Wednesday 19 November 2008

We have failed to halt the loss of wildlife - a government committee says so!

The Sussex Wildlife Trust, along with most conservation organisations, has been concerned for a long time that wildlife is still going down hill. Our experience is of reducing habitats, species under threat and slow degradation of the environment. This is not to say that there are no good news stories out there. A lot of good things are happening and it is not all doom and gloom, but we have not yet turned the corner when it comes to maintaining our rich biodiversity.

It is therefore interesting to read that this is also the view coming out of the thirteenth report of the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee – entitled “Halting Biodiversity Loss” . The Committee concludes that despite some good work by Government many species and habitats continue to face severe declines and local extinctions across England. As a result it warns that the Government will miss a key international target to halt biodiversity loss by 2010.

The Committee said that there is a compelling economic case for the protection and enhancement of biodiversity. This is helpful because so often in our discussions we are arguing against people who merely consider wildlife as a “nice to have” rather than a key asset that we should value and look after.

While the Committee recognized that protected area arrangements (such as the designation of Sites of Special Scientific Interest) are largely adequate it believes the Government will have to go beyond traditional nature conservation policies to reverse the decline and enable growth in biodiversity into the future. Furthermore the Committee stated that government now needs to adopt an “ecosystems approach” - a much larger scale approach to ensure that wildlife survives, even thrives, throughout the whole landscape not just in special sites.

This agrees very well with the points that the SWT have been making for years. Looking after the best of what we have is the vital first step, but it is not enough by itself. We need a large scale agenda conserving wildlife in the entire landscape and maintaining quality in our whole environment.

This is further re-enforced by the Committees welcoming of government plans to conduct an ecosystem assessment for England. Hopefully this will follow the lead given by the UN when it published the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment in 2005. . This set the scene, providing a method for assessing the wide range of benefits provided to people from a healthy functioning environment. These range from the essentials for life, including clean air and water, food and fuel, to things that improve quality of life and wellbeing, such as recreation and beautiful landscapes, and include natural processes, such as climate and flood regulation.

It will be interesting to see how government carries out such an assessment and whether in practice it will give proper recognition to the value of a healthy wildlife rich environment. A first step will be to improve cross-departmental working so that all government departments understand the value of biodiversity and take proper measures to conserve and enhance it. At present the Committee is concerned about a continued failure of departments, such as DCLG and DBERR, to consider biodiversity impacts.

So – there we have it! It’s official. There is a compelling economic case to conserve biodiversity and yet the ongoing loss of our wildlife has not been halted. I agree with the Committee in calling for an ecosystem assessment and will be pushing to make sure that any assessment makes reasonable consideration of all the benefits provided to us by a healthy environment. Perhaps it will be a good idea to do an ecosystem assessment for Sussex!

Wednesday 15 October 2008

The Secretary of State’s changes to the South East Plan – How sustainable?

You will find information about the current stage of the SE Plan on the Sussex Wildlife Trust web site, but I thought I would spend some time highlighting the size of the gap between the growth and development desires in the SE Plan versus the need for sustainability.

Even the Government’s own Sustainability Appraisal concludes that the changes now proposed by the Secretary of State will result in the environmental limits of the South East being approached and possibly even breached. These changes do not just increase the level of environmental damage associated with the Plan, but also substantially lower the quality of life of the region’s population. The Plan cannot even guarantee to protect the most important wildlife sites – those protected because of the international importance – so what hope is there for our nationally or locally important wildlife habitats?

If we look a little closer at the figures we can see the size of the problem we face.

Never mind “the environmental limits of the South East being approached”, work by the Government Office for the South East a few years ago has shown that the ecological footprint for the South East is already 29 times its physical area. That means that we need an area the size of France just to support our lifestyle.

So we already consume an area far bigger than we actually have – but we plan to grow further.

The plan has an economic growth goal of 3% per annum – very attractive in terms of our personal wealth, but what does this mean? A 3% growth rate results in a doubling time of 23 years (just longer than the life of the plan). In 23 years time our economy will be double the size that it is now and will have double the resource requirements that it has now. So, roughly by the end of the plan we will be using double the number of resources that we use now. How sustainable is that bearing in mind the ecological consequences of the resource use we have now?

The maths also draws us towards another startling conclusion. Take the period from now -2008 - to the end of that doubling period (23 years time) the year 2031. In that period we will use the same amount of resources as we have done in our entire history up until 2008. This is simply the maths of how exponential growth works.

I cannot see how some of our most cherished wildlife can survive even at the current level of human activity even if we could rely on an area the size of France to support us. How it could survive when we have double the level of activity and after using as many resources as we have used in our entire history is even more difficult to understand.

