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The South East Plan was revoked this week.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It would appear that the top-down approach to housing numbers remains, even after the plan has been revoked.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.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Economic benefits of the South Downs National Park

Last week saw the publication of the South Downs Visitor Survey.  This outlines the impact and benefits of visitors to the South Downs National Park.  The headline story is that there were about 46.3 million day visits, the vast majority of which were made by local people.  Visitors spent some £464 million in the local economy in 2011/12, supporting 8,200 jobs.  Nationally (in England & Wales), this places the South Downs third in terms of overall spend in National Parks: the Lake District was first with £952 million a year and the Pembrokeshire Coast second with £498 million a year.

To read a longer review of this survey see "Have we seen the benefit" on the South Downs Network web site.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Business recognises nature’s true value

A new report, published today, recognises business’ true reliance on nature and its true value to the economy.

Realising nature’s value is a report from the independent, business-led, Ecosystems Markets Task Force.
The Ecosystems Markets Task Force (EMTF) brings together industry leaders and experts from a wide range of sectors, ranging from banking and biodiversity conservation to beauty, to look for ways in which companies can improve both the environment and their bottom line.  

On 6 November 2012, the Task Force published its Interim Report, Why valuing the natural environment correctly matters for business.  The report set out the aims of the Task Force, its emerging thinking on why nature should matter to business and the potential opportunities for business from valuing nature correctly.  Led by Ian Cheshire, Group Chief Executive of retail group Kingfisher plc, the EMTF will review the opportunities available to UK business that could help them develop green goods, services, investment vehicles and markets which value and protect the environment.  The Task Force will report back to the Government in early 2013 through the Green Economy Council.  You can read the report, published on Defra’s website

The report strongly signals the need to take a fresh look at business to ensure that opportunities are taken to link business development with protecting and restoring the natural environment.  

Nature is good for business.  That is a fact.  Society has been too reliant on an old-fashioned view of economic growth which seems to imagine that wealth creation can somehow be achieved at the expense of the natural environment.  Yet our prosperity depends entirely on nature whether it is better management of our woods for fuel, the creation of wetlands to reduce flooding, the restoration of rivers to improve water quality, or creating new wildlife-rich places where people live.  In future, economic growth that damages the environment will simply not be considered economic growth at all.  Businesses that recognise this now and get ahead of the curve will be in a better competitive position in the future.

One of the report’s recommendations is the mandatory linking of biodiversity offsetting to new developments.  This means that, once the most important wildlife sites have been protected, any residual environmental impact will be “paid for” through a system of conservation credits.  The Wildlife Trusts welcome the report’s recommendation for this to be mandatory.  Any land lost to development should lead to gains for wildlife elsewhere.

We must not hold business back from doing the right thing.  Biodiversity off-setting must be mandatory to avoid creating uncertainty and a sense that wildlife is an ‘optional extra’.  I have not read the entire report but this recommendation is an example of some of the important thinking that has gone into the report.

The Government will respond to the Ecosystems Markets Task Force report Realising nature’s value in the summer when The Wildlife Trusts will look for recognition by the Government that nature is vital to the economy.