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
  • Energy revolution in harmony with nature?

    All of you that have been showing the love this month (here) will know that 2015 is an important year for the future of our climate. During the final throes of the year, world governments meeting in Paris for international climate negotiations have important decisions to deliver a fair, ambitious and binding climate change deal that ensures we, collectively, keep global temperature within safe limits. Of course, we can’t leave the future of the planet to all those pre-Christmas discussions and there are commitments which must be honoured now - especially to ensure we keep on track to meet our renewable energy targets and to continue the move towards low carbon economy.

    Yesterday's announcement (here) about which renewable energy schemes have been awarded Government backing is an important contribution to reducing carbon emissions. But do these schemes help to maximise the potential contribution, and are the schemes in the right places? Well, no, and... no.

    Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)

    Although the winning schemes will help lower greenhouse gas emissions, we regard the decision-making process that has been used to get us here as fundamentally flawed. The ideal scenario would be a system which maximises the potential of renewable energy with the least damaging environmental footprint. In reality, the current funding system squeezes a limited number of projects into a shrinking pot without sufficient environmental safeguards and without properly assessing the cumulative impacts on our natural environment.

    Two of the schemes are offshore wind energy projects. EA One is off the coast of East Anglia; and Neart na Goaithe is off the Scottish coast.

    Ironically, UK seabirds are among the species most heavily impacted by climate change so far, but offshore windfarms have to be individually and cumulatively assessed for any risks they may pose directly to those same seabirds.

    Kittiwake (Grahame Madge rspb-images.com)

    The RSPB has ongoing concerns about the Neart na Goaithe scheme and we are part way through a judicial review (here), so it’s inappropriate to comment too much here.

    We are increasingly concerned about the combination of pressures on North Sea bird life at present, and in particular impacts on the gannets and kittiwakes of Flamborough Head and Bempton Cliffs Special Protection Area and Sites of Special Scientific Interest due to the combined collision risk resulting from a number of wind farms (both consented and proposed) in this area. As well as EA One, these include the recently consented Dogger Bank Creyke Beck A&B wind farm, the Dogger Bank Teesside A&B Offshore wind farm whose examination has just concluded, and in particular, the recently consented Hornsea One offshore wind farm which is the closest to the Flamborough Head and Bempton Cliff seabird colonies.

    The EA One offshore wind farm on its own would provide a large amount of power for a relatively small level of ecological impact.  However, during the examination of EA One, the RSPB put across its concerns about the combined impacts of this scheme with those other North Sea offshore wind farms on the amazing seabird colonies at Flamborough Head and Bempton Cliffs as these birds can forage for food as far as the East Anglian coast.

    With more North Sea offshore windfarm schemes in the pipeline, the RSPB considers it is vital that whoever forms the next UK Government revisits how it allocates what has become a limited funding pot.  It needs to ensure that the UK maximises its potential for offshore wind energy in ways that don’t harm the environment rather than being focused on cost alone. This will help ensure the highest renewable energy capacity is delivered with the lowest possible impact.

    We need to tackle climate change but we must also halt the decline of seabirds. Politicians must acknowledge and address both these concerns.  So, yes, let's invest in renewable energy including offshore windfarms, but let's also do more to ensure that these developments are sited with the utmost care to avoid further impacts on vulnerable populations of seabirds.

  • The laws of nature (2): Sir John Randall's speech on his Nature and Wellbeing Bill

    Thanks to the extraordinary House of Commons Hansard service, here is the speech that Sir John Randall MP made yesterday on his 10 minute rule motion regarding a Nature and Wellbeing Bill.  It sets the standard for political speeches on nature and is well worth a read.

    Sir John Randall (Uxbridge and South Ruislip) (Con): I beg to move,

    That leave be given to bring in a Bill to set biodiversity and other targets for 2040; to establish a Natural Capital Committee; to require local authorities to maintain local ecological network strategies; to identify species threatened with extinction; to make provision for access to high quality natural green space; and to include education about the natural environment in the curriculum for maintained schools.

