I have now been the RSPB's Conservation Director for three months. It really is a fantastic job - I feel so lucky to be able to work with such talented and committed people and to have a window onto the breadth of the organisation's work.
But, to be honest, I could do with a bit of a break. So, I am off for a long weekend to our family hut in Northumberland and will soon be travelling to France for a fortnight's holiday.
So, to give you advance warning, I may blog a little less frequently during August. I am not expecting the world to stand still - and I will pop back for the odd posting - but it is time to recharge the batteries before the fun and games begin again in September.
Before I head north, it is worth recapping on what we have managed to achieve over the past three months.
We have successfully launched our Stepping Up for Nature campaign following the elections in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
We have (literally) set sail to save the Henderson petrel from extinction.
We have influenced (with mixed success) a raft of policy announcements including the UK National Ecosystems Assessment, the Natural Environment White Paper and the National Planning Policy Framework.
We have had our first major fight with the European Commission over their proposals for reform of the Common Agriculture Policy as part of the the EU Budget.
The past 3 months have been busy, but tremendously rewarding. I've learned a lot - and I'm still learning!
Yesterday, the BTO, JNCC and RSPB published the latest Breeding Bird Survey results. This updates trends in the UK's widespread breeding birds up to 2010. At a time when we are being encouraged to think differently about how people can help the State deliver public services, it is worth remembering that the BBS would not happen without volunteers. Last year, 2,519 volunteers helped to collect the data to inform the report. They would each have invested about six hours of fieldwork. They will have made two early-morning visits to their randomly selected 1-km square during the April-June survey period and will have recorded all birds encountered while walking two 1-km transects across their square. Together, these volunteers managed to record data from 3,239 1-km squares. A fantastic achievement.
Our view is that this form of monitoring is essential to identify current conservation problems, allowing us to decide among competing priorities for deployment of limited resources. By providing information on the trends of individual species biodiversity monitoring tells us which species we need to worry about. It also provides information to help us assess whether we are living sustainably by keeping an eye on how the other species on which we share this planet are faring.
And the BBS is one of the most powerful surveys we have. By using birds as an indicator of wider biodiversity, it provides a snapshot of the health of the natural environment. And, because this is the sixteenth year that the BBS has been running, the survey is able to detect trends in populations to help assess effectiveness of conservation policy and practice.
Here are the headlines from this year's results:
It's too easy to take this information for granted. But just imagine if we didn't have this system. We would have no meaningful way to understand the health of the natural world and no means of working out which species were in trouble to enable us to allocate finite conservation resources. So the 2,519 people who annually give up six hours of their time every spring to collect information about birds are doing us all a huge favour. They are the genuine heros that make up our big birding society.
The debate about the relative merits of the new National Planning Policy Framework has started. As discussed on yesterday's Today programme, it seems that those who do not embrace the reforms will be painted as anti-growth and therefore somehow out of touch - not accepting the reality of the need for economic recovery.
But that is too simplistic and misses the point. As my colleague, Simon Marsh, points out in his blog, unless economic growth is sustainable, we will be storing up problems for our children. The reality is that the NPPF has gone too far by clearly places one ‘pillar’ of sustainability – economic growth – higher than the others as an objective for the planning system. This inconsistency is carried through the entire draft, and is a departure from the current approach of the planning system which seeks to give equal weight to environmental, social and economic needs in decision-making.
This is such a fundamental shift in emphasis, that we will be rolling up our sleeves to fight this.
If you are equally concerned about the direction of travel, then you can help by joining our campaign here.
England is currently undergoing the most radical overhaul of its planning system in a generation, and today marks an important stage in this process.
Today the UK Government launched its own draft of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) – an important document that will provide the national context for local planning decisions. It is slimmed down guidance, replacing over a thousand existing pages of national planning policy with around fifty.
All that might ring a few bells if you’ve been trying to follow the UK Government’s planning reforms. For just two short months ago, a small group of expert practitioners, tasked by ministers at the department for Communities and Local Government (CLG), with my colleague Simon Marsh amongst them, published their draft of the NPPF.
