Monday, 5 December 2011

National Environmental organisations incredulous at George Osborne’s Autumn Statement.

The concern about George Osborne’s Autumn Statement is not limited just to the Sussex Wildlife Trust. Environmental bodies around the country find it incredible, especially against the background of other work being done in government. One illustration of this is the letter below, written to the Prime Minister by the Chief Executives of several major environmental Non Government Organisations, including the Wildlife Trusts:

Dear Sir,

The environmental movement has spoken out repeatedly against policies that put short term profit ahead of our countryside and wildlife, eroding our natural capital and quality of life.

But rarely have we been as incredulous as we were on Tuesday, upon hearing the Autumn Budget Statement. The stunning disregard shown for the value of the natural environment not only flies in the face of popular opinion but goes against everything the Government said in June when it launched two major pieces of environmental policy – the Natural Environment White Paper and the England Biodiversity Strategy.

It is increasingly clear that society needs a new economic model that accounts properly for our natural capital. Yet with this Statement, its "red tape challenge", sudden cuts to solar subsidies, and its ill-conceived planning reforms, the Government is continuing an out-of-date approach that casts regulation and the environment as enemies to growth.

Is the environment really an obstacle to economic productivity or is it in fact the very basis of it, as well as of our national well-being? Not a hard question to answer and there is an increasingly powerful body of evidence that demonstrates this, including the Government's own National Ecosystem Assessment.

How can the Prime Minister tolerate this gaping intellectual and political inconsistency, and walk with open eyes down a policy path that condemns future generations to a lower quality of life and to a massive and costly struggle to rebuild the country's natural riches?

We appeal to you Mr Cameron to show leadership and champion long-term, sustainable economic policies that will bring much-needed prosperity without destroying all that millions hold dear.

Signed by:
Mike Clarke, RSPB, chief executive
Shaun Spiers, CPRE, chief executive
John Sauven, Greenpeace, executive director
Stephanie Hilborne, Wildlife Trusts, chief executive
Andy Atkins, Friends of the Earth, executive director

There is a stark miss-match between the need to take proper account of our natural capital on the one hand and the Chancellors apparent desire to consider this as a ridiculous cost on the other. His desire to take away the “gold plating of EU rules” is perhaps just a symptom of a Chancellor who has missed the point.

Maybe it would be a good idea if SWT members and readers of this blog wrote to their local MPs to say what you feel about this proposed diminishing of the protection of our most important wildlife sites. For a list of MPs and their contact details follow this link:

Thursday, 1 December 2011

George Osborne's attack on nature

Not being content with a destructive shake-up of the planning system, George Osborne now has wildlife sites of international importance in his sights. Now our most important wildlife sites and rarest species face an uncertain future in England.

Osborne’s perspective on this is clear:
“..we will make sure that gold plating of EU rules on things like Habitats aren’t placing ridiculous costs on British businesses.”
“If we burden them with endless social and environmental goals…. businesses will fail, jobs will be lost, and our country will be poorer.”

So that’s it then – wildlife is just a ridiculous cost and it’s making us all poorer!

Where has George Osborne been for the last two decades? Study after study, as well as basic logic and common sense, shows the central importance of the environment. This is not separate to the economy or a cost to the economy but underpins the economy (as well as underpinning our well-being and very existence). Economic growth that damages the environment can no longer be considered economic growth at all.

The Government’s own National Ecosystem Assessment and Natural Environment White Paper, both published in June this year, promised us much more than this:

The UK National Ecosystem Assessment states: “The natural world, its biodiversity and its constituent ecosystems are critically important to our well-being and economic prosperity, but are consistently undervalued in conventional economic analyses and decision-making.”

The Natural Environment White Paper states “The Government is committed to putting the value of natural capital at the heart of our economic thinking.”

There is no sign of this clear thinking in Osborne’s current attack.

These documents were supposed to herald a step change in nature’s fortunes.

The internationally important sites under attack are the Special Areas of Conservation (SACs), established under the EU Habitats Directive, and the Special Protection Areas (SPAs), established under the EU Birds Directive.

They are the very foundation of environmental protection on land and at sea in England and the building blocks for nature’s recovery. They include iconic places such as the purple heaths of Ashdown Forest, the unspoilt wetlands of the Arun valley, the flower-rich grassland turf of the South Downs at Lewes and at Castle Hill and the secretive ancient woods at The Mens and Ebernoe Common.

Yet taking England’s much depleted wildlife into a more positive future is clearly far from the Chancellor’s agenda.

At a time of recession we should look to the long-term.

The coalition Government during the Second World War placed nature at the centre of post-war reconstruction and some of our greatest nature conservation initiatives stem from that period. Even during one of the worst economic climates of the twentieth century Britain was able to build a positive future for the natural world. Governments then did not have the advantage of the clear messages coming from the National Ecosystem Assessment, they had not had the decades of environmental awareness that we have now and did not have the foundation of protected sites that we have spent decades identifying and defending. But they did know it was the right thing to do. How different to today when nature is presented merely as an unnecessary cost to society.

Is the Government’s review of these sites an attempt to ease the way for major developments on land and on our coasts?

The chairs and chief executives of the 47 Wildlife Trusts met last week where we heard from the New Economics Foundation about the urgent need for a fundamentally different economic model that takes the value of our natural capital into account. Only a dramatic shift will secure the services we gain from a healthy functioning environment and produce a society that can thrive.

Economic growth achieved at the cost of our natural life support systems is not economic growth at all, merely an illusion of temporary benefit.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Engaging with the National Park

The National Park has been functional for about 6 months now and one of its biggest jobs has been to encourage engagement with people throughout the Park.

My view is that they are doing a pretty good job, indeed so good that people are starting to complain about consultation fatigue! To those of us that are in the loop maybe this is what it feels like but there are a lot of people with a lot of different interests in the Park and not all of them will have found the opportunity to input. So I feel that all the effort has been worth while.

The opportunities being provided by the Park Authority at the moment is through a series of 9 autumn workshops: 3 in East Sussex, 3 in West Sussex and 3 in Hampshire. As I understand it, these are to give people the opportunity to give views on the special qualities of the South Downs and the chance for this to feed in to the development of a Park-wide Management Plan.

This is all good stuff but people do need to engage in order to have their say. Four of these workshops have already taken place and I know the Authority would like still more people to get involved. So it’s a good opportunity for members of the Wildlife Trust, and readers of this blog, to get along and help promote the case for wildlife.

The dates and locations are as follows:

  • 10th October 2011 – Arundel Town Hall, Arundel

  • 11th October 2011 – International Lawn Tennis Centre, Eastbourne

  • 3rd November 2011 – Manor House, Littlehampton

  • 4th November 2011 – Linklater Pavilion, Lewes (may change depending on numbers)

  • 7th November 2011 – St John’s Church Hall, Rowlands Castle
You can find out more about these on the National Park web site on

I’ll be going along to the West Sussex meetings and will be promoting our theme of a wildlife-rich Living Landscape for the Park. Why not come and help?

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Sussex Wildlife Trust / University of Sussex 50th Anniversary conference: The Nature of Change.