    The idea of our green and pleasant land is more a part of the Great British identity than of any other country I know—more than the rainforests of Borneo or the rolling savannah of the Serengeti. In recognition of the importance of our environment, the House has pioneered laws that have changed the world by protecting nature. Even as the bombs of the second world war were falling, MPs from all parties were debating how recovery would depend on protecting and restoring our natural landscapes. Looking back in Hansard, I found that hon. Members were urging the Government, especially in view of the new national health crusade, to take action on

    “the countryside and its amenities, including the reservation of areas of natural interest against disorderly development and spoliation and the improvement of their accessibility to the public.”—[Official Report, 9 December 1936; Vol. 318, c. 2132.]

    Even a century ago, people knew that our countryside was vital to people’s health and well-being.

    With cross-party support, visionary MPs introduced the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 to protect our national parks and areas of outstanding beauty. Since then, the House has legislated to protect thousands of species, in the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, and to provide countryside access for everyone, in the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, and it was the first in the world to create binding national targets to tackle climate change. I congratulate the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition for reaffirming those vital commitments last week. That announcement was reported and commended around the world.

    Today, I am proposing a nature and well-being Bill to take us further. We are the generation of David Attenborough and “Springwatch”. We are also the Danny Boyle generation—probably the only people in the world to understand why the Olympic opening ceremony started off with a flock of sheep and some farmyard geese. We all understand that nature is a part of our lives and a part of our identity, but we are also the generation that could preside over a terrible loss. We know that 60% of our native species are in long-term decline and that more and more of our countryside and wildlife are disappearing. Unless we do something about it, many of the next generation will never see a house sparrow in London, hear the song of the turtle dove or cuckoo, or smile at a hedgehog snuffling along their garden path.

    Ultimately, nature’s loss is our loss too. No Government can meet their social and economic objectives at the expense of nature, and it is impossible to create a sustainable economy while we continue to take more from our natural world than we put back. Perhaps the most obvious example is our fisheries. Restoring our fish stocks to the levels of 50 years ago could bring in £1.4 billion a year and revitalise our seaside economy—one has only to ask the fishermen whose lines come up empty because the sea has been trawled to ruin. Or think of the bees. The Environment Secretary has rightly recognised the importance of nature’s pollinators to our farming sector—the biggest manufacturing sector in Britain—and I understand that she even has bees on the roof of DEFRA.

    Neither will we ever have a truly fair society with a decent standard of living while environmental inequality remains, because it is the poorest and most vulnerable people who live along the most polluted streets, with no access to green space. It is a travesty that people still die years earlier in some places than in others because the air they breathe is dirtier and they have no safe green places to walk in or exercise. Natural England has estimated that we could save £2.1 billion for the NHS every year if everyone had decent access to nature.

    We all want nature because, frankly, it is brilliant, but we also need it for our livelihoods. The first thing to do is to admit there is a problem and then make a commitment to change. I know that targets might not be in vogue in this House—there are people who do not always agree with them—but people outside this place understand what they mean, and I want to tell people that we will be the first generation ever to turn around nature’s decline. I want us to make that promise and to set targets for wildlife sites and species, with regular reporting to Parliament. In the next 25 years, we should ensure that British biodiversity is richer than today, measured by an index of wildlife. We should make sure that our most precious landscapes—places such as the north Norfolk coast, which I was lucky enough to visit last week—are in better condition than today.

    We all know, however, that targets are pointless unless they help to change the way we behave, which is why I am also proposing new ways to put nature at the heart of decision making.

    The present Government created the Natural Capital Committee, and the last Government conducted the national ecosystem assessment. That amazing work has begun to show how crucial our natural world is for our businesses and communities, but we routinely ignore our need for nature in the way in which we make decisions. I want to do what the Environmental Audit Committee recommended and set the Natural Capital Committee on a legislative footing, giving it new independence and new powers to report on progress. Its duty will be to ensure that when we make new law, the importance of nature is taken into account.