The SE Plan has good phrases about stabilising and then reducing resource use, about reducing greenhouse gas emissions and responding to climate change, about protecting wildlife and the environment. And I do believe that the people involved are sincere, honourable people who are doing their best for the region. But a 30% increase in housing numbers for Sussex (even over the huge figures already proposed), a desire for economic growth of 3% (without any real question of the nature of that growth and its effects), population increase, “infrastructure” development, water use, resource use, energy use and land taken away from nature – all severely undermine any attempt at long term sustainability. The environment is going to be negatively impacted, we are going to loose wildlife and its habitats and the lives of the people in the region are going to get worse.

Wednesday 25 June 2008

More on Eco-Towns "2".

Recently the Government published the Challenge Panel's first report of their deliberations with the developers. In this the Panel went briefly through each of the proposed Eco-Towns and set out a challenging list of issues that any proposal will have to meet in order to become a viable proposition.

Have they been reading my blog?

The Challenge Panel's report recommends some very interesting requirements, at least a couple of which align closely with the needs I have laid out on this blog!

One test that I have proposed is that Ford Eco-Town should so radically reduce the need to travel that it would remove the need for an Arundel bypass. This demand is in direct opposition to both the proposers and the opposers of the Ford Eco-Town. The Challenge Panel, however, have also said that the proposal should "consider a radically different approach to transport" and that "funding the proposed A27 Arundel bypass should be abandoned as it is not consistent with sustainable principles".

The guidelines for Eco-Town development are generally light on requirements for improving the environment, and enhancing the natural environment receives little attention. To be fair the Eco-town proposers for Ford have talked about building ecological networks through the development, including a major area of wetland creation. Nevertheless, the Panel's report stresses that the proposal should "use the green space strategy as a starting point for the masterplan; the proposed network of green spaces, neighbourhood allotments, wetland habitat and the introduction of the canal could be instrumental to creating an identity for the area".

So - a better approach to transport and making the natural environment of a proposal a more leading theme. This is good stuff, but I am still concerned about whether Ford, located as it is in one of the few green gaps along the highly built up coastline of West Sussex, is fundamentally the right location for a major new development.

Friday 30 May 2008

More on Ford Eco-town, following the opening of the Inquiry on 27th May 2008.

Presentations given by the Ford Airfield Vision Group and the Ford Enterprise Hub at the start of Arun DC’s inquiry gave a good outline of their plans for the Ford Eco-town. The Trust does have issues with the proposals - see later on in this post - but the proposers are sincere people with a clear belief in the idea they are promoting. Several key aspects can be highlighted from their proposals:

The development aims to be at least carbon-neutral. Ideas are for passive solar hearting by utilising south facing designs, photo-voltaic cells, solar panels and a possible hydro system based on a sea lagoon created from managed retreat of the coast. There is also a proposal for power generation from a hydro system under the bridge of a new Arundel bypass. These ideas, plus the energy from waste facility below should make the site a net exporter of energy.

The plan is to make maximum use of waste recovery, utilising a facility already on site. There are also plans for an energy from waste recovery facility. The claim is that with these systems there should be no off-site refuse trips.

A sophisticated system of grey water recycling, water treatment and aquifer re-charge should result in a very low water-use foot-print, indeed they are aiming for “water-neutrality”. Water run-off from the development area will drain into canals (one a renovated existing canal, plus other new water-courses), and these will form the core of green corridors, with new habitat for wildlife meandering through the built development.

There are ideas for a central area of greenspace, connected by green corridors to neighbourhood greens and linking with the canals. A major feature will be an area of managed coastal retreat alongside the river Arun where coastal and salt marsh vegetation will be created, perhaps in a sea lagoon as part of a tidal hydro-power system. The new coastal marsh, canals and water inflow from water off the Downs will make a diversity of habitats that could be very beneficial for the local environment. This could be seen as a prime example of how nature development in an area can not only improve biodiversity but also provide services to the area in terms of flood amelioration, treatment of water run-off, amenity, access and even power generation.

Local food
Some mention was made of encouraging the use of gardens and allotments for the growing of food, and the use of local retail outlets for the sale of local food. A good principle but the Town will result in a net loss of good agricultural land.

There are plans to develop the railway station on a new site and to integrate this with bus routes, cycle ways and walking routes. The aim is to very considerably reduce car dependency and there is a vision to create a District-wide modal shift in favour of rail transport. The Eco-town will, however, be used as an excuse to develop roads in the area, especially an Arundel bypass, and where the proposed bypass crosses the river Arun there are ideas to develop some form of hydro power station.

Good ideas, but questions remain -

Much of this (except the road development) sounds quite good, indeed if your aim is to build an Eco-town then this is a pretty good way to go about it.

First, there are a whole range of questions regarding the process, and these are probably best targeted at government rather than the individual Eco-town proposals:

  • Why is it that the standards for Eco-towns are not the basic minimum for all new development?