On 15th September this year the SWT joined with the University of Sussex for a major conference. We called this “The Nature of Change” because, as well as being our 50th anniversaries, this could be a major period of change for the natural environment.

Our conference was opened by Professor Michael Farthing, the Vice Chancellor of the University and then we gained a fascinating insight into the last 100 years of nature conservation in Sussex. David Streeter, founder member and President of the SWT, traced the history of 8 very special places in Sussex first identified by Charles Rothschild (the founder of the Society for the Promotion of Nature Reserves) in 1912. Looking at the detail of what has happened to places like Amberley Wildbrooks gives a good illustration of how nature conservation has grown in extent and influence over the last 100 years.

The theme of the conference then moved on to the major issues that should have a major influence on our relationship with the natural world in the future. Although they are not new ideas, concepts like landscape ecology, ecological restoration and ecosystem services have been developing considerably in recent years. We therefore received a series of four excellent presentations on these subjects:

  • First was a talk on the “Making space for nature” review into the functioning of England’s ecological network. A major document, highly influential to government, which outlined the failings of England’s ecological network and gave a series of recommendations for improvement.

  • Then there were two presentations on the National Ecosystem Assessment, giving an outline on how ecosystem assessment works and some of the key messages to come out of the NEA.

  • The last morning session was from DEFRA, talking about the England Biodiversity Strategy and how this is taking on the messages form the making space for nature review and the NEA.
The afternoon sessions presented a challenge to some major organisations in Sussex – how will they respond to this call for a much higher ambition for the natural world?

In the afternoon we therefore had presentations from:

  • Natural England,

  • the Environment Agency

  • the South Downs National Park Authority and

  • East Sussex County Council,
all giving a great insight into what this greater ambition might mean in practical terms.

It was a good conference, and I am very grateful to all the speakers involved. All the presentations can be viewed on the following link:

Of all the thousands of pages that have been written in the National Ecosystem Assessment it is perhaps the first sentence that is most important:

“The natural world, its biodiversity and its constituent ecosystems are critically important to our well-being and economic prosperity, but are consistently undervalued in conventional economic analyses and decision making.”

Our 50th anniversary is a good time to move from this to a situation where we value, restore, recreate and reconnect nature, for its own inherent value and so it can provide the services on which we all depend.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

The Natural Choice: securing the value of nature

Well the Natural Environment White Paper that we have all been waiting for has now been published and we have had some time to think about its contents.

Since before the election, the Wildlife Trusts, along with other environmental NGOs have been pushing for a new impetus for the natural environment. The UK failed to meet its 2010 biodiversity targets, wildlife is in continual decline and we are struggling to meet other environmental standards. More of the same is not an option. Is the Natural Environment White Paper, entitled “The Natural Choice: securing the value of nature” going to be the step-change in the ambition for the environment that we are all hoping for?

The starting point…
Taking the messages from “Making Space for Nature” and the “National Ecosystem Assessment” together, we have to conclude that whilst the natural world is essential to our existence, biodiversity in the wider environment is reducing and our current scatter of wildlife sites does not comprise a coherent ecological network. Our ecosystems are consistently undervalued and many of our essential ecosystem services are in continual long term decline.

So does the white paper set the right direction?

Generally I would have to say that the overall trajectory looks good. I have been fairly critical of government in past blogs – it seemed to be environmentally floundering - but I said then that the white paper is a major opportunity to turn this around.

The Wildlife Trusts have therefore welcomed the white paper. However, I am concerned that there is insufficient detail to be confident that Government is fully committed to making the vision a reality. The paper lacks the sense of urgency we believe is required.

There a re 4 key areas in the White Paper:

  • Nature Improvement Areas.

  • Local Nature Partnerships

  • Ecologically coherent planning,

  • Biodiversity offsets.

Nature Improvement Areas. I prefer “Ecological Restoration Zones” as it said what they should do – restore ecology. Nature improvement sounds weaker. Nevertheless the concept was promoted by the Wildlife Trusts and we are pleased it is in the white paper. However, they are currently non-statutory and there will be a competition for the first 12 such areas. As the aim is to restore a coherent ecological network, just 12 are hardly significant. There should be lots of them everywhere, and connected throughout the landscape. In Sussex alone we have identified 75 biodiversity opportunity areas. That gives a better idea of the scale needed. 12 for the whole country really is just a start. Hopefully we can look forward to the parallel development of Nature Improvement Areas everywhere, embedded in the new planning framework and with the funds to deliver.

Local Nature Partnerships were promoted by The Wildlife Trusts, RSPB and CPRE in the lead up to the white paper. The proposal is for around 50 in England, so they will have to be strategic in outlook, should work at a landscape scale and should be outcome focused. All good stuff. But timescales to form these are too short so it will be hard work to form coherent structures so that these strategic partnerships link up with all the really local partnerships. If we are not careful the rush to form LNPs, and attract the money that’s on offer, will actually set people up in competition and effectively undermine partnership working.

Ecologically coherent planning. It remains to be seen how ecological coherent the planning system will be at a time when government seems to be loosening up planning laws. A general reference to a National Planning Policy Framework seems unconvincing and whilst it does mention a presumption in favour of sustainable development I thought that had been the case – at least on paper – since 1992. I am sure it is right to look for win-win solutions where both development and the natural environmental are delivered at once but there will be conflicts and at present it looks like the same old story where development will take precedence.

Biodiversity offsets offer huge dangers but also huge opportunities so must be looked at carefully. Done badly it could de-value nature and be a licence to destroy. Done well, and underpinned by firm protection for wildlife, it could be a major mechanism for enhancement. Fortunately the DEFRA team working on this are aware of the dangers and the benefits.

Some may feel that the white paper has deliberate “trip hazards”, designed to make something that sounds good very difficult to implement in practice. The jury is out but I remain optimistic. Unrealistic timescales, feeble resources, limited practical ambition and questions regarding reconciliation with other government initiatives are all worrying. But it also mainstreams ecological restoration and the valuing of nature. I’ll take Caroline Spelman’s introduction to the white paper as setting the tone for its ambition:
“Too often, we take for granted the goods, services and amenity value that nature freely provides us. They risk being lost as a consequence. We can and must do things differently.”

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Time is now for new era of nature conservation

The publication of a Natural Environment White Paper - the first for 20 years - should mark an exciting new era for nature conservation. But has the Government been ambitious enough?

The Wildlife Trusts have pushed for the Government to take leadership and make the natural environment a priority. This White Paper is critical in setting a new direction. One in which the connections between a healthy natural environment, healthier people and a healthier economy are recognised.

The natural environment can produce significant benefits to society and the economy but, to do so effectively, there must be the right legislative framework and policy in place. Many people are currently suffering from a profound separation from the natural world. This framework – the White Paper – should enable people and communities to value, and take action for, wildlife.

Paul Wilkinson, Head of Living Landscape for The Wildlife Trusts, said:

“We want the Government to set out a new vision for nature’s recovery and so hope to welcome the content within this Natural Environment White Paper.