    However, it is not enough to create new-fangled accounting mechanisms without changing what is actually happening in our countryside, and also in our towns and cities. One inspiring example is Wallasea Island. Crossrail has recycled 4.5 million tonnes of earth from its works to build a new island, which I hope will be home to some amazing birds such as the spoonbill. Thousands of ducks and geese are already enjoying the site. Moreover, the development is expected to save £650,000 in flood defences, create new jobs, and protect the existing jobs that are supported by the fisheries and dockside businesses in the area.

    We shall need a great many new homes over the next few years, so let us ensure that we provide them in a way that works for nature. The best businesses are already thinking about that. Barratt Developments has just teamed up with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds to build 2,500 homes in Aylesbury. Some 50% of the development will be green space, and RSPB scientists will monitor the site over the next 20 years to ensure that we end up with more wildlife than we started with. That is good for nature, good for the people who live there, and good for business, but it must not be the exception. We need to make sure that we reward the businesses that look after nature, and that we set the right standards to help to give people what they need. That is why I am also proposing new ways in which to plan for nature at local level. Sir John Lawton has shown how important nature networks are in linking big green spaces, and the Wildlife Trusts have shown how mapping those spaces in local plans can help to speed up planning decisions and improve important services such as natural flood defences.

    Today, our children are more cooped up than they have ever been before. The average distance between the areas where they play and their homes is a fraction of what it was a generation ago. We should set basic standards for access to green space so that everyone has a chance to enjoy nature. Of course, that does not mean that every house can have Richmond Park down the road, but it does mean that when planning decisions are made, we should consider how nature can improve people’s health, mental health and education. In built-up areas, that might mean planning for a new road bridge, or planting wild flowers to bring a patch of grass to life.

    I am not alone in calling for a Nature Act. More than 20 organisations have joined the campaign for a Nature and Wellbeing Act, including the RSPB, the Wildlife Trusts, the Green Alliance and the Ramblers, as well as health and mental health charities. They recognise that even in tough times—perhaps especially in tough times—people need nature, and nature needs us.

    Let me end by reminding the House that there are always great challenges for society to face. Today we are recovering from an economic challenge, but we are also planning to meet huge challenges for our NHS, and we are looking for ways in which to build enough homes. Let us follow the example set a century ago by those Members of Parliament who knew, even in wartime, that if we were to meet our biggest challenges, we would have to look after our natural world. Let us be the first generation to make a commitment in law to turn around nature’s decline, for its own sake, for our economy, for our communities and for our children. We should do that not only because nature is special—here in the House we can look at the peregrines that nest on the top of Victoria Tower, and I can see them from my office window—and not only because we need it for our economy and our health care, but because it is a part of who we are.

    This will be an issue for the next Parliament, and I shall be watching all Members then. I commend the Bill to the House.

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    Question put and agreed to.

    Ordered,

    That Sir John Randall, Nick de Bois, Michael Fabricant, Richard Harrington, Rebecca Harris, Dr Julian Huppert, Simon Kirby, John McDonnell, Dr Matthew Offord, Chloe Smith, Henry Smith and Mr Mark Spencer present the Bill.

    Sir John Randall accordingly presented the Bill.

    Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 6 March and to be printed (Bill 176).

  • The Laws of Nature: guest blog by Sir John Randall MP

    Today, Sir John Randall, who at the next election is standing down as Conservative MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip, will introduce a ten-minute rule motion in the House of Commons to promote the Nature and Wellbeing Bill.  Here, he explains why...

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    Way back in 2001, I introduced the Marine Wildlife Conservation Bill in the House of Commons.Talking with the RSPB, it was clear to me that the level of protection afforded to our marine wildlife was nowhere near the standard we provide to our sites and species on land. The underwater wonders of British corals, fish, molluscs and eels were at risk of being lost. And those amazing seabirds that depend on our seas were disappearing from around our shores: arctic skuas that peck at your head, gannets that dive deep underwater, kittiwakes with their distinctive and evocatice calls - all were in trouble.

     There was great consensus around Parliament that action was needed.

