If you have the memory of an elephant, you might recall that last summer I had an enjoyable day at Rainham with a local school and their local MP, John Cruddas. This was part of our festival of field teaching and it helped reinforce the importance of people – young and old – getting out and enjoying wildlife in their every day lives. And, of course, this goes hand in hand with the need to protect and create places full of wildlife for people to enjoy - which has been the focus for our campaign battles over the past few weeks.
At the heart of the RSPB’s work is the desire to connect more children to nature as part of their every day lives – or, more rightly, preventing them from becoming disconnected from it – and inspiring them to become the environmental leaders of tomorrow. As a Dad, I do my bit, but the learner plates still flash on my back.
Our ‘Every Child Outdoors’ report in 2010 brought together evidence of the benefits to children of having contact with nature. This research was from schools inspectorates – like Ofsted – and leading academics. It not only showed that contact with nature helps children with their education, but it also highlighted the mental and physical health benefits, and the development of social skills.
I have always been convinced that schools must play some sort of role in all this (particulary as some parents are not around as much as they should be). At the very least, schools can provide a safety net to ensure the most under-privileged children can experience and learn about the natural world.
It is hugely encouraging that the Government’s own expert panel on the National Curriculum Review (in England) recently suggested that it “considers a recommendation that the school curriculum should also contribute to environmental ‘stewardship’” (alongside economic, social, cultural and personal purposes). We agree. And we'll being doing what we can to promote this over the coming months.
We also warmly welcomed the reduction in the health and safety bureaucracy required for teachers to actually get children out of the classroom, and the support given to this from the HSE last summer. Along with investments by organisations like ourselves into the ‘kite mark’ Quality Badge for Learning Outside the Classroom, it really is much easier for schools to teach outdoors than just a few years ago.
But it’s not just about schools, nor putting more expectation on them and their staff. For starters, we know that it is also critical for children to have nature near to their home if they are really going to connect and value it, and for their families and communities to encourage that.
This approach has been reinforced today with a welcome new report from the National Trust – ‘Natural Childhood' – written by naturalist, author and TV producer Stephen Moss. It again highlights the very real threat of nature-deficit disorder amongst young people, and asks what can be done to tackle the problem. To try to answer that question, there is also a two month inquiry online asking what people think the solutions are to the ‘extinction of experience’ we are faced with.
We will be contributing the RSPB’s insights and experience to this inquiry. But this is rightly a challenge for all of us, so please take a look and share your thoughts too.
Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
It was a real pleasure to walk in to our Land Use Planning team's office yesterday to see obvious joy and satisfaction at a job well done. The more they looked at the detail, the more they recognised the contribution that their own advocacy had made. We shall be publishing more of our analysis tomorrow. It is perhaps one of the most pleasing things for an advocate to see their own text in a published government document. This is often hidden, hard graft that rarely hits the headlines, but it is something for which we can be proud.
And, here's a mini toast to Greg Clark, the Planning Minister, referred by an unnamed Conservative MP (in the Times by Alice Thompson yesterday) as the "Clarke Kent of politics" for his looks and for his ability to have achieved the impossible for satisfying all sides in resolving the planning dispute.
It's been quite a hectic fortnight, so it is not surprising that a few things went by without reference in this blog.
Here are a few bits and bobs that some of you may have missed:
1. Wildlife friendly farmers descend on Brussels
Colleagues travelled with a trusted band of wildlife friendly farmers to meet their MEPs so they could champion the role of the CAP in rewarding farmers to protect and improve the natural environment. Our common agenda was to secure more support from agri-environment schemes but also through much needed but currently absent support for High Nature Value farming systems. As you can see from the blog post here, each of the farmers was impressive and we hope that by enabling them to tell their story about how funding for the environment is not just great for wildlife but for farmers and wider society too, we have made some positive steps towards convincing the European Parliament that this funding should be increased (and at the very least, not subjected to further cuts).
2. Welsh government shelves plans for a badger cull
Last week, the Welsh Government announced that the Welsh badger cull was being scrapped and replaced with a vaccination programme. This was announced by John Griffiths, the Wales Environment Minister, after consideration of a review of the science that he instigated last summer. He deserves credit for sticking with the science and finding the money for vaccination. The review has yet to be published but I imagine it will have highlighted the risk that culling could have made the TB situation worse by stirring up the badger population, whereas badger vaccination does not bring such a risk. I know that the proposed cull had divided the community in Pembrokeshire and I hope that everyone can now get behind badger vaccination and help bring TB down in this area. I am sure that in the long term this will be a win for farmers and a win for badgers too.