  • After years of debating about the SE Plan and levels of regional development, why is it that Eco-towns seem to have come in as an extra idea separate to all these strategic discussions?

Housing numbers
There is a question regarding housing numbers. Government has stated that the number of homes in an Eco-town can be off-set against the housing allocation for the District – so, building 5000 homes here means that we should not have to build 5000 homes somewhere else. However, figures are likely to rise anyway and perhaps government are more likely to increase housing numbers in a District if it thinks there is a good chance of an Eco-town there. Furthermore, the planned 5000 homes may just be a start. The evidence from other places is that once development is allowed we could well find that numbers shoot up.

Even if 5000 homes is the actual number, and these can be off-set against the numbers planned for Arun, the question that will have to be addressed is will building 5000 homes here have a lower environmental footprint than if they were built elsewhere in the District, associated with existing developments.

Even if it is a good plan, is Ford a good location?
Coming to the Ford location itself, there is still a big concern as to whether, in principle, this is a good place for an Eco-town. It will cause the coalescence of several settlements, is mostly on green-field land, will result in the loss of prime agricultural land and is on a site that tends to flood.

The travel question could be the key test of the proposal.

At present all sides (pro and anti) seem to be pushing in the wrong direction on this. Currently the Eco-town is being presented as a development that can be used to press for “improvements” to the A27 and other roads in the area. This is self-destructive to the travel ideas for the town. Road improvements will simply mean that people will continue to use their cars (although change may be forced anyway with global warming concerns and oil price increases/shortages), so modal shift to public transport will not take place. The idea of adding to political pressure for a damaging road also does not fit with the stated aim of a “District-wide modal shift to rail travel”.

Any bypass around Arundel will cause unacceptable damage to the environment, as well as increasing car travel and so increase congestion elsewhere. This blind-spot illustrates that the proposers have not grasped the idea of the proximity principle. The development must be based on the principle that as much as possible should be provided as locally as possible, so reducing the need for distance travel. Furthermore, it is claimed that the Ford Eco-town will be an exemplar for others to follow. This is good. So, as an exemplar it would be expected that neighbouring areas will follow the lead of reducing the need to travel so in turn will reduce their car dependency.

The idea of putting a hydro-power station under the bridge of a possible bypass does not make it any more attractive. The river Arun is one of the most important rivers in Britain for its wildlife. The aim for the river should be to increase its natural functioning – any sort of barrage across the river will be counter-productive.

A key test of the Eco-town, therefore, is not whether it adds to the political pressure for a road, it is whether it reduces the need for travel enough to remove the need for an Arundel bypass.

How deliverable is the environmental vision?
Nevertheless, the outline plans for the Eco-town do include some good ideas and, notwithstanding the comments above, added together they could form the basis of a sustainable community. Perhaps the biggest question, however, is what will happen in practice?

In the past we have talked to developers about plans for an area and often what start out as radical, environmentally sensitive designs gradually become compromised as costs are cut. This is not to imply anything sinister regarding developers; it’s just the way it works out. A new railway station, bus routes, cycle ways, schools, affordable housing, education centres and community centres will all use up funding. If money gets frittered away trying to gain support for damaging roads as well then I can see all the environmental plans being lost.

Environmental objectives must remain central
This compromising away of enviornmetla objectives is a symptom of how we do town planning in this country. We start off with the economic and social “needs” and the environmental “desires” are added later. We still tend to see the environment as a “nice to have” extra, rather than a fundamental requirement. Any pressure on the design and the first thing to go is the environmental aspect. For an Eco-town to be an Eco-town, this must be reversed. The environmental vision must come first and stay as the basic need. Economic and social desires can then be worked in around the environmental vision. This is not to favour bugs and beetles over people! In practice grounding social and economic plans in a strong environmental vision will deliver a higher quality development and so is more likely to achieve social and economic objectives than a plan where the environment is a mere add-on.

So – in summary
  • The environmental vision appears good, including ideas for greenspace, water courses through the development and habitat creation on the river Arun. This must not be compromised away and, indeed, should be made stronger and have centre-stage in the range of objectives.
  • If Ford is to be an exemplar, then it should not only deliver sustainability objectives itself, but it should drive a change to a more sustainable community in the wider District.
  • One test of acceptability will be if the development removes the need for road development in the area.
  • A major flaw is viewing Ford as a way of increasing the pressure for an Arundel bypass. This alone should mean that this level of development is not realistic in the District.
  • The Ford location has problems, is it in basis the right place?
  • Will 5000 houses built here have a lower impact than the same number built associated with existing settlements elsewhere?
  • Is 5000 homes here of 5000 elsewhere the real choice? In practice will the Eco-town simply give regional government the excuse to increase housing allocation in Arun District?

Friday 4 April 2008

A new Eco-Town for Sussex!

