Is it a good idea to have a high-speed rail link between London and Birmingham? Simple question – so what’s the answer? It should be yes shouldn’t it?
Along with many others – in particular the communities along the, as yet, undefined route – we await the publication of the Department for Transport’s report into High Speed 2 (HS2) which will bring much needed clarity. This report is expected towards the end of next month.
Here’s the check-list we will be applying to the report when it arrives on our desks:
In our experience, there is a world of difference between wanting to support a good idea and taking a position on an actual proposal. We won’t know our position until the report is out and we’ve had a chance to look at the detail.
You may be wondering why this proposal is HS2 – HS1 was formally known as the Channel Tunnel Rail Link. I can recall the creeping dereliction that was caused by the endless uncertainty over the route into Ashford. The stakes are massively high to get this right – if you live between London and Birmingham, let me know what you think.
Lots of posts on this blog have featured wetlands and, in particular, the UK’s coast and estuaries. This is no coincidence – this country’s coastal heritage really puts us on the world map of conservation issues. As we look forward to the end of winter hundreds of thousands of wildfowl and wading birds are preparing to head north to their artic breeding grounds having survived another winter on our coast sustained by the rich food supply and warmed by the ocean currents of the North Atlantic drift.
Yet more birds will be passing through on their way north, highlighting the role the UK plays as a vital link in the chain of migration. The UK is an international mixing pot of birds like turnstones (pictured)heading to Greenland and even arctic Canada or bar-tailed godwits setting off for Siberia.
So how do we know all this?
At the heart of the discoveries about our wetland birds are the dedicated people who have been studying them. These are the bird ringers and counters – the vast majority amateurs and volunteers – who have painstakingly gathered the raw numbers. We owe them all a huge debt of gratitude.
The RSPB along with our partners the British Trust for Ornithology, the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, have just launched the latest report of the Wetland Bird Survey (WeBs) covering the winter of 2007/08. It’s a chunky little book packed with numbers that provide an unparalleled level of understanding about how our wetland bird populations are changing and showing which are our most important sites.
Although wildfowl (ducks, geese and swans) have been counted for longer, the forerunner of WeBs – the Birds of Estuaries Enquiry – started over forty years ago in direct response to the conservation challenge of building cases to defend estuaries from threats. The conservation movement was ill equipped to fight proposals to build London’s third airport off Foulness on the Essex coast, not least because the data just wasn’t there.
A lot has happened since those difficult days. The Ramsar Convention provided international pressure to protect wetlands ‘especially as waterfowl habitat’ – so that demands reliable data. The European Union’s Birds Directive gives effective and targeted protection to sites supporting migrating birds – the background to why many of our estuaries are designated as Special Protection Areas – making them part of the European Union’s network of the best wildlife sites – known as Natura 2000.
Of the top twenty sites for waterfowl in the UK, five are threatened by barriers or tidal power generating barrages – here’s the list (the number in brackets is the average number of birds the site supports).
The Wash (371,308)The Thames Estuary (186,302)The Solway (122,602)The Mersey (79,504)The Severn (69,482)
We’ve been working hard to prevent these damaging proposals coming forward (while at the same time championing innovative ways of harnessing tidal energy) – but despite the highest levels of protection these special places are still not safe.
The work continues on many fronts – but what is absolutely certain is the vital role of WeBS now and in the future providing the best information on which to base the wisest of decisions.
So – keep counting!
The the idea of protecting the best places for nature on land is a familiar and accepted way of doing conservation. The best of the best – our Natura 2000 site network – has been a success (there’s a long way to go to complete the network, but that’s another story).
The requirement to protect the best sites at sea has been there for as long as it has on land – but the UK’s approach has, until recently, been well, all at sea. There are many reasons for this, not least the difficulty of encountering the wealth of wildlife that’s actually there.
However – set against the woeful lack of progress it's great news that 12 sites are now in the pipeline. On 26 February consultation ends on two Special Protection Areas (SPAs) and 10 Special Areas of Conservation. The SPAs are the Outer Thames and Liverpool Bay.
If you look back at what I wrote previously (the ‘all at sea’ link above) you will see that we are broadly supportive of these designations even though the SPAs do leave out important populations of birds. One of the species that does feature in both is the red-throated diver. The birds spend the winter in Liverpool Bay and the Outer Thames in large numbers. At this time of year, they are in winter plumage – like the larger of the two illustrations.
So there is still time to make your voice heard in this important consultation – here’s the link. Many thanks if you have already done it.
The Thames estuary and the Essex coast have appeared on these pages several times already. The nature of this great estuary has survived in pockets and fragments alongside burgeoning human use and abuse of the place.
Robert Macfarlane’s evocation of the Wild Places of Essex on BBC 2’s Natural World last night will open eyes to a world that is waiting to be discovered (you can view it for a few days – and here’s a review). Our nature reserve at Rainham Marshes (featured in the programme and pictured) is already a hit with visitors and there are other places to visit – so if you get the chance you can see the wild side of Essex too.
And we’re not finished either. The Wallasea Island Wild Coast project aims to put a significant chunk of wild nature back – you can find out more about that here.
So, if you thought untamed Essex got no further than the throaty roar of a Ford Capri – it’s time to think again.
We’ve said before that proper strategic planning, with good community consultation and environmental assessment, is essential to steer development away from environmentally-damaging options.
That’s why the RSPB and WWF-UK commissioned a report on the Government’s assessments of the draft national policy statements (NPSs) for energy and ports infrastructure. Here’s another three-letter acronym – AoS, for appraisal of sustainability. The Government commissioned consultants to carry out appraisals of the sustainability of all their NPSs. We asked Collingwood Environmental Planning, experts in this type of assessment, to scrutinise them.
You can see the full report and our briefing here, and what Planning magazine said here.
As one MP on the climate change committee noted, the report is pretty scathing of the AoSs. It seems to us that they fall short of the requirements in European law. We’re not the only people to be concerned; Friends of the Earth have picked up the same points and have written in detail to the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change.
So what’s the actual problem? Isn’t this just legal nit-picking?
In short, the key issue is whether the planners have properly considered reasonable alternatives before deciding on the content of the NPS, and therefore whether environmentally-good options have been chosen. For the energy NPSs, this might lead you to ask questions like “What’s the best energy mix for the environment?” or “Is it better to have a plan that steers development to the best places, or one which leaves it to the market?” That second question could apply equally to ports as well.
In fact, the appraisals of the energy NPSs simply ask “Should we have a plan or not?” (or a couple of variations with different levels of detail).
To our way of thinking, that’s a silly question. Parliament has decided there should be a plan – and everyone agreed it was a good idea. What we really want to know is the environmental effects of the things we are planning for – energy infrastructure and ports. Of course, there will be detailed environmental assessments when specific projects are being planned, but now is the time to think strategically to stop environmentally-damaging projects coming forward in the first place.
It's likely that the Government won't make a final decisions on their statements until after the General Election, maybe not until the autumn. We'd like them to start again and do the job properly, and we're prepared to give what help we can to do that.