“Government needs to take a fresh look - and a smarter approach - at the way we use and manage the natural environment. Changes are essential and we expect to see clear evidence that the Government is committed to positive and ambitious change. A sound framework must be implemented, one which puts nature on the front foot and produces more benefits for people and for wildlife. It will take strong leadership and cross-departmental support.

“Government must take bold steps and make brave decisions. Society’s future is very closely linked to nature’s recovery.”

Within the White Paper on the Natural Environment, The Wildlife Trusts will be looking for the Government to commit to:

  • Putting nature’s recovery at the heart of all decisions on policy-making across all Government departments.

The Wildlife Trusts want to see the recovery and restoration of the natural environment happening everywhere in the UK. As reported in the Making Space for Nature1 report, England does not have a coherent and resilient ecological network. The report should be implemented in full; where priority areas for restoration on a landscape-scale are mapped out, and policies enforced, which protect their value.

The Wildlife Trusts have been delivering landscape-scale conservation on the ground on a voluntary basis but Government now needs to show leadership and make it a national priority.

  • Getting the policies and legislation right nationally to support people locally.

The time is ripe for Government to make improvements which will give individuals, businesses and communities the power and support they need to take action, protecting and improving areas for wildlife, securing a full recovery for nature.

The Wildlife Trusts work to reconnect people to nature where they live. This approach needs to be given a firmer footing. Local partnerships need to be enabled to deliver landscape-scale conservation, habitat restoration and re-creation in their communities.

Paul Wilkinson continued:

“The Wildlife Trusts have championed a recovery plan for nature since 2006. A plan which helps to create a resilient and healthy environment, rich in wildlife, and one which provides ecological security for people. It is our vision for A Living Landscape.

“However, we currently find ourselves working amidst an array of policies and mechanisms that determine how land is used and managed. Few of these were designed with nature in mind and virtually none allow for its restoration. The time has come for the Government to help society achieve its ambitions for nature.”

Friday, 3 June 2011

The Launch of the National Ecosystem Assessment

At its launch, Oliver Letwin (Minister for Government Policy) said that the National Ecosystem Assessment was one of the most important things government has done for a very long time. He referred to it being “paradigm changing” and said that it shows that we can’t just ignore the value of nature, indeed it must now become central in all decision making.

I tend to agree with him. The National Ecosystem Assessment should create a major change in the way nature is valued. This is internationally leading, ground breaking stuff which should help re-write the rules on how our society can live sustainably with the natural resources on which it depends. And yet, although it has been reported to some extent, the importance of this work seems to have escaped most in the media.

The first “Key Message” in the introduction is perhaps the most important paragraph in the whole document so I will repeat it verbatim:

"The natural world, its biodiversity and its constituent ecosystems are critically important to our well-being and economic prosperity, but are consistently undervalued in conventional economic analysis and decision making. Ecosystems and the services they deliver underpin our very existence. We depend on them to produce our food, regulate water supplies and climate, and breakdown waste products. We also value them in less obvious ways: contact with nature gives pleasure, provides recreation and is known to have a positive impact on long-term health and happiness."

So that sets the context. Yet most of our ecosystem services are degrading or existing in an already degraded state. (For example about 50% of the marine fisheries are being managed sustainably – but fish stocks are being sustained at a level about 10 times lower than they were 100 years ago). If you are one of those people who can only think in economic terms then we are loosing economic benefit because we have degraded our ecosystems. And future trends are likely to degrade these ecosystems still further. Its more important than life or death – this is costing us money!

Add this to the findings of the review by John Lawton ”Making Space for Nature” and you come to the conclusion that England does not have a functional ecological network and the ecosystem services on which we all depend are in long term decline.

Of course this is nothing new; we have known this for decades, but this in an internationally leading study which should feed straight in to government policy. Government should be listening and going by Oliver Letwin’s comments, they are. Indeed Prof Bob Watson (DEFRA Chief Scientist) said that he has never seen a document have such a rapid effect on government policy.

Indeed environmental policy has been breaking records recently:

  • there never has been a review like Lawton’s “Making space for nature” before,

  • there never has been such a public response to any government policy as there was to the consultation on the Natural Environment White Paper (15,000 responses) and

  • the NEA has possibly had one of the most rapid effects on government policy of any document.

I have been critical in a past blog of the coalition government seeming to get off track with its environmental record. Well maybe this can change matters. The Natural Environment White Paper is due out on 7th June. This clearly must set the right trajectory by picking up the recommendations in the Lawton review and by responding to the key messages in the NEA. But it is what happens next that is important. How will any policy changes in this White Paper be reflected in practical results at local, national and international level?

Monday, 16 May 2011

The Greenest Government Ever?

When it came to power the incoming coalition government made the pledge that it wanted to be the “greenest government ever”. So, twelve months later, how is it doing?

The early signs were good. The coalition had its own ideas, and also seemed to be prepared to make good use of changes that were already underway. The South Downs National Park was designated under Labour, but the new coalition has overseen (rather than undermined) its progress to full function. The Lawton Review and the National Ecosystem Assessment (see my blogs around were started under labour but have been continued under the coalition and as a result a new Natural Environment White Paper will soon be published.

However, if we look at some of the broader background then there are real concerns that the government is getting off track in its environmental performance.

One of its earliest acts was to disband the Sustainable Development Commission, the mix-up over the Forestry Commission is now well-known and we have sever concerns about the direction planning is taking. In a sop to the development industry, government is now taking the approach of “whatever the question the answer is yes”, setting the scene to allow more environmentally damaging development and (perhaps more significantly) creating a situation where environment and planning become more antagonistic. We now also have the “red tape challenge” in which, despite assurances to the contrary, protection of the environment is listed alongside all other regulation as up for grabs.

The coalition government seemed to start with a desire for a green economy – one where the economy and the environment work together in complementary ways rather than being seen as opposites to balance against each other. The idea of “green growth” was discussed – environmentally benign or beneficial businesses being the ones that drive future economic growth. What’s more, through the work of the National Ecosystem Assessment, we were going to appreciate the economic value of the services provided by nature.

One year later, however, it all seems to have got too difficult and we’re back to an approach that would not look out of place in the middle of the 20th century. The economy comes first and the environment is just seen as a cost or a “burden”. We’re back to ignoring the economic value of nature, and care for the environment is increasingly being portrayed as an act of charity rather than an act of both responsibility and economic necessity. We are seeing the combating of climate change portrayed as a cost to society (rather than a benefit) – something that has to be compromised until the economy is back on track. The more complex reality is being ignored in order to fall back on artificially simple solutions.

This is the background to an open letter sent to David Cameron on 14th May – the coalition’s first anniversary. Chief Executives from 15 leading charities, including the Wildlife Trusts, wrote to the Prime Minister warning that he will have to ramp up his efforts to make this the “greenest government ever” (

At present the prognosis is not good but David Cameron and Nick Clegg can act now to get back on track. The forthcoming Natural Environment White Paper presents an opportunity. With other areas environmentally flagging, this must provide an ambitious vision for the future to be signed up to by all government departments and followed by a clear plan of action for delivery. I am looking forward to its publication in June!