3. Elgin gas leak
Days after the Chancellor announced the go-ahead for a deep-sea oil well off Shetland, there has been a gas leak off the Elgin platform. You can read more about our reaction here. My colleagues in Scotland have said, "The situation on the Elgin platform poses a significant potential risk to the environment, particularly if there was to be a considerable leak of oil, either directly or as a result of a further problem (such as an explosion – this is suggested as a possibility by the RMT spokesperson). This area of the north sea is known to be used by large populations of auks at this time of year, including puffins, razorbills and guillemots. Reports of a sheen being seen on the surface of the water have now been confirmed and are a particular cause for concern. It needs to be established, as a matter of urgency, exactly what is causing that sheen. We await further news on this as we understand that a spotter plane has been sent out to examine the site further. We will be monitoring events closely."
As ever, it would be great to hear you views any of these issues.
Last October, I suggested in a radio interview that the draft National Planning Policy Framework should be put in a park bin. It was a rather cheeky reference to Oliver Letwin's error of judgement in disposing of constituency correspondence in a similar fashion. There was real anxiety that the original draft would undermine the UK Government's own ambitions to pass on the environment to the next generation in a better state.
The environment sector was united in their condemnation of the proposals and a public campaign (with the support of the Daily Telegraph) kept the issue alive politically for months.
But yesterday we had reason to celebrate.
To the surprise of many, in publishing the final National Planning Policy Framework, the Planning Minister, Greg Clark, graciously accepted many of the recommendations made by environmental groups and the Communities and Local Government Select Committee. While we are still ploughing through the detail, we believe that the NPPF as published yesterday has addressed most of the RSPB's concerns including our top three red lines.
1. The Government has adopted the definition of sustainable development as described in the 2005 Sustainable Development Strategy. Crucially, this incorproates the prinicple of living within environmental limits.
2. The incendiary phrase "the default answer to development is yes" has been removed. This essentially means that economic interests will not be given priority in the planning system. It also means that many of the positive elements of the guidance regarding nature conservation are no longer undermined. This includes the headline statement "the planning system should contribute to protecting the natural environment by... minimising impacts on biodiversity and providing net gains in biodiversity where possible, contributing to the Government’s commitment to halt the overall decline in biodiversity, including by establishing coherent ecological networks that are more resilient to current and future pressures".
3. We believe (although our lawyers are doublechecking the text for us) that the protection afforded to Sites of Special Scientific Interest has been upheld. In the original draft our lawyers had concluded that protection of SSSIs had been undermined by essentially turning the precautionary principle on its head. The old system essentially advised local authorities to reject development that damages SSSIs unless the benefits of the development outweigh the negative impacts. Under the draft NPPF, local authorities would have been obliged to consent development "unless the adverse impacts of allowing the development would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits". We are delighted that the Minister listened to our concerns. The final document now says "when determining planning applications, local planning authorities should aim to conserve and enhance biodiversity by applying the following principles: proposed development on land within or outside a Site of Special Scientific Interest likely to have an adverse effect on a Site of Special Scientific Interest (either individually or in combination with other developments) should not normally be permitted. Where an adverse effect on the site’s notified special interest features is likely, an exception should only be made where the benefits of the development, at this site, clearly outweigh both the impacts that it is likely to have on the features of the site that make it of special scientific interest and any broader impacts on the national network of Sites of Special Scientific Interest."
So, the sun is still shining and the NPPF has been radically redrafted which means I can remain cheerful for the rest of the week.
One last thing - while I it is sobering to think how hard that many of us have had to fight to maintain existing protection to wildlife (through the red tape challenge, review of habitats regulations and now the NPPF), it is now clear to any minister that the public is not going to take lightly any proposal which potentially undermines the natural environment.
Are you reassured by the final National Planning Policy Framework? What lessons do you think the Government will now have learnt?
It would be great to hear your views.
It's another big day. The future of the landuse planning system in England is to unveiled at 12.30pm this afternoon.
