I was reminded the other day that in 1941, in the darkest hours of World War II and with Churchill’s backing, planning for post-war nature conservation was underway. Our countryside and wild places, our wildlife in towns and rural parishes and its role in our lives is part of what defines us.
The last ten days have seen an unprecedented series of major initiatives and announcements that will shape nature conservation for years to come. First the outcome of the Red Tape Challenge review of environmental regulation, then the Budget set up by the Chancellor’s intemperate words six months earlier in his autumn statement in which he characterised the environment and its protection as ‘a ridiculous cost on business’. Then, hot on its heels, publication of a review in to the European Nature Directives (specifically the Birds and Habitats Directives) and how they are implemented in England – ‘gold plating’ was the charge. And finally the publication of England’s National Planning Policy Framework.
The Treasury, DEFRA, The Department of Communities and Local Government and the Cabinet Office lining up to shape the relationship between economic growth and the future of our environment.
Our treasured countryside. Hard-wired into our nation's consciousness, our campaigning has shifted thinking. Photo, view from the North Downs Andre Farrar.
Dozens of organisations have risen to the challenge in recent months backed by the active involvement of hundreds of thousands of people, just like you, who have left the coalition Government in no doubt at all that our countryside and the natural world remains hard-wired into the nation’s consciousness. This shift in thinking at the heart of the coalition Government is a welcome recognition that the environment is critical to our wellbeing, economy and future prospects for a country worth living in.
In recent months the campaigning and debating, arguing and positioning have at times felt like the future for England’s nature was bleak (and this is mainly about England, I’ve asked some colleagues from other parts of the UK to contribute their perspectives in future posts).
So where are we now?
In one word – relieved.
Relieved primarily that the coalition Government has listen to us and to you.
So from the top
The Red Tape Challenge – 16,000 stepped up for nature (thank you!) and emailed Business Secretary, Vince Cable. Result – sensible simplification but on the whole necessary and hard-one environmental regulation comes through in tact. Here’s more detail if you’d like it.
The Budget – had the Chancellor continued his intemperate assault on the environment, Budget day threatened to be labelled Black Wednesday. Over 19,000 stepped up for nature (thank you again) and joined the chorus to wake up George and ensure he sees the natural environment and investment in the green economy as inseparable from a prosperous economy. Result – less of the anti-environment language, but still a budget that will launch a wave of proposals for roads and runways that will risk us being set on an unsustainable path. A grey day for the environment.
The ‘Habs Regs’ – part of the repercussions of the Chancellor’s autumn statement was to kick off a review into how the European Birds and Habitats Directives are implemented in England. Accusations of gold plating and over-zealous application where in the air. We submitted extensive evidence to the review. Result – largely a clean bill of health. The Directives are supported by Government and are not guilty of the charge of unnecessarily holding up economic development. More here.
And finally the National Planning Policy Framework NPPF. This fundamental part of the English planning system will complement the move to local involvement in the Government’s Localism Act. Get it wrong and the dogs of unconstrained economic growth are off the leash. Result – a massive improvement on earlier drafts and a huge vindication of our campaigning alongside, in particular, the National Trust, CPRE and the Daily Telegraph. I know the lengths our planning specialists have gone to in order to make a constructive contribution to the consultation – we’re proud of the difference they’ve made. The implications of the NPPF will take some time fully to analyse, but first impressions are very favourable.
So where does that leave us?
No one should be under any illusion; we are facing an unprecedented upsurge in infrastructure proposals and development that will test our resolve to ensure that the best projects prosper and the bad and unsustainable are rejected. But we have saved the means to make our case.
Will it be enough?
Only if the public mobilisation that has opened the ears of government continues. The focus now moves from Westminster to the town hall, the village hall and communities directly affected. Local Authorities, hard pressed by falling budgets often shorn of specialist ecologists, are likely to find the requirements of the NPPF to update their plans a real challenge. Communities are expected to have a greater role – perhaps your community? Skills, time, organisation will be patchy. If we are to avoid a post code lottery for planning and the environment then these deficits must be addressed.
We will all have a part to play – are you ready to step up for nature?
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I have now read the new National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) line-by-line, comparing it with last year’s draft.
I am impressed, and still happy, as Martin Harper reported in his blog yesterday.
Why am I so happy? Martin mentioned our top three red lines. The Government has listened to us on all three points, and the result is a much more balanced document that we believe will help to deliver the Government’s own objectives in the Natural Environment White Paper.