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Message to MPs on the Natural Environment White Paper

Last year DEFRA led a public consultation on a new Natural Environment White Paper and at the time I wrote several blogs on its background. (See my blog posts around September 2010 on

There were a record number of responses to this (around 15,000) giving an overwhelming message to government that people value their natural environment.

Since then DEFRA have been preparing this White Paper and it is now due to be published in June. Several of our Sussex MPs have been active in defending the environment in the past and we now call on them all to exert pressure to secure a bold and ambitious White Paper. This should build on the existing protection system and drive nature’s recovery.

I have therefore written to all our MPs asking them to support the White Paper in parliament.

The Wildlife Trusts initiated the call for a White Paper as we believe England needs a new
Nature Act to create the impetus for significant restoration of habitats and ecological processes on a landscape scale. The White Paper should lay the foundations for the establishment of Ecological Restoration Zones and new Local Nature Partnerships to help drive this process. The key functions of these Partnerships would be to:

  • Identify zones for ecological restoration. These should enhance existing landscapes restore the processes that drive ecosystem health and should restore and create new areas of habitat. They should also conserve and enhance nationally and locally important wildlife sites as well as take action for priority species;

  • Integrate land management policies, incentives and decision-making locally to ensure the provision of key ecosystem services, such as clean water, food, flood protection and control of our climate on which we all depend;

  • Work with local authorities to identify ecological networks as part of the Local Plan;

  • Inspire individuals and communities to get involved and take action to improve the quality of their local environment.

We believe that dynamic, credible Local Nature Partnerships, supported by civil society, have an important contribution to make to drive nature’s recovery. The Government should champion their role, as they have done for Local Enterprise Partnerships, indeed Local Nature Partnerships should be considered at least as important as Local Enterprise Partnerships.

We’ll see what our MPs say in response to this letter and maybe I’ll reproduce some of the more significant statements in a later blog.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Is the environment just “red tape” to business?

Taking a look at regulation to see if there is anything that can be rationalised is, perhaps, not a bad thing in itself. I don’t like the pandering to popular paranoia that seems to underpin the exercise, as I said in my last blog; however it might be argued that regulation does bare re-examination from time to time.

What is more, DEFRA has now written a “mythbuster” claiming that the aim is not to scrap important environmental regulations ( I am not sure how convincing this is. If this is the case then why are the very regulations that the DEFRA mythbuster claims will not be removed listed in the public consultation? If DEFRA sets hares running by listing environmental regulation that could get a shake up then it should not be too surprised when it gets a firm response from the public. This is not myth busting, it is public consultation and I thought that was the idea.

However, there is something more worrying underneath this exercise. Department sources are again saying things like they’ve “got to look at things from both sides…”. They don’t wish to “side” with either the environment or business and are implying that sustainable development is about balancing the environment with business and society. This is an attempt to change a 25 year old definition of sustainable development which seems to be going almost unnoticed. Sustainable development is about delivering win-win-win solutions, delivering environmental, economic and societal objectives together in a mutually supportive way. The nature of the discussion at the moment implies that environmental regulation has gone too far and needs to be brought back under control so that poor old business has a chance to thrive again. This is a 1960’s approach. In the 21st century business will only thrive in a healthy, protected environment.

I also do not believe that businesses themselves wish to be stereotyped as inevitably a sector that wishes to throw-off environmental regulation, cast a blind-eye to any environmental damage and get on with the important work of making money. A high quality environment is now seen as a business asset (for instance boosting house values, attracting inward investment and keeping good staff) and there is an increasing number of studies that show how a high quality environment and a stimulated economy go hand in hand. See for example Ruth Chambers’ (Council for National Parks) blog ( for a couple of examples of how good regulation in National Parks has stimulated the economy, not held it back.

So – presumptions about environmental regulation constraining and acting as a burden on business should not be the background to any review. A sensible review should be more open ended, should not start with the expected answer (slash red tape) and may indeed find that we need more environmental regulation not less.

If you are worried about this you may wish to consider signing the 38 degrees petition:, as well as making comments on the DEFRA web site: (

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Red Tape Challenge?

It sounds so popular. The “burdens” of red tape must be challenged! In moments of paranoia we all like to imagine the armies of pen-pushers who like nothing better than to stop ordinary people from getting on with their everyday lives. No doubt there are dozens of newspapers where you can read all about this, and no doubt there are armies of people delighting at the fight-back against these “jobs-worths”.

But when you start looking at this presumed red tape then you have to ask questions about what we are being asked to dump and why.

Furthermore, I work a lot with government bodies and local authorities and I simply don’t recognise this description of bureaucrats battling against a downtrodden public. Regulations are generally there for a good reason and the people implementing them are trying to get good results in practical situations. Generally they are trying to protect (using regulations that are far too weak) all the things we want protected. At least that seems to be the case with the environment. The main problem is the weakness and inconsistency of regulations against the well-funded tide of pressures against the environment.

So up for grabs, along with anything else you can imagine (except tax laws, they, of course, are inviolate) are all the wildlife and environmental regulations. After decades of fighting to get some measure of defence for the environment on which we all depend, this is now just labelled as “red tape” to be dispensed with.

Rather than challenge presumed red tape perhaps we should challenge some of the attitudes behind this exercise. Since when has having a healthy environment been a “burden”? Why is it that wildlife, clean air, clear water, a pleasant place to live and an attempt to prevent climate chaos are now just “red tape”?

According to an article in the Guardian ( a source said that government has a responsibility to business as well as those concerned about the environment. “Those concerned about the environment”!! It seems that government are portraying “those concerned about the environment” as some small special-interest minority. Both business and “those concerned about the environment” should be offended by this sort of attitude. Everyone (with any sense) is concerned about the environment, including business. Putting these on opposite sides of the fence seems to imply that government has given up any attempt to reconcile our economy with our environment.

Now the “onus” is on those wanting to keep regulations to make the case for keeping them, not on those wanting to get rid of them. Well, we’re talking of about 21,000 pieces of complicated policy and legislation. Yes its all up for public consultation, but have you got the time to go through all of it to say what you want to keep and why?

A response is clearly needed so in case you have got time to at least try to defend the 278 regulations that try to keep our environment habitable, here’s the link to the consultation:

Please do make some sort of response!

Thursday, 24 March 2011

A step back for Society?

I’ve just looked at our Wildlife Trusts National Office response to the Governments planning reforms announced as part of yesterday’s budget. It seems that whilst this Government may consider itself to be the greenest ever, this approach is more a blast from the past – a retrograde step for Society.

Increasingly it is clear that we can’t go on sacrificing the natural environment. The debate is not jobs or wildlife but jobs and wildlife. It seems this Budget is all for Big Business but not the Big Society.

The Sussex Wildlife Trust is not against all development and clearly some aspects of the current regime could be simplified. Indeed we often work with businesses to ensure opportunities are taken to put wildlife back on the map and create truly sustainable development. However, this promise of a faster planning system could lead to missed opportunities.

Nature is not a luxury but a necessity we cannot afford to do without. The Chancellor has missed an opportunity to put in place positive planning for nature’s recovery and to optimize strong public feeling for the natural environment; so clearly expressed during recent consultations on both the public forest estate and Natural Environment White Paper.

