Martin Harper's blog

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Martin Harper's blog

I’ve been the RSPB’s Conservation Director since May 2011. As I settle into the job, I’ll be blogging on all the big conservation topics and providing an inside view of our conservation projects. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel inspired to join in t
  • Where to invest and where to make cuts: a spotlight on Northern Ireland

    Either side of the 2010 election, over 350,000 people signed our Letter to the Future (here).  This called on politicians to consider the health of the planet when making big decisions about where to make cuts and where to invest.  At the time, few anticipated the scale of the cuts in public spending that would follow and, while efficiency savings have been found, this has inevitably thwarted political ambitions to protect and enhance the natural environment.

    The impact of these cuts has been compounded by a reluctance to make full use of funding that had been made available.  This time last year, the UK Government and devolved administrations made decisions about how much money they'd commit to wildlife friendly farming from the CAP settlement.  The Welsh Government was the only one to deliver the maximum available according to EU rules while other governments caved in to lobbying pressure by the farming unions.  In Northern Ireland, politics completely scuppered a deal by Christmas and  it was a number of months before things settled down and a budget was made available (here).

    One year on, it seems my colleagues in Northern Ireland are once again in the firing line - the environment budget is about to be hit very hard (11.1%) as part of the Northern Ireland Executive's  proposed spending plants for 2015-16.  This will inevitably affect core environmental programmes including those run by NGOs.  And, this may change the nature of civil society in Northern Ireland as infrastructure for volunteer engagement is eroded.

    I sympathise with the NI Department of Environment - the cuts are being imposed.  But, I think the people of Northern Ireland deserve a bigger say in the decisions that are about to made. 

    The department is running a consultation in December (usually the most hectic time of year) but it is difficult to square their proposals in the draft budget which has been “predicated on a carry forward of the five key PfG  [Programme for Government] priorities” which include, amongst other things: growing a sustainable economy, tackling disadvantage and improving health and well-being, protecting the environment, and building strong communities.

    These priorities make it clear that a healthy natural environment is key to meeting the objectives of the Northern Ireland Executive. As highlighted by the UK National Ecosystem Assessment (UK NEA, 2011), “Northern Ireland’s habitats and biodiversity deliver a suite of ecosystem services and contribute significantly to the quality of life and well-being of the population”.

    This ground-breaking review of the evidence made it clear that “recognising the importance of the environment for human health and well-being ….is vital if Northern Ireland is to make strategic decisions which ensure continued and enhanced delivery of services from our countryside” .

    Although it is difficult to accurately quantify many of the benefits provided by a healthy natural environment in simple economic terms, studies of protected sites in England and Wales have shown that as well as playing a vital role in the conservation of threatened species, the benefits of investing in the protection of such sites outweigh the costs to the public purse by a ratio of almost 9:1!

    However, it is not immediately obvious that this  evidence been adequately taken into consideration by the draft budget proposals. Despite the stated focus on carrying forward the key priorities outlined in the Northern Ireland Programme for Government, the draft budget ignores the need for a more long-term view of the consequences for human health, well-being, and prosperity which would flow from reduced investment in the protection and enhancement of the natural environment.

    Our team has highlighted the jeopardy for nature and options for raising alternative funds here.

    We know what the outcome is likely to be if these cuts go ahead; in England, Defra has also faced disproportionately large cuts relative to many other departments (approximately double the average depending on how it is measured) at the same time as progress on improving the state of nature has largely stalled or gone into reverse (see the recent publication of England’s biodiversity indicators here).

    It is clear that we need a new approach to funding the environment, one that recognises that protecting nature is not simply something that we can only afford to do in the good times but rather is something that we must always prioritise due to its key role in underpinning key services.  The message in Letter to the Future is the same today as in 2010: it pays to invest in nature.

    And if the rational view doesn't work, then we need to find novel ways of demonstrating the public support for nature - and that is where our friend Bob comes in.  Bob's supporters are urging their MPs that they want a better deal for nature.  I was pleased to see that 41 MPs from across the political spectrum were keen to talk about nature and have their photograph taken with Bob this week.  In total, 77 MPs are now supporting Bob.  You should too - we need to make it desirable for politicians to make big commitments for nature.

    And if you care about what is happening in Northern Ireland, please also respond to the consultation details of which are shown here.

  • Communities, unsustainable development and nature - some lessons from politicians

    In the run up to Christmas, we can expect quite a few announcements and reports published.  Today, MPs on the Communities and Local Government Select Committee released their report on the Operation of the National Planning Policy Framework.

    It’s a good report, which makes some positive recommendations to strengthen the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF).  Many of you will remember that the NPPF had a very difficult birth (see here for example) but has now been in operation for two and a half years, and the Committee took evidence from a wide range of people – from developers to local communities and groups such as the RSPB – before reaching its conclusions.

    MPs heard a lot from local people concerned about speculative housing development on their doorstep, and concluded that “Communities need greater protection against unsustainable development”. They recommend a number of steps to make sure that the planning system delivers the what was promised in the NPPF, ensuring that the same weight is given to the environmental and social as to the economic dimension; that permission is only given to development if accompanied by the infrastructure necessary to support it; and that the planning system places due emphasis on the natural environment.