Yesterday government announced that 10 new “Eco-Towns” are to be built in England, and gave a short list of 15 from which the eventual 10 will be selected.

Maybe this sounds like good news, if you do not delve too deeply. These new towns are supposed to consist of carbon neutral developments, locations to act as exemplars of sustainable, environmentally friendly technology. Low impact, affordable, green homes – assuming you have to build new houses somewhere, what could be wrong with that?

Well, several things actually….

First – we have been talking for decades about the need to produce high quality, environmentally friendly homes that have a low ecological impact. Now, eventually and very late in the day, government reckons we should be building some, and it is in these Eco-Towns that they will be built. The first question therefore is why on earth should this approach be limited to so-called Eco-Towns? There is an accepted need that development should move ahead in a modern way. Climate change is upon us, long term development will only be possible if it delivers the needed energy efficiency changes. Hyper-efficient, carbon-neutral homes must be the norm, not the exception. Government has plans for 3 million homes in England. Assuming about 10,000 homes in each of the 10 Eco-Towns, this is only 100,000 homes built to a decent modern standard. What about the other 2,900,000?

House-builders and developers could not possibly complain about this. The writing on the wall could not be any larger – a universal, high quality approach is needed now, not at some indeterminate time in the future, or only limited to a few special places. And, of course, it would set a level playing field for all development, so no house builder would be disadvantaged.

The second point is regarding where these developments are going to be placed. The choice of the 15 on the shortlist seems to have come out of nowhere. These are not the result of a strategic assessment of where environmentally sensitive development could be placed for best effect. They are just somebody’s bright idea!

For example, Ford in West Sussex is one of the lucky locations on the shortlist. Who proposed this? Local Authorities, County Councils, local organisations and local communities are all against it so it seems to have parachuted in off someone else’s sketchbook!

The ford proposal could have a devastating effect on the area. Even if the site is developed in an enviornmentally friendly way, this would still bring a huge number of people into the area. The pressure for a very damaging bypass around Arundle would increase, road improvements would be pushed through and large amounts of other "supporting infrastructure" would be required. This all adds up to the urbanisation of the lower sectin of the river Arun valley.

Very complicated discussions have taken place, strategic plans written, controversies fought over and Inquiries held. Out of all of this has come a huge level of proposed development for Sussex (that the Sussex Wildlife Trust has consistently fought against). This is bad enough – but these new Eco-Towns are in addition to the painful levels of development already forced upon us.

The approach to Eco-Towns seems very narrowly focused. It is centred on creating carbon-neutral development. A laudable objective certainly, but surely only one part of a complete environmental agenda for an area. An Eco-town should have a much more rounded environmental vision. This must start with a proper understanding of the environmental assets (the wildlife, landscape and heritage) of the place and then deliver a proper plan for how these are to be conserved, managed and expanded as part of a wide package that enhances the area. Part of this will be energy efficiency, but developing a Living Landscape fit for people should also be central.

There is very little clue that this is what is in the minds of government, and this is exposed by some of the site choices. For instance the proposal for Shipton in Oxfordshire is likely to damage or destroy a Site of Special Scientific Interest, a Site of Nature Conservation Importance and a Nature Reserve. This seems to start off, therefore, as a very non-eco Eco-Town.

Perhaps there is an old game in play here.

It has long been a tactic of those proposing development to suggest some absolutely appalling locations alongside the merely quite bad. In this way, it is hoped, rabid environmentalists will focus their attentions on the absolutely appalling and let the others slip through! Of course the worst locations may never have been serious options; they are simply there to draw fire away from the preferred developments. Eventually the worst options are withdrawn, us environmentalists claim a success, and the developers get what they wanted in the first place.

May be this is the point about Ford. There will be an outcry about Shipton in Oxfordshire, with a national effort to conserve designated sites. The Ford proposal, however will “only” erode one of the few remaining areas of rural countryside on the Sussex coastal plain, is “only” development in a flood plain (and that never stopped anyone anyway), it “only” has local County, District and Conservation bodies to defend it and will “only” upset the setting of a future National Park. Against Shipton in Oxfordshire it may seem the natural choice!

My message to government is to start again:

  • Criteria for carbon-neutral development should be applied everywhere not just in Eco-Towns
  • Any new development, especially Eco-Towns, should start with a strong, coherent environmental vision, aiming to look after and enhance what is there.
  • Part of this vision must be to conserve and enhance the wildlife value of these areas, developing a strong green network for people and wildlife that positively improves the area.
  • Eco-Towns should not be parachuted in to locations, they should be part of a strategic assessment of development need for an area, not separate from it.
  • All development, especially Eco-Towns should be assessed on their entire ecological impact, not just carbon footprint.

You can find out more through the link The prospectus for Eco-Towns is available here as is the document "Eco-towns, living a greener future" which is the announcement made in April 2008. This contains details on how to respond.