Planning must focus on adaptation to protect, restore and create a robust and resilient natural environment which can stand up to the challenges of climate change. We fully support the recommendations made in the Making Space for Nature report, including the establishment of Ecological Restoration Zones.

The uncertainties of a changing climate are just as relevant for people as they are for wildlife. Well connected, landscape-scale areas for wildlife are great for people and the economy. The added benefits of creating, or restoring, wildlife habitats include flood control, pollution control to food production and long-term solutions to climate change impacts.

Paul Wilkinson, head of Living Landscape for The Wildlife Trusts, said: "Opportunities for people to enjoy the countryside, coast and seas, and the green spaces in towns and cities, are crucial to our health and wellbeing. The natural environment provides a source of inspiration, refreshment, excitement and challenge. Experiencing the environment has repeatedly been demonstrated to be an influential factor in assisting in the development of individuals’ personal character and confidence.” This all seems to have been put on one side in a rush to push through planning decisions (“the answer is yes – now what is the question…”) as we go back to a simplistic view of development no matter what the cost.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

The independent panel on forest policy

It’s good to be wrong sometimes! I mentioned, in a previous blog, that the proposed forestry panel was going to comprise just 5 people. This turns out not to be the case – in fact it will consist of 12. I had heard that it would be only 5 “somewhere” and had simply passed this on in my blog. This goes to show that I should always check back to an original reference rather than re-stating hearsay!

So – I was wrong, it is 12 people not 5 (or did someone change their mind somewhere!). However, this is good news as a panel this size is far more likely to cover a range of interests. It is also good news that key NGOs are represented, and I’m particularly pleased that Steph Hillbourne (CEO of the Wildlife Trusts National Office) is on the panel.

Some, however, have mixed feelings about the make up of the panel. And some grass-roots campaign bodies are less than happy with NGOs being there at all. They feel that these same NGOs were not active in opposing the government’s plans to dispose of the public forest estate and in effect have put themselves into position to “cherry-pick” the best sites for themselves. My view is that this is unfair; the NGOs were pretty active, although not as visible as some of the grass-roots campaigns, and are certainly not there top facilitate a government sell-off.

Nevertheless, it is a fair point that there is no representative from these grass-roots campaigns. With a panel of 12 it should be expected that at least someone from an on the ground campaign should be there. The representatives who are there need to bear this in mind. If local campaigns are not represented then at least us in the NGOs should be prepared to pass on their views.

I was reminded of this in an excellent example of local action in Friston Forest, Sussex, last weekend. A local group (Keep Our Forests Public) organised a rally and walk around the forest. Nearly 100 people turned up and we were fortunate to hear an impassioned, principled talk from Dave Bangs (who fronts the group) and a valuable overview from Kate Ashbrook (Chair of the Open Spaces Society). I felt particularly privileged to be asked to speak – bearing in mind that some there felt let down by the NGOs. No doubt some still feel that we have not been principled enough in our stance but I do hope that campaigns like this will realise that Steph, and other NGO reps on the panel, will be doing their best to get the best outcome for the nations estate.

It was a great day out in a site that is an excellent example of how a partnership in a forest can deliver great multiple public benefits. This is a privately owned site, managed by the FC and with a small area managed by us at the Sussex Wildlife Trust – so government, non-government and private all working together. It’s just the sort of partnership that should become “normal” in a positive new approach for the Forestry Commission.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Friston Forest Rally

The sale of public forests may have been delayed and the consultation on the future of the estate has been closed, but the future of the Forestry Commission is still unsure.

The government is now very aware of the public concern for the nation’s forests and is looking again at forest policy. A panel is being set up to look at the future and the Wildlife Trusts, along with the other major conservation NGOs, are hoping to influence this and push for a positive role for the public forest estate.

This is still very much a live issue.

It would be all too easy to slip back into the programme of cuts and forest sales that has been going on for years.

Local campaign groups are therefore keeping up the pressure by holding events around the country. A local event in Sussex is being held at Friston Forest by the “Keep Our Forests Public” campaign.

The views of this campaign are not the same as my views or the position of the Sussex Wildlife Trust, but they do show good principled support for the public forest estate and have galvanised public interest perhaps more than us in the conservation NGOs. They deserve our support. I aim to be there and hope others will be able to join in as well.

The plan is to meet in Exceat car park, Friston Forest on 20th March at 12 noon. This is located off the Litlington Road, near the junction of A259, by the Seven Sisters Country Park Visitor Centre. Map reference: TV518995.

Speakers will include a Forestry Commission trade unionist; Kate Ashbrook (Open Spaces Society) and Dave Bangs (Keep Our Forests Public).

The rally will be followed by a picnic and at 1.30pm there will be a guided forest walk with two stop-and-return points for those who do not want to do the whole ramble. The maximum distance will be 6 miles. Wear strong walking shoes, bring lunch & refreshments. The campaign group asks people to bring along banners, placards, friends and family.

Email for any more info -, or FACEBOOK - Keep Our Forests Public

2 further walks are being planned by the Keep Our Forests Public campaign at St. Leonards Forest, Horsham (Saturday April 9th) and at Abbots Wood, Wilmington (Saturday May 7th)

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

A future for the Public Forest Estate

The problem with the current debate about the public forest estate is that it started in the wrong place. Admittedly it did attract a great deal of public interest, but instead of asking
“how can we dispose of the estate?”
it should have started with the question
“what is the purpose of the estate?”.

This question has been asked and answered many times over, most recently in a report done in 2009.

Not long ago perhaps, but a lot is changing. The “Lawton review” has made strong recommendations about how to develop a coherent ecological network and the National Ecosystem Assessment has looked at how we can better value the benefits we get from nature. Both of these are key drivers in the forthcoming Natural Environment White Paper. Any future for the public estate must fit within the concept of restoring the natural environment that flows from these documents.

If you want to read some of my thoughts on these please take a look at my blog posts around September last year starting at:

Against this background, perhaps it is relevant to ask the question again. If we did then I suggest that the purpose of the estate should go along the following lines:
  • The purpose of the public estate is to contribute to realising the full potential of England’s current and future ecological network, so that it provides the ecosystem services on which we depend.

(If you don’t know what I mean by ecosystem services then again please look back to my blogs in 2010)

In practice this is perhaps just a current way of describing multi-purpose forestry, which FC tries to do anyway. But it is perhaps a better recognition that forests deliver a lot more than just timber.

The problem is that this could be the policy objective for all forest management (indeed all land management) – public and private. So the public forest estate must have a special role, something complementary to the private sector.

In my mind this specialness is that the public estate should deliver ecosystem services that are not easily valued in traditional economic terms and so not easily delivered by the private sector.

We can work out the price of timber, but it is harder to value soil formation, nutrient cycling, wild species, climate amelioration or ecological interactions. Other services we get include recreation, access, spiritual enrichment, wildlife and the appreciation of wildlife. We know these are essential, but we hope nature provides them for free. These ecosystem services are our public benefits and do have a value (when the sums are done the value can be 100 times more than the cost of conservation) and the public estate should be there to deliver them as its primary role.

