I spent the weekend under the flight path of a conservation success story – the red kite. While warming up for the cricket season in my friend’s Oxfordshire garden, we had, at times five red kites for company. Up close they are absolutely majestic animals.
It turned my mind to Gateshead where the Lib Dems assembled this weekend for their spring conference. The last time I was at a spring party conference in Gateshead was before the election in 2005. Labour were in town that year. We took time out to show a Number 10 official, Nick Rowley, red kites in the Derwent valley. He was a birder and political apparatchik. A useful combination when trying to influence the content of manifestos. Showing him red kites in all their glory may just have helped him feel more favourable towards environmentally friendly policies.
It’s been quite a weekend for the Lib Dems. They seem to have found their voice. About time too, some may cry.
Vince Cable's interview with the Guardian and his conference speech challenged the view that regulation is necessarily bad for economic growth. "I am going to confront the old-fashioned negative thinking which says that all government needs to do to generate growth is cut worker and environmental protections, cut taxes on the rich and stroke 'fat cats' until they purr with pleasure. I'm completely repudiating the idea that government has to get out of the way. Government has a positive role to play."
And then the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, seemed to direct his fire at the Chancellor, George Osborne, for suggesting in that now infamous autumn speech that there was a choice to be made between being green and backing growth.
Mr Clegg said: "What a load of rubbish. Going for growth means going green. The race is on to lead the world in clean energy. The new economic powerhouses – China, India, Brazil – are competing.
"So the choice for the UK is simple: wake up, or end up playing catch-up. Going green is not a luxury for the good times. It is the best road out of the bad times.
"Our party is the green party of government. We have always been a green party. And let me tell you this: we always will be a green party because we need an economy fit for the future to pull us out of this economic downturn."
I am pleased.
For the past ten years, the Liberal Democrats have argued that their was a green thread running through their policies. They have now been part of the coalition government for two years. It is time to match their rhetoric with action. And what better place to start than the Budget in nine days time.
But, despite the more positive noises to come out of Gateshead, and despite my rather obsessive interest in environmental politics, my friend's garden was absolutely the right place to be this weekend.
What did you think of the performance of the Lib Dems this weekend? Can you think of a better UK conservation success story than the red kite?
It would be great to hear your views.
I don't think yesterday was quite the 'Black Wednesday' we feared but the content of the Budget meant that it was still a grey day. Lots about grey infrastructure and very little talk about about green/natural infrastructure which is just as crucial to our lives.
I noted the more moderate tone but I was certainly not dancing a jig of joy in the Lodge garden. I would argue that the Chancellor George Osborne continued the UK along an economic path which locks us into an unsustainable, high carbon and a short termist response to the economic crisis.
His plan for growth clearly involves building more infrastructure: more roads and more runways and even tax breaks for deep sea oil drilling off Shetland (home to internationally important populations of seabirds). I struggle to see how this is compatible with the green economy we have been promised by this Government.
Of course, revitalising our development is necessary if the UK is to remain competitive but this was an opportunity to put us on a different path - one which decouples economic growth from environmental harm and drives us towards a low Carbon economy. I don't think the Chancellor has put us on this path.
There was one memorable barbed soundbite from Mr Osborne. He said that ‘environmentally sustainable has to be financially sustainable’. I've always seen it the other way round - a sustaniable economy has to one that is environmentally sustainable. This is why we need an economic plan for growth which puts the environment at the heart of decision making.
In the opening paragraph of the Government’s own Natural Environment White paper last year we welcomed the Defra view that, ‘a healthy, properly functioning natural environment is the foundation of sustained economic growth, prospering communities and personal well being’.
Professor Dieter Helm, announced as the new chair of the Natural Capital Committee, will have his work cut out. His challenge will be to convince the Treasury that the full value of the environment is taken into account in decision-making. And he won't be able to rely on utilitarian arguments alone. While I am partly convinced that it is possible to price water and carbon, we are doomed if we need to rely on pricing species. Ultimately, how much wildlife we want in this country will be a political decision. And any smart politician will recognise that millions of people want wildlife to be part of their lives.
Yesterday's Budget made me wonder how the many Liberal Democrats and Conservatives who are passionate about the environment are feeling. They share the view that the countryside and our widlife are assets which we should pass on to the next generation in an enhanced state.
But the story is still unfolding.
This morning, the Government will release full details of its review of the Habitats Regulations – the most important system of protection for wildlife rich habitats. On Tuesday next week it will also unveil its long awaited reform of the planning system.
We will only have the full picture when once the dust has settled on these announcements.
Until then it would be great hear your views on the Budget.
My quote of the day is from Neil Bentley, the deputy director general of the CBI. He said in December "Environmental regulation doesn't have to be a burden for business. Framed correctly, environmental goals can help our economic goals - help start new companies and generate new jobs and enrich us all." Hear, hear!
But I also note that 70 business leaders have signed a letter to call on the Government to support Heathrow, promote competition and find a solution to this country’s aviation crisis. Shame they failed to acknowledge the environmental consequences of aviation. It is only when social, environmental and economic are considered that we can ever be truly live up to the sustainable development dream. Let's get all the issues on the table and have the grown-up debate.
On a more positive note, Shadow Transport Secretary Maria Eagle MP was out on the Hoo Peninsula yesterday in Grain to see for herself the issues and hear about the anti-Estuary Airport campaign. RSPB colleagues welcomed the chance to brief her on the risks and dangers a Thames Estuary airport brings.
She was clearly listening. This is what she said...
“I am very clear that the right way to plan for the future our aviation industry is to focus on how best to deliver additional capacity at our existing airports, particularly how we could better utilise existing runways.
“The idea of building a new airport from scratch... is a huge distraction. It is causing unnecessary local concern in Medway and on the Isle of Grain in particular. The overwhelming majority of the industry is clear that, were it to go ahead, it would inevitably lead to the eventual closure of Heathrow with a disastrous impact on the West London economy.
“It was very important to see for myself why those in Medway feel so strongly that a Thames Estuary airport is a complete non-starter. The impact on a natural habitat that is home to thousands of migrating birds would be enormous. Added to the site’s proximity to a major LNG terminal, a sunken wreck laden with high explosives and the London Array wind farm, it is clear to anyone who bothered to visit that there are simply too many issues that would have to be overcome.
“I am repeating again my call to the Transport Secretary to agree to serious cross-party talks on the future of Britain’s aviation industry. Those talks should focus on how to provide additional capacity at Britain’s existing airports in a way that best protects the local environment and reduces the industry’s contribution to climate change through tougher targets to cut emissions.”
These seem like decent terms for a grown up debate.
Do you agree?
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.
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?