statistics and trends unquestioningly.

Friday, 22 March 2013

The Budget 2013: Value of nature still invisible to the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

While many in parliament, and in government departments, are trying to find ways of recognising and reflecting the value of nature in national accounting, the Chancellor still seems to view the environment as a cost to be beaten down.

In his 2013 Budget, Chancellor George Osborne has again put long-term prosperity at risk with a short-term bid for so-called growth.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and its beleaguered environmental agencies face further big cuts after the Chancellor raided the Department’s budget to pay for more spending on major infrastructure projects. 

Even before the anticipated £11.5bn extra cuts across Government, to be announced in June, £37m will be lost from Defra and its already cash-strapped agencies which have huge responsibilities for dealing with flooding, water pollution, plant and tree diseases and protecting and enhancing important places for wildlife.

The savings will contribute to increased spending on potentially damaging major infrastructure from 2015-16, and coincide with a drop in petrol duty.  So the Chancellor is reducing investment in natural capital in order to throw money at damaging activities.

The Wildlife Trusts have been calling on the Chancellor to invest in the natural environment – our natural capital - as a way to secure our long-term prosperity.

Stephanie Hilborne OBE, Chief Executive of The Wildlife Trusts, said:

“Despite the fundamental importance of the natural environment to people’s lives, the Department in charge of looking after it has a tiny budget – that is hit incredibly hard with each spending review.  The debate about the public forests has shown how important our natural assets are: people care passionately about their local woods and parks; and they are fundamental to the quality of our lives and our well-being.  Nature is also of vast economic value - just £20m of Government money is invested in the public forest estate each year yielding economic benefits of over £400m per year. 

“The case for a different approach is clear.  For example, investment in job creation through environmental projects is an investment in our natural capital and in reducing our welfare bills.   These are the kinds of new and innovative win-win ideas that the Government needs to grasp.

“Defra had to stomach unusually high budget cuts in 2011.  Sadly these further cuts indicate a Government that does not understand the value of nature and its importance to our future prosperity.”

Failure to recognise the value of nature in our national accounting is not just bad for the environment, its bad maths!  How can government know if it is creating prosperity if it does not, or will not, measure those things that make up prosperity.