Outside the public estate, management approaches that support these services might be seen as a “cost” to be supported by providing “grants”. A public forest estate, however, should support these as its normal way of operating. So, as well as producing timber, the estate should use (and demonstrate) management approaches that also deliver all other services. It would therefore be an exemplar of multi-purpose land management. One consequence will be that, as so many other benefits are recognised, there will be significant areas of land where other ecosystem services are emphasised and timber production will be far less of an objective.

In order to do this the public forest estate will need to be large and diverse, covering the range of ecological conditions and management situations found in England. It will also need to be transparent and accountable. It will need to be in the places where it can best deliver aspects of public benefit that are less easily delivered by private and charitable sectors. This could mean re-configuring the current public estate, maybe selling some areas but purchasing others. In order to achieve its purpose, it is likely that the net size (i.e. after selling some areas and acquiring others) will be larger than it is at present, not smaller.

This is perhaps my long-winded way of supporting the position statement articulated by the Save Our Woods campaign

What’s more this seems to be what everybody wants – a bigger, more effective public estate.

Maybe this will be difficult to achieve in the current economic climate but plans for a public estate should be long term. At least we should hold on to a good thing while we’ve got it. A more expansive agenda could then follow when conditions permit.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

The Forestry Commission – still a shaky future?

The current round of forest sales may have been postponed and the consultation on a new proposal for the public forest estate after 2014 cancelled but the future of the forestry commission is still unsure.

The FC is still a very under-funded organisation yet a key thing that has come out of the recent public interest is a realisation of what amazing value for money we are getting.

For a net cost of about £20m per year we get a forest estate of about 250,000 hectares managed to deliver public benefit. A bargain!

Of this £20m, about £12m to £13m comes from the public purse (from DEFRA) the other £8m comes from money ploughed back into the FC from the sales of forests (the government has been quietly getting FC to sell woods for years). The current situation, however, is that the funding for FC is still being cut. First, some £2.6m is being cut from the DEFRA money to the FC, reducing the public funding from just over £12m to about £10m. Second, the £8m per year from the sale of forests is no longer going to be ploughed back into the FC, it will all go straight to the treasury.

So FC is still being cut by about £10m per year and FC are still likely to loose about 25% of its staff.

Some of the current threats may have died down but an already slim organisation is being cut still further. And, as I’ve explained in previous blogs, this is not going to raise any money for the treasury – an extra £10m per year to the treasury will soon be lost in grants to the new owners. This “cut” will just appear as an expense somewhere else. It is not simply a matter of FC having to share some of the pain we all have to suffer under the current thrust for cuts in public spending.

The government has done the right thing in holding back on making any decisions and setting up an expert panel to look at wider issues of forest policy. It looks like it will be a rather small panel, however – just 5 people – so I’m not sure how it will be able to represent a good spectrum of views. Obviously I feel that someone from the Wildlife Trusts should be there, or at least one of the conservation NGOs. But it should also invite people from the grass-roots campaigns that have sprung up around the country. Add in a few academic experts, industry representatives and politicians and it sounds like a panel far larger than 5 is needed.

Hopefully any output from the expert panel will link in with the emerging Natural Environment White Paper. But in the mean time the government should not be eroding FC still further while the panel sits. For the time being the current £12m that FC gets from DEFRA should be increased to £20m and the sales of forests halted.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Forestry Commission sell-off – 4: A government change of heart.

It is welcome news that the government has changed its mind over the dismantling of the Forestry Commission (FC). It might be a little uncharitable to call this a u-turn; the proposal was only a proposal and it is sensible to think again in the light of both public concern and the clear arguments against the direction proposed.

I am glad that the government has decided to take more time over this. Instead of the proposal it now looks like a panel of experts will be set up to look at public access and biodiversity in publically owned woodlands. This sounds good and I hope it will address wider aspects of the role of the entire public estate in landscape-scale ecological restoration. The future of the Public Forest Estate is part of a much bigger discussion as Stephanie Hilborne OBE, Chief Executive of The Wildlife Trusts, says:

“From the start The Wildlife Trusts have called for more time to have this debate and so we welcome this announcement.

“This is, however, part of a much bigger picture about the future of England’s natural environment. The context is that our first Nature White Paper for 20 years is being prepared. The new panel and the debate about the public forest estate must feed into this or we will lose sight of the big picture and miss a big opportunity.

“As local organisations with a long track record of working with the Forestry Commission and local communities on the ground, The Wildlife Trusts are keen to play our part in the debate.”

We are, however, left with the spectre of continual sales of the estate and a continual haemorrhaging of FC staff. And it is now clear that this practice will not make money for the treasury, so why continue?

Wildlife Trusts around the country are very pleased to be working in partnership with FC. This will become very difficult as staff levels go down, offices close or move and FC officers inevitably become more remote. This is the opposite of what should be happening. We need to build on strength – more, better partnerships delivering still better public benefit. This can be delivered on the public estate, and, through partnership, on land in private and charitable ownership as well.

I talked in a previous blog about an example in Tilgate Forest. This is a normal partnership, replicated many times around the country, engaging local communities in their local forests. It is only held back because of lack of capacity (i.e. we’re all too busy to develop it as fully as we would like). These sorts of projects are surely good examples of what is meant by the “big society”. Instead of cutting back, we should be investing more, giving FC the steer and capacity to build on this success.

The government may have changed its mind – and good for them for doing so – but the genie is out of the bottle now. They can’t go back to quietly selling-off 15% of the estate every 4 years, and laying off staff accordingly. Forest policy and wider policy regarding the public estate, must now be part of much larger, positive, forward-looking policy for the natural world as a whole and should be linked in with the emerging Natural Environment White Paper. This will require commitment, investment and reasonable staffing levels. In practice it may be justifiable to “re-configure” the public estate so that it continues to deliver public benefit and this may result in the sale of parts of the estate but the purchase of other areas. However, as the public estate needs to be of a sufficient size and diversity in order to be effective in contributing to the delivery of policy it is likely that we should be expecting a net increase in the public estate not a net reduction.

In 2009 the FC itself did a consultation to see what the public wanted from the public forest estate. I have not seen the results of this but I wouldn’t be surprised if it showed a great level of support for FC and a general desire to increase the estate, not reduce it.

Friday, 11 February 2011

Forestry Commission sell-off, 3: How much does the Forestry Commission cost us?

With the pressure to dispose of the public forest estate, you might be forgiven for imagining that the Forestry Commission (FC) is a fat, inefficient, bureaucratic body that spends huge amounts of public money but delivers little. Nothing could be further from the truth!

The FC looks after a huge estate for us – over 250,000, or about 18% of all woodland. Many of the familiar forests that you might list are actually owned and/or managed by the FC – the New forest, the Forest of Dean, Thetford Forest, Grizedale Forest and, more locally, Abbots wood, Friston Forest, St Leonards Forest and Tilgate Forest. Virtually all are managed to deliver multiple public benefits with nature and wildlife pretty near the top of the list.

So how much does it cost us to have them look after this enormous estate?

Figures from year to year vary but the difference between the FC’s income from sale of timber against the cost of management is just £13m. So it costs us just £13m per year to have a FC that looks after over 250,000 ha of some our most cherished areas.