The critical difference is that today’s publication is the Government’s own draft. Whilst this bears more than a passing resemblance to that produced by the practitioners’ group, there have been a number of significant changes.
Before I get ahead of myself and into the devil of the detail, today’s launch provides a moment to take stock of where we are. Consolidating national policy is enough of a challenge to get right, but today’s draft NPPF offers two other important milestones for the English planning system.
Firstly, it formally marks the government’s desired shift in the emphasis on planning decisions, placing one factor – economic growth – higher than others in decision-making. Of course, the draft NPPF isn’t the first indication of this trend – let us not forget clause 124 of the Localism Bill which I blogged about here.
It is understandable why some are clamering for economic growth, but we must have the right checks and balances in place to ensure this does not come at the expense of nature. It is already clear that the draft NPPF fails to put in place the measures necessary to ensure that the purpose of planning really is ‘to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development’. It is therefore unfit for its own, self-defined, purpose.
Secondly, it also marks a lost opportunity to use the NPPF to support the Government's ambitions to restore the natural environment as outlined in the Natural Environment White Paper. The RSPB has long argued that the NPPF should be ‘spatial’ – to help decide how to maximise the value that our natural resources offers us. This would help us guide development to the most appropriate locations, thus avoiding conflict, as well as identifying areas which would be suitable for restoring wildlife to England.
We will be pouring over the draft in some detail over the next few days, and I may come back to this subject over the next few days.
For now, despite the strong, and welcome, references to restoring the natural environment in Greg Clark’s foreword, the draft NPPF is effectively green-wash. During the consultattion phase, the balance of truly sustainable development - which helps us to live within environmental limits - needs to be restored.
I enjoyed returning to the Game Fair at Blenheim Palace for the first time in six years. It has its own distinctive character - part summer garden party, part country fair and part serious conference. The RSPB always has a stand and it was a good opportunity to catch up with friends and, for me, to meet new people who work closely with the RSPB.
I shared a panel debate on the Natural Environment White Paper with the Biodiversity Minister, Richard Benyon, and he also spoke at our reception on Friday afternoon. While it cannot be much fun being a minister when there is little money to go around, he already has the Natural Environment White Paper under his belt and is currently preparing the Water White Paper this autumn. His knowledge and passion for the brief is clear and it was reassuring to hear him restate his commitment to the cause by saying "we focus on biodiversity and how to reverse its decline as an absolute priority".
Around the Game Fair, badgers and buzzards were of course topics of conversation, but perhaps the subject which dominated was the fate of the rural development programme and agri-environment schemes. The EU Budget announcement earlier this summer has created a lot of uncertainty and anxiety about whether reforms to the Common Agriculture Policy will provide more (hopefully) or significantly less (a distinct possibility) funds to support wildlife friendly farming. It was good to meet a number of farmers who we work with and who share our concerns. It is clear that together we will have to fight to keep these funds.
A few people mentioned my appearance on the BBC News Channel and, while it makes me squirm a bit, you can still view it on BBC’s iPlayer here. Our reserve at Bempton Cliffs in Yorkshire comes across rather well...
And if you aren’t sick of the sight of me – or at least the sound of my voice – after that then you may want to have a listen to Radio 4’s You and Yours from earlier in the week. In my best Robert Peston voice I spoke about the benefits of woodland management and our concerns over the environmental impact of imported woodfuel.
Also in the new last week, the Telegraph ran a controversial piece on their website about the role of gamekeepers in conservation, ahead of the Game Fair . Although we may not agree with everything that is said in the article, they were gracious in giving us the opportunity to have our say. “It is fantastic the shooting community recognise the contribution they can make to conservation, however there are issues,” said our spokesperson. “We would question the relative absence of birds of prey across upland moors managed by gamekeepers, overgrazing by deer on stalking estates and the poor state of some sites of special scientific interest (SSSIs)."
Game Fair was also a great platform for us to announce the finalists of our annual Nature of Farming Award. The shortlist was trailed in the Telegraph and has been getting a lot of interest in the local media up and down the country. Don’t forget to vote! - www.rspb.org.uk/farmvote.