    This sounds like sensible stuff and it's refreshing to see a select committee standing up for sustainable development and the natural environment.

    It’s particularly pertinent in the case of Lodge Hill, where a housing development threatens to destroy much of a Site of Special Scientific Interest.  It's pretty clear that allowing development there would seriously undermine the NPPF’s protection of the natural environment. We are still waiting to hear if the minister will call-in the application for a public inquiry. We don’t believe that Medway Council has applied the NPPF and we hope that DCLG’s recent letter to Medway Council to request their views will help explain how they came to their decision despite objections from Natural England and RSPB among others. My only feeling is that rather than a challenge to the NPPF, calling in Lodge Hill would an opportunity to respect and uphold this important policy.

    Although much of the Committee’s report focuses on housing, it’s worth quoting paragraph 26 on biodiversity and the natural environment in full. The text in bold is the Committee’s recommendation:

    “The NPPF includes a section focused on conserving and enhancing the natural environment, which sets out how the planning system should “contribute to and enhance the natural and local environment” .This was another area on which questions were raised that the policy in the NPPF was not being met in practice. Simon Marsh, Head of Planning Policy at the RSPB, told us that the policies within the NPPF were “actually very positive towards the environment”. He expressed concern, however, that the policies were not necessarily being applied by all local authorities in their local plans. The RSPB had conducted an analysis of a small sample of local plans and had found that overall they did “not set out coherent, strategic and spatial visions for biodiversity”. Mr Marsh considered that a number of councils were “missing that opportunity to set out a more positive vision of what they might be doing for the environment in their area”. The RSPB suggested that a lack of ecological expertise within local authorities might be part of the problem.

     

    The NPPF provisions on the natural environment have an important role to play in ensuring sustainable development is delivered. Local authorities are missing an opportunity if they do not set out a clear vision for the biodiversity of their area. Moreover, if they do not set out clear policies in respect of the environmental aspects of sustainable development, it may be harder to resist the economic aspects taking a more dominant role. We strongly encourage all local authorities to make the natural environment an important theme in their local plans. To do so, smaller authorities may need to tap into ecological skills available elsewhere, be it in other local authorities or the Planning Advisory Service.

     

    We have, through Simon's team, fact just commissioned some further research to build on that small sample of local plans, and I hope we will be able to share the results next spring.  We need good evidence based on practical experience to check whether the NPPF continues to operate well.  Of course, in an ideal world, this would be a routine part of government business as this would enable policy to be adapted based on evidence.

     

    So, a good report, well delivered by the MPs and I hope that ministers now act on it.

     

    Sinclair Meadows - a carbon negative community - image courtesy of Four Housing.

  • Recipe for success: the story of the Bittern's recovery

    The recovery of the Bittern from 11 booming males in 1997 to 140 today did not happen by magic.  It's a great conservation story that some people now take for granted.  But, before I did my interview with the Today programme this morning (which I assume will appear here at some stage), I reflected on what has made the conservation story so successful.

    1. The law: unfashionable as it may be to say it, when the Bittern was listed on Annex 1 of the EU Birds Directive (which like its sister directive for Habitats and Species is now under threat - see here) 35 years ago, the UK was given an obligation to provide special conservation measures to help achieve so called favourable conservation status.   This helped to secure...

    2. Political commitment: successive governments have made commitments to protect the Bittern.  In particular, the UK Biodiversity Action Plan which was launched 20 years ago by the Conservative Environment Secretary, John Gummer, included species targets for threatened species like the Bittern.  This helped to galvanise the conservation community and government agencies to work together to restore wildlife.

    3. Funding: Two 5-year EU Life projects helped to provide much needed impetus first by getting to grips with the ecological needs of the species and then to help provide new reedbed habitat.  Today 1,500 hectares of new reedbed habitat have been created which is not only good for Bittern, but a host of other reedbed species from Water Vole and Great White Egret to rare invertebrates such as the Small Dotted Footman moth.

    4. A Plan: concern about climate change and the loss of coastal wetlands, encouraged us to find available areas safe from sea level rise.  The strongholds for the species on the East Anglian coast needed to be complemented by new sites.  This provided the impetus to convert carrot fields (eg Lakenheath) and peat extraction sites (Ham Wall) into reedbed and within about ten years, habitat suitable for nesting Bittern.

    5. Willing partners: big country-wide conservation projects rely on good collaboration between a huge range of organisations and the success of the Bittern is no exception. The National Trust, the Wildlife Trusts and Natural England have been core partners and it is great to celebrate this species success story together.

    6. Expertise, dedication and hard work: any conservation project requires good science to work out why a species is in trouble and what to do about it.  You then need vision and expertise to then create new sites before the skill of management from staff and volunteers kicks in.  Hundreds of peoples will inevitably have contributed to the success of the species.

    7. Inspiration: the work continues and we need to inspire others to do more. We are doing this by showing off our success at our sites, through the media but also through producing reports such as "Bringing Reedbeds to Life" (see here) which draws on the experience gathered over the past twenty years to help others create and manage reedbeds.

    I have probably missed out a few key important elements, but it gives you a flavour of what's needed.  More importantly, it gives hope that we can recover threatened species provided, of course, we protect the laws that protect our nature...