Let’s put this into perspective.

This works out as about 30p per person per year. 30p – that is about the same cost as going to the toilets at Victoria Station once (per year!), it’s about half the cost of a newspaper, one sixth the cost of a cup of coffee and quite a bit less than the cost of a decent bar of chocolate. And for this we get over 250,000ha of forests. Not bad for 30p!

It would be incredible, but maybe you consider 30p per year too high a price to pay. Maybe we could even save this if the forests were sold, then perhaps you could enjoy an extra one sixth of a cup of coffee instead. Maybe not though. If charities like us or the private sector took over the estate then we would be eligible for grants to help us manage these forests. Grants that come from public funds. It wouldn’t save money, it would probably cost more.

So - what are the benefits that the public would get from this public asset being disposed of?

In order to judge this we would need to know how badly FC is failing in its duties. If this is clear then perhaps this would justify a change.

  • Are they failing to manage woods? Well they provide 60% of England’s timber from just 18% of the woods, so the woods are being managed and timber is being produced.
  • But are they destroying the environment in the process? Well the whole public forest estate is independently certified as sustainably managed by the Forest Stewardship Council - a pretty good tick in their favour.
  • Are they destroying nature (which might have been a criticism over 30 years ago)? Well, as a measure, 99% of the Sites of Special Scientific Interest in their care are in favourable condition, which is better than we in the Wildlife Trusts achieve, so there isn’t much room for improvement there.
  • Are they keeping people out? Well with around 40 million visits per year, obviously not. Not only are people welcomed but FC have legally designated the public forest estate as open access land in perpetuity, so no failure here either.

So – FC are doing everything pretty well, they don’t seem to be failing at anything and they are doing it all at a negligible cost – it may even save us money!

I can’t see this as a reason for break-up.

Monday, 7 February 2011

Forestry Commission sell-off – 2: An example.

Some of the concerns about the Forestry Commission sell-off can be illustrated by taking an example and looking at how things might play out.

Tilgate Forest is a conifer plantation just outside Crawley designated a “small commercial” forest in the consultation document. At present we in the Sussex Wildlife Trust work with the FC (through the Gatwick Greenspace Project – see the link in my previous blog) to open up the canopy in target areas, holding back the dark conifers, letting light in and encouraging the development of heather-covered heathland. This is good for wildlife (we are noticing increases in common lizards and adders for example) and is also improving access and peoples enjoyment. And all this can be done alongside timber production. FC’s forest plan for the area will continue this enhancement, linking up heathland blocks and maybe encouraging less common species (such as the bird the Nightjar) to colonise again. As it is so close to Crawley, there are immense opportunities not just for improving nature but also to encourage quiet enjoyment by people. It sits adjacent to an urban area where open space is much appreciated. We are developing an exciting vision for a Living Landscape in the area where enhancement takes place on a landscape scale for people and wildlife.

That’s how it is at the moment. What of the future under the new arrangement?

As it is a small commercial plantation the proposal would result in a long term lease on the site being sold to the private sector. Charities and community groups may put in an offer but it is unlikely that they could raise enough funds. A private landowner would wish to see a return on their investment so the emphasis would be on commercial forestry. It may be possible to protect what is there to some extent, through restrictions placed on the lease arrangement, but it is most unlikely that any further enhancement would take place. Indeed the new owner only has to “neglect” management of the recently restored heathland for it all to be lost. Whilst access could be legally protected, this too needs investment in order for access to be maintained in practice.

The best that is likely is that the existing value might be preserved, but not improved. In practice even this is unlikely.

And the money gained by the Treasury? There would be some income from the sale, and FC would not be spending money on management, but the new owner would be eligible for a range of grants. Any net gain to the Treasury would be small or even negative. There is no financial benefit to the public in doing this.

So - there would be no financial gain to the government coffers, wildlife and access might not even be maintained, let alone improved, a fruitful partnership between FC and the Sussex Wildlife Trust would have been brought to an end and any vision of landscape scale enhancement for people and wildlife will be forgotten. Not only this but we will probably spend hours in meetings trying (and probably failing) to get the best for wildlife in any future arrangement. So what are the benefits? Why are we even talking about this?

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Forestry Commission sell-off 1

I have had the chance to have a glance through the public consultation on “The future of the Public Forest Estate” since my last blog. We can now see some more details but concerns remain. I’ll just highlight one in this posting.

Woodlands have been classified in the consultation as large commercial, small commercial, multi-purpose and heritage. The first question here regards which wood is classified into which category as this will make quite a difference to the outcome.

The proposal seems to be to transfer the freehold of heritage woods on to a charity or community group without charge. This could include woods like St Leonards Forest, near Crawley. This might be a reasonable idea but there are questions. How about long-term funding? It costs money to look after woods so any community group will wish to ensure that funds are available, long-term, to enable such management. At present Forestry Commission grants could be sourced to achieve this. However, as an intention seems to be to save money one has to question whether government will continue these grants long into the future now that there will be far more people applying for them. This will be quite an expensive part of the proposal. FC already manages these sites very efficiently, probably at a lower cost than would be the case if charities did it with the aid of grants. More community and charity owned woods with local people more involved in their care – this could be a good thing. Maybe this is the only part of the proposal that is at all innovative and worthy of further consideration. But it will cost money.

More serious, however, are some of the other woods. We in the Wildlife Trusts may still consider some commercial and multi-purpose woods as very important ecologically, and could be made more so with sensitive management.

This might include sites like Friston Forest
near Eastbourne
and Tilgate Forest
near Crawley
where the Sussex Wildlife Trust is already active.

Government seems to have the intention of offering these to charities first, but we’d have to buy at “open market values” (i.e. a lot of money). There is an ethical question here for charities. Should we be giving money to government in order to purchase public woods in order to keep them as public woods? Indeed I wonder whether the Charity Commission would consider that a good use of charitable funds. Assuming we did purchase any then once again these would have to be managed utilising FC management grants. Even considering the income government could get by selling to charities (or selling long leases to commercial companies) it is unlikely that government would make much (if any) money from the process.

The “background” section in the consultation makes interesting reading. It reads as a list of major achievements delivered by the FC. I agree with this (and much more could be said). FC is an efficient and effective body delivering much public benefit. So I am still left with the question “why?”

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Forestry Commission sell-off

A consultation starts today about a proposal for the government to sell some or all of the land looked after by the Forestry Commission – the Public Forest Estate.

Governments (of whatever political colour) tend to do this from time to time – the last consultation along these lines was only just over a year ago. In fact government has slowly been nibbling away at the estate for years. Every now and then it tries to work out why we have a public forest estate, but even when it satisfactorily answers the question it can’t resist the urge to sell-off some of the family silver to fill a short-term financial hole.

To some extent this is quite reasonable. We have had changing needs from forestry over the last few decades. So it might make sense to look at the resource again to see if it is satisfying its purpose. This may result in selling, or buying, some sites to make sure it is still delivering public benefit.

Unfortunately this sort of logical thinking is rare and it is not happening now.