The draft National Planning Policy Framework created a furore last summer because it gave priority to economic development over social and environmental concerns. The National Trust, CPRE, ourselves and many other environmental organisations kicked up a fuss. We shall find out today whether the Government has listened to our concerns.
If you remember, we sought to constructively engage with the review and Simon Marsh, our excellent Head of Planning Policy, even contributed, in good faith, to an early draft.
We were all for simplifying planning guidance and speeding up the system. Yet, the great clunking fist of the economic growth imperative changed the empahsis of the draft Frameowrk completely. So much so that our own legal analysis suggested that SSSI protection would be weakened under these proposals. See here, here and here.
Following the furore last autumn thousands of campaigners wrote in to make their feelings heard - in the words of the Daily Telegraph campaign, they urged politicians to keep their "hands of our land".
So, we and many others will be listening carefully when the Minister stands up to address the House of Commons today. We'll be paying particular attention to three key areas.
1. The definition of sustainable development.The existing draft is based on the Brundtland definition. We (and 20 other organisations) support the version proposed by the CLG Selectg committee, which is based on the five guiding principles of the 2005 UK Sustainable Development Strategy. This set the twin goals of a healthy just society which lives within environmental limits through good governance, sound science and a sustainable economy. The question today is - does the NPPF do this, and (critically) does it refer to the need to live within environmental limits?
2. The presumption in favour of sustainable developmentWe understand this will remain in the NPPF. But is it reframed in a way that does not promote one aspect of sustainability over others? The ‘significant and demonstrable harm’ test is a particular problem for SSSIs – how has this been reworded? Has the phrase, “the default answer to development is ‘yes’ been removed?
3. Proper protection for the natural environmentThe presumption, and the natural environment policies, must not weaken existing protection. Our legal advice showed us the draft didn’t do this for SSSIs, despite Government reassurances. We will be looking critically at this: is the presumption reworded (above) and is there new explicit policy for SSSIs?
We'll be scoring the final document against these key tests.
Do keep an eye out for our initial analysis on our Saving Special Places blog.
I began last week a little nervous of the fate of key environmental legislation. But I ended the week with a smile on my face - the Environment Secretary had confirmed the Government's commitment to the EU Birds and Habitats Directive. There was no guarantee that the Habitats Regulations (which transfer the EU Directives into English law) would come out unscathed - it has been reported to us on a number of occasions that the Birds Directive is seen as the most hated piece of legislation in Whitehall. I always take this with a pinch of salt, but it is clear that emotions run high when wildlife protection laws are discussed.
Even with the publication of the National Planning Policy Framework due tomorrow, I am determined to remain upbeat this week. There were more positive noises in the media over the weekend and I know that we are able deal with whatever comes our way.
So, with much respect to Ian Dury and the Blockheads, here are three other reasons to be cheeful...
Part 1 - Spring has arrived. The chiffchaffs are back, nests are being eagerly constructed, the woodland flowers are bursting into life and the butterflies have taken to the wing. Nothing brings optimism and hope better than a Brimstone butterfly.
Part 2 - Knowing when to stop. At the end of my management team's meeting on Friday, we took a little time out to find a pair of Black Redstarts that had turned up on the Lodge nature reserve. The day that we stop taking time to notice nature is the day that we might as well give up and go home.
Part 3 - More land for more heathland wildlife. On Friday I received, on behalf of the RSPB, a lease for phase two of a major habitat restoration programme at Sandy Heath - land opposite the Lodge. The lease was handed over by Tim Deal from Lafarge (the aggregates company). This is another example of how we are working with the aggregates industry to turn quarries into nature reserves. Our ambition is to create new heathland for species including Woodlark, Nightjar, Dartford Warbler as well as many rare plants and invertebrates such as the Spider-eating Wasp. It complements the major restoration programme that we are doing at the Lodge and is part of our ambition to try to provide stepping stone habitat for heathland specialists likely to need to move north due to climate change. Perhaps the Chancellor would like to come up to Sandy Heath to see that it is possible for development and environmental protection to work together. I make absolutely no comment at all about our failure to secure a meeting with the Chancellor or indeed the Prime Minister since the election.
Whatever you are doing this week, make sure you take a little time out to enjoy the weather and the onset of Spring. I promise that it will cheer you up.
Sandy Heath - view of restored phase 1 area (Andy Hay rspb-images.com)