Here are some extracts that make me really pleased: all things that planners or the planning system have to do, which have been added in the published version:
And here are some good things which were in the draft thanks to our influence, and are still there in the published version:
I could go on, but I’d like to end with thanks to a terrific team. Lots of people were involved, but I’d particularly like to thank Brendan for his determined technical advocacy, Alice for leading our campaigning, Annabel’s policy input while dealing with the Localism Bill, Laura for her parliamentary advocacy, Julia for keeping us sane, Penny our legal advisor and Nathalie Lieven QC for her advice on SSSIs.
In the latest guest post, Jon Fuller sets out the view from Essex where mad-cap estuary airport schemes are not new. Jon is an environmental campaigner from Southend and sets the latest plans for the Thames in a wider context.
When London Mayor Boris Johnson first suggested an estuary airport, I dismissed the idea as fantasy. I remembered the Maplin Sands episode over 40 years ago and concluded I could safely ignore the Boris Island threat.
Coming from the background of an environmental campaigner I was more worried by the failure to constrain aviation generally and the damage the various greenhouse gases were doing to climate. So I focussed my attention upon campaigning against aviation expansion at Heathrow and Stansted and helped to form a resident’s action group against expansion at London Southend Airport, where I live.
South Esses marshes looking towards Southend - bird's eye view from a powered glider. Photo Rolf Williams RSPBImages
I keep abreast of scientific developments and so find the mismatch between political economics and the science of climate change incomprehensible. I am deeply shocked, appalled and genuinely furious that politicians and big business should continue to pursue growth in environmentally damaging activities like aviation at a time when science warns of impending catastrophic climate change. Indeed the scientific community has recently gone further, warning that the various geo-engineering options may not work. For many years items like this article from the BBC ought to have jolted the public, politicians and business into a new mind set. Far from pursuing environmentally sustainable solutions to our economic woes, government has announced to the world that the UK will be determined in pursuit of environmentally damaging activities like aviation, and it will seek to extract oil and gas from ever more risky areas like the deep waters to the north west of Scotland. Far from encouraging people who live here to holiday at home and improve the UK balance of trade, the PM and Chancellor have given their strongest signals yet that they are seriously considering a staggering increase in aviation by building a Thames Estuary airport. I am now more worried than ever that government will make one of its worst decisions, ignoring the ethos of evidence based policy. If it goes ahead and builds an estuary airport we must face the prospect of moving 76,000 employees from Heathrow to North Kent and South Essex, building thousands of new homes in areas at risk of flooding from sea level rise. The towns that make up the borough of Southend on Sea will face a dramatic decline in tourism and the value of property. Currently property developers and the council enjoy a very healthy return from the grandiose flats that are springing up along the seafront. People are willing to pay many hundreds of thousand or millions of pounds for the sea views from those luxurious apartments; but none of them would pay that sort of money with a view equivalent to that of a Heathrow. And how many day trippers would want to come to a seaside town dominated by the utter misery associated with a hub airport? Little wonder then that politicians of all parties in South Essex are united on this issue like no other. When I was interviewed by the BBC for the Sunday Politics Show and have commented in the local press, I’ve talked about the impact of an estuary airport upon wildlife. But I would argue that we now need to take the economic arguments to Boris Johnson, George Osborne and David Cameron, making it clear that the aviation tourism deficit is hitting the UK hard (we make a net loss of over £15billion per annum). We need to carry the argument to them that spending such a vast sum of money on an estuary airport is short-sighted and wasteful of financial resources, particularly at a time when the supply of oil has peaked and will gradually diminish.
And we need to promote an alternative economic vision that boosts UK growth by encouraging more UK nationals to holiday at home, thereby freeing up space for long haul business trips that may only be required in large numbers for a few more years. Government must be encouraged to see that, with the pace and quality of broadband tele-conferencing improving so rapidly, there must be a very real chance that demand for long haul flights to the far east may stall then decline in the years to come. To waste our national effort on an estuary airport could turn out to be the greatest economic folly in history.
We’ll have more contributions from around the estuary as the aviation consultation unfolds over the spring and summer. Jon and I would be interested in your views.
The wait is over. Just under nine months after the Government published its draft new planning policy for England – the National Planning Policy Framework, or NPPF – the final version has been delivered. Here’s what we said in our press release:
The Government has listened to public concerns over planning reforms and has announced plans which will allow for growth while protecting wildlife.