    But even then, the passage of law can be a difficult process. Only a handful of Bills introduced by a backbencher like me ever become law. My Bill got stuck in the House of Lords and ran out of time.

    It was only later that the Government introduced its own version of my Bill. The Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 finally gained Royal Assent on 12 November 2009, establishing the legal mechanism for designating Marine Conservation Zones. Today, we are still pushing Government on marine conservation. I hope to see all parties commit to a proper network of MCZs and protection for wildlife in our Overseas Territories with Marine Protected Areas around Ascension, the South Sandwich Islands and Pitcairn. I am really optimistic about that things will happen.So, when I introduce my Ten Minute Rule motion for a Nature and Wellbeing Bill today, I know that change won’t come overnight. But we do need to change.

    The problem is that despite the high level of protection afforded to some wildlife, we still fail to take nature’s needs into account in most of our decisions: in Government, in business and in our day-to-day lives. As a result, 60% of the species we know about are in decline.

    For politicians, it’s the urgency of political cycles and short-term issues like housing and the economy that can lead us to ignore what’s happening to our natural world. But we all know that saving money by abusing nature is a completely false economy. We absolutely depend on nature in almost everything we do and by using up nature’s resources today, we are only stealing from our children. We’re stealing the natural assets that fuel our economy, we’re stealing the natural services that protect us from flooding and air pollution, and we’re stealing the natural wonders that make everyone’s world a better place.

    So I’m introducing a Nature and Wellbeing Bill to do four things.

    First, it would set long-term targets for nature. That means statutory, legally-binding targets for sites and species. I want to see an increase in the biodiversity index by 2040 and our SSSIs in good condition. We need long-term targets in law to make sure that this objective guides political decisions even in tough times and to give certainty to businesses that we’re determined to make a difference.

    To achieve those targets, we need to put nature into the heart of our economy and communities.

    The second clause in my bill would establish the Natural Capital Committee in law, with new independence and powers. Now, I want to make it absolutely clear that I’m not in favour of turning nature into a commodity. But the NCC has already helped to demonstrate the economic case for looking after our natural world; our need for nature needs to be built into everyday decision-making, across all Departments, not just reserved for DEFRA regulations.

    Next, I want to make sure that nature is built into our communities and our everyday lives. To plan properly for nature, we need to recognise that it’s part of the fabric of our communities. Sometimes species are important for their international scarcity or a wonderful feature. But just as often, they’re important for the impact they have on particular people and communities. And it’s the tiny patches of nature near us that form the natural networks Sir John Lawton identified as the next step in nature conservation.

    Finally, nature is important to our health and wellbeing, but it’s ever-more distant in our lives. My Bill would set a standard for access to nature that would guide local planning and spending decisions. For new build developments, it would help to make sure that there’s plenty of greenspace accessible to everyone – like the RSPB and Barratt Developments are planning in their partnership at Kingsbrook in Aylesbury.

    But for built up areas, it’s just as important to make sure that we’re thinking about providing safe access and enhancing the quality and richness of the open spaces we have. Doing so could help to save millions of pounds for the NHS by helping to get us fitter and healthier, as the Centre for Sustainable Healthcare is showing with its NHS Forest scheme.

    Of course, new targets and accounting mechanisms won’t solve everything. We need these laws to build on the powerful legislation we already have in place – rules like the EU’s Birds and Habitats Directives, which are the most essential safeguard for sites and species. We need to protect those laws and implement them properly, to prevent outrages like wildlife crime.

    But it’s clear to me that the time has come for new nature laws; firm commitments to say that we will pass our natural world on to our children in better condition than we received it.

    The Bill I’m introducing won’t become law today, but I know there are MPs on all sides of the House – and businesses, NGOs and people all across the country – who recognise that the time has come to turn round the state of nature. I hope that all parties will commit to come together in the next Parliament to Act for Nature. I will be watching them!

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    I shall share the detail of the debate as soon as it is published by Hansard.  Until then, thanks once again to Sir John for using his considerable voice for nature.