There is no strategy to this particular sell-off, in my mind this is its biggest flaw. Government is writing a Natural Environment White Paper and early signs are that this could be quite good. The logical thing would be to publish the white paper and then see how the public forest estate is delivering its objectives. Government might then have some rationale for deciding what to do with our public forest estate. Instead, however, we are given the answer – to sell the estate – without really knowing what the question was!

Obviously, the reason given in the current climate is money. No need to mess about with strategy – times are hard and the country needs cash. The proposal will probably involve selling off about 15% of the estate in the next few years, maybe more (or all of it) later. Estimates I have seen indicate that this will make about £100 million. Not much for a valued natural asset. However, even this sum is unlikely. The first thing a new owner will do is look to see what grants they can get for their new acquisition – for replanting, management and capital items. This is perfectly reasonable – if the Sussex Wildlife Trust acquired a site this is what we would do. In practice these grants can often add up to more than the cost of buying the wood. So, government would make money from the sale but then give it all away again in the form of grants. No gain to the treasury there!

However, how much threat would these sold-off woods actually be under?

Woodland is one of our most protected habitats, there is a lot of regulation to prevent damage, and loss of ancient woodland is rare these days. Also those grants are often paid to private landowners to deliver just the sort of wildlife gain that we would want - and some private landowners look after their woods better than the FC. Also, government has indicated that if there is a hole in the layers of protection then they will do more to enhance protection. Nevertheless, I remain concerned. FC often lead the way in the way it does conservation management. It has become a very effective organisation in trialing approaches to deliver good results. Some major aspects of conservation management might never have got going if it was not for the initiative showed by FC. This trial of policy and practice is unlikely to be as effective if the estate is disposed of.

Access for the public might also be a problem. Most of the public forest estate is designated as open access land so access rights should not alter. However, in practice a landowner can do quite a lot to discourage access, whereas FC very effectively encouraged it.

It is not a matter of privately owned woodlands being worse that the publically owned estate. In Sussex we have some fantastic woods owned and managed by estates and private landowners. But public and private should be complementary. For example, FC has been able to support the timber industry by using their “selling power” to help support the market. Trees take a long time to grow; a landowner needs a decent amount of certainty about future markets.

On balance my view is that FC has turned into an efficient and effective body that is doing a great deal to look after the nation’s forest. This proposal comes at the wrong time. Government should work out what it wants from its public estate first and then see whether it should be selling (or buying) land in order to support its objectives. Do the Natural Enviornment White Paper first.

Friday, 21 January 2011

The National Ecosystem Assessment

The National Ecosystem Assessment, due to be published in March, is one of the key inputs into the Natural Environment White Paper (which itself comes out later in the spring). I am lucky enough to have been sitting on the “user group”, a group that aims to input from the perspective of the organisations who might be making use of it. Having been involved for a while, I have to say that I think its pretty good stuff! I gave a brief description in my blog a few months ago, but its well worth going back to their web site now and then to see how it is developing.

The recent work (not yet published on their web site) looks at plausible scenarios – “storylines” for the future and what that might look like in terms of the effect on ecosystems. And I have just got back from a meeting looking at “response options”.

A key output, however, is going to be guidance for policy makers. This means that, if taken up by future governments, “ecosystem services” should be far better valued in decision making.

The practice? Well, so far, for example, if you own an area of land – a farm for example – you are only paid for the food you produce. Food is an ecosystem service, but only one of many. Not surprisingly then, a farmer is bound to focus on food production – apart from a few grants he’s not paid for anything else. But that area of land is producing far more than just food – it may also produce things like flood protection, provide water resources, could be building up soil, soaking up carbon and recycling nutrients. All stuff we take for granted or assume to be free. We get the benefit but don’t pay the price. In future these services will be properly valued and it may even be that a landowner will be paid to provide them.

At present farmers get some grants for looking after wildlife – and maybe he sees this as just providing some form of amenity for the public. The reality is, however, that the richness of this wildlife – biodiversity – could be an indicator of how well that area of land is providing ecosystem services. So providing grants for wildlife may also be a surrogate for providing money for ecosystem services.

There are dangers in all this. Putting a £ sign on nature always seems dubious. But from what I’ve seen the dangers will come from miss-understanding or miss-use rather than it being wrong in principle.

We should protect and enhance nature because it is the right thing to do; it makes the world a place worth living in and enriches our soul. But if you are the sort of person to whom all this sounds a bit fluffy then you can think of valuing, looking after and enhancing nature as really just a matter of informed self-interest.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

It’s a bit cold this winter – has climate change ended?

The appearance of a bit of snow over the Christmas break has brought out the usual questions about whether climate change is actually happening or not. Well, with unusually cold weather, as much with unusually warm weather, a few local and short term events do not alter the clear and increasingly firm evidence of global warming. You can’t draw conclusions, in any direction, from one or two events.

Indeed the Met Office holds this view regarding our recent couple of years of cold winters. This is just normal variation and is nothing to do with global warming. I am sure this is true, but I think it is quite possible to construct an argument linking this to global climate change. Furthermore this is not to suggest that climate change is not happening but on the contrary may actually be one of its effects.

I stress that this is almost certainly untrue and I will say why later but the argument could go as follows:

In 2007 and again in 2010 the arctic lost huge amounts of ice to the sea. You can look at the evidence for this at the brochure on the Met Office web site at:
This ice loss did not fully recover in subsequent years after 2007. This would mean that large amounts of fresh water would have flowed into the arctic sea so reducing the salinity of the sea at that point. This in turn has the effect of weakening the Gulf Stream, and as we all know, it is the Gulf Stream that brings warm weather up to our islands.

So, global warming has melted ice which could now be weakening the Gulf Stream reducing the tendency for warm weather systems to come in from the south-west and allowing cold polar air to penetrate from the north.

In addition, we also know that the poles are warming up faster than average. The average global temperature increase in the last century has been about 0.8 degrees but at the poles it has been nearer 4 degrees. Furthermore we also know that unusually warm air in the stratosphere over the North Pole in 2009/10 had a knock-on effect of reversing the normal direction of wind over the UK – changing it from warm western winds to cold eastern winds.

So again the polar weather system has become more active and as a result could be pushing cold polar air further south.

It’s interesting to look at the weather maps sometimes and try to guess where the “jet stream” (a narrow band of high speed air marking the boundary between polar weather systems and our temperate weather systems) sits. My perception is that it often sits further south than it did in the past. Even in summer it seems that a run of several weeks of good weather suddenly collapses sometime in July as the jet stream, which should sit over Scotland, suddenly shifts south to run over the Bay of Biscay, and we get nothing but rain! Again is this all a possible effect of more active polar air pushing further south?

At the end of all this, however, it is probably far more likely that, as the Met Office suggests, this is just part of natural variation. All these effects do just happen and are not exceptional or part of a trend. For instance melting ice switching off the Gulf Stream has happened in the past, about 10,000 years ago, but it took truly huge amounts of ice when most of North America was covered in an ice sheet which all suddenly fell into the sea at once. And our ice loss, huge though it is, is nothing like on the same scale.

I’ll be interested if these effects keep happening though!