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
  • On leadership

    I have been a little distracted by what’s going on down under recently. The performance of the English cricket team at the World Cup has brought little cheer and the national soul-searching about how we can have greater impact in one-day tournaments has started. In fact, it started before the tournament began when there was a debate about who should lead the team – Alastair Cook eventually giving way to Eoin Morgan.

    It is wrong to pin the blame for lack of success on any one person, but our sporting leaders do have a key role in making the most of the talent around them. The greatest English cricket captain, Mike Brearley, was reputed to have “a degree in people”. Brearley’s stats as batsman were poor. Yet, the English selectors recognised that they needed someone to get the best from their players and that’s why they plumped for Brearley.

    It worked.

    He mastered the art of captaincy – the title of his brilliant book - most memorably when he brought out the best from Ian Botham (yes, I can still recall his heroic cricketing deeds with fondness) and Bob Willis during the 1981 Ashes series but also during his time as the leader of the successful Middlesex team of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

    His success was built on meticulous preparation, an instinctive understanding of what makes people tick, innovation and excellent decision-making.

    I say all of this to make a few simple observations about the type of leadership we need today.

    In all walks of life, we need leaders with the energy to engage people and align them behind a common purpose; leaders with the capability to make sense of complexity; leaders that are honest about the challenges and choices we face and leaders that offer clear direction by articulating a compelling view of how things can get better.

    This is particularly true when it comes to the messy business of running the country.

    With less than ten weeks before the general election, the pressure on our political leaders is growing. While polls suggest we should expect another hung parliament, political chat focuses on who will do deals with their political rivals in order to form a stable government.

    Our political system puts our leaders under huge pressure – asked to lead long, exhausting election campaigns, coping with the 24/7 demands of the media, and then, if successful, to hit the ground running, to form a government and then to deal with whatever domestic or foreign crisis that crops up.

    Following the intensity of the election (and any coalition talks that follow), we need our leaders to be at their best: to maintain focus on they will work together to make things better and, for many of us, that includes a desire to grow our prosperity without trashing the planet.

    We live in a period of huge turbulence and I argue that our political leaders need support rather than derision. Smart leaders recognise their own limitations and seek help in terms of ideas and practical solutions to wicked problems such stopping climate chaos and the ongoing degradation of the natural environment.

    That is why we need those outside government to play leadership roles for our core interest of saving nature.  We need businesses (like Marks & Spencer or Cemex) that are learning how to make a profit without harming the natural environment, we need land managers that nurture our natural assets while growing food, we need NGOs to leave brands at the door in order to broker lasting landscape-scale partnerships and we need individuals prepared to work with others to make things better in their communities.

    Tomorrow, I am heading off to Bristol to participate in a two-day conference we have organised, with others (see here).  The first day is an opportunity to showcase the best in landscape-scale conservation.   I hope and expect to hear how great leadership is transforming landscapes for people and wildlife.  We’ll hear about progress with RSPB Futurescapes, the Wildlife Trusts' Living Landscapes and the Defra funded Nature improvement Areas. We plan to learn from experience and come up with a recipe for future success. Our aim is to offer a gauntlet to the next generation of political leaders to make it is easy for all of us to build on these achievements.

    With luck, I may even spot the next generation of Mike Brearleys to take nature conservation forward in the 21st century.

    What sort of leadership do you think we need for 21st Century conservation? And who is your role model?

    It would be great to hear your views.

  • 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 (

    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

    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.


    Question put and agreed to.


    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).