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