The RSPB has welcomed the unveiling of new planning guidance today which addresses the concerns raised by the public and environmental groups.
The new National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) contains a definition of sustainable development which will ensure local authorities can plan for vital homes, jobs and transport links without causing damage to our wildlife and countryside.
The RSPB’s concerns that protection for Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) was set to be weakened in the original draft of the NPPF appear to have been allayed. Although full scrutiny of the wording in the document is needed, early indications are that the new rules will protect SSSIs – meaning a bright future for the network of thousands of vital wildlife sites across England.
Martin Harper, RSPB Conservation Director, said: “Today’s news is a victory for wildlife, a victory for people and a victory for sustainable economic growth.
“While we and many others raised fears over the direction the original draft of the NPPF was taking us, it is clear ministers have listened to our concerns and taken them on board.
“We have always supported the idea of simplifying the planning system to make it less cumbersome and bureaucratic – but this must not happen at the expense of our environment. A healthy environment is essential for a healthy economy and the planning system is there to ensure the needs of people, business and nature are all met.
“This new planning system will help the Government deliver on its promises to promote growth, halt the loss of biodiversity and enhance our natural environment.
“This issue has rightly faced high profile scrutiny and has been the subject of heated debate. It’s not the first time this Coalition Government has faced a potential public backlash over an environmental issue. From the controversy over the sale of public forestry to reviews of environmental protection such as the Habitats Regulations, the public have made their voices heard loud and clear.
“Let’s hope that after all these bruising debates ministers now have a better understanding of just how important the environment is to the people of this country.
“It is now vital that local authorities across the UK have up to date local plans in place to ensure that the reforms unveiled today work effectively on the ground protecting the environment whilst allowing responsible development to go ahead.”
There’s more work to do in analysing the detail, and we may yet find concerns, but this is a great beginning.
What do you think about the NPPF?
(Posted on behalf of Geoff Welch)
Kazakhstan does 'big' really, really well! In the UK we are not used to the vastness of space that is Kazakhstan. The world's largest landlocked country has almost 15 million hectares of Important Bird Areas (IBAs). If you tried to fit the RSPB's nature reserves, covering 130,000 hectares, into this area you could do this 115 times!
Kazakhstan's IBAs support important populations of 25 threatened species. The country's wetlands provide vital staging grounds of millions (yes, another really big figure) of migrating waterbirds each spring and autumn. The steppes of northern Kazakhstan, one of the least protected habitats in the world, are home to the majority of the world's sociable lapwings (Swarovski Optik are the Species Champion for sociable lapwing, providing vital support for work in Kazakhstan and beyond).
These steppes are also home to a small, but increasing population of Saiga antelope.
Both these species and many more will benefit from improved protection and management that has very recently been afforded to them. Realising the scale and vitalness of this land for wildlife it is therefore surprising that they are and have been in need of better protection. The RSPB was the lead partner in the Central Asian IBA Programme which prepared national inventories in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan and was funded by the UK's Darwin initiative.
Following the publication of the first national inventory of IBAs in Kakakhstan in 2008 the Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan (ACBK, BirdLife Affiliate) has been working with the Committee of Forestry and Hunting of the Ministry of Agriculture to gain official recognition and protection of the globally important sites.
Last month, this hard work yielded results. For the first time, following the publication of revised legislation the term 'Important Bird Area' was included in the Law 'On Specially Protected Nature Areas'. IBAs are now considered as 'objects of nature-reserved fund'. Although such 'objects' are not a direct component of the national Specially Protected Areas (SPA) network, the Government now has an obligation for their protection and control. This official recognition provides a firm foundation to build from in the future - the 'upgrading' of IBAs to SPA status. The next stage is to get all confirmed IBAs (121 at present) included in the list of 'objects' approved by the Government. New lists should be prepared in the near future to take into account the new legislation.
All this should be great news for species such at the Steppe Eagle (see photo below), which should benefit from this improved protected and managment.
Land of the free spirits. 'Kazakh' is derived from the ancient Turkic word meaning 'free spirit'. 'Stan' is a Persian word for land or place. Within the country's huge area, two major migration flyways come into close contact: the West Asian-East African and Central Asian-South Asian flyways. Millions of migrating birds stop at sites in Kazakhstan, either to moult or to rest between stages on their seasonal journey and it is fitting that the country should bear its share of responsibility, for the safety of their populations.