“I suggest that the essence of conservation lies in one simple word. No. Say no, mean no. Fight to retain the places we have.” William Bunting.
Like many people when I am angry about something which I care passionately about my views can become polarised. My opinions can be black and white about ‘them’ and ‘us.’ So when I see the continuous destruction of our countryside in the current rush of development there are only two types of Environmental Consultant, those on the light side and those on the dark. Those whose love and knowledge of wildlife is used to protect species and enhance the natural world and those who use their knowledge to aid companies who wish to cover our planet in concrete. I have often spoken of people who work for consultancies whose main work involves aiding development companies to remove wildlife and destroy habitat as soulless.
This spring, however, I have a man volunteering with me who works for one of the consultancy firms I see as being on the dark side. This man has a love of wildlife, he is a better birdwatcher than me and spends much of his free time surveying wildlife for free, should I really condemn him because he wants to work full time with wildlife and there aren’t enough jobs on the light side to go round? Like so many issues it is harder to shoot down the ‘enemy’ when you meet them and talk to them.
The problem is too many people are coming out of countryside management courses and off apprentice schemes and find that the only job available is ‘dark side’ consultancy work. Maybe some of these people begin thinking that what they are doing is ok. I myself have translocated species but only when the project will have an overall benefit for wildlife. Much of the work done by consultancies has no benefit for wildlife and is ill thought out and not followed through.
If development companies were forced to provide adequate compensatory habitat for that destroyed and pay for it’s long term management then maybe I would be more in favour of translocation. Maybe if developers were made to do this then they would be more willing to renovate some of our existing empty buildings and former industrial sites instead of building new ones on wildlife rich habitat. Instead companies move species to inappropriate locations already packed to the rafters with other translocated creatures and do no follow up monitoring to understand whether their work has been a success.
But could I personally do more to help people like my volunteer by taking on staff of my own? I potentially could if there didn’t seem to be so many barriers in the way of doing so. If the Government didn’t penalise small business’s wishing to offer people paid experience by making the whole business of taking someone on such a nightmare of legal constraints, tax issues and insurances. Giving people the sort of work a small business can manage seems to be frankly illegal and way, way too complicated to bother with.
My volunteer wishes to move on from doing work for developers. He wants to work for one of the good guys and I could give him the experience he needs to do so but, while the laws regarding small business’s are so top heavy and restrictive, he will have to continue to do so in his spare time for free and, like many others, will be tempted to stay in the dark.
I am told time and time again that the rampant destruction of the countryside for housing must happen. People must have homes, I am told, big homes, homes with spare bedrooms and office space and just extra rooms for who knows what, not to mention second homes and holiday homes and homes that sit empty for all but a few weeks in the summer. All land must go to housing, I am told whether it is of value to wildlife or not. It is in the ‘National Interest.’
However, if this is true, why are we still granting planning permission to unnecessary developments, such as the massive Aldi supermarket currently under construction on the Isle of Sheppey? The massive Aldi supermarket which will sit next to the massive Morrison’s supermarket and the massive Macdonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken. Why, if land for housing is so desperately needed, are we saying yes to such waste of land? Is another supermarket and Macdonald’s really in the national interest?
But increasingly in our country it feels that there is no planning when it comes to planning permission. Developers can build what they like with no thought to how it fits in with the needs of existing communities. Ugly housing is thrown up around villages, housing estates developed on roads completely unsuited to increased traffic. Developers make quick money and have no need to build schools or hospitals and pay for the staff to run them or subsidise public transport for the communities they have flung up in locations which have none.
It seems that the needs of business to make money take precedence over the needs of people to live in attractive working communities and that is why the currently rash of development seems so piecemeal , so full of chancers, so unplanned, because the government is under the cosh of big business and big business doesn’t give a monkeys about our interests.
Are you feeling as overwhelmed as I am by the rate of destruction of wildlife rich sites around your town? Every day I seem to drive along a road and see a place which last year was full of song birds and slow worms and this year has been ripped apart by would be developers.
Last year these sites would have already been given planning permission and be ringed with reptile exclusion fencing this year things have changed. With the government brow beating local councils into providing land for housing then cowboy developers everywhere are seeing the main chance.
Suddenly it seems there is a flood of people ripping out scrub, tearing up meadows, turning over reptile sites with no planning permission, no surveys, no mitigation. In the last few weeks two sites near to my home have gone the way of the bulldozers with not a reptile exclusion fence in sight.
Presumably the landowners feel that in the present climate they can get away with it. After all, isn’t this what the Government wants? Not all this old scrub, bristling with bird song but land laid bare ready for bricks and mortar?
The terrible thing is that these developers are probably right. Natural England has already been stripped to their bones and wildlife officers in local councils have gone the way of the dinosaurs. And I? I can be angry at them all. I can rally and weep and rage against every destruction of meadow and scrubland, every reduction in my quality of life, every step my home makes away from the countryside and into suburbia but I cannot fight them all. The epidemic of destruction is simply too big.
Lodge Hill, an area of woodland and scrubland on the edge of Medway is about to become famous. Famous for what depends on whether it is destroyed to make way for 5000 houses or protected because of it’s SSSI status and the fact that it houses the largest colony of nightingales in the South East.
Medway Council, who have just included it as one of the development options in their local plan, wish for the words Lodge Hill to join the likes of Twyford Down and Newbury bypass as a place where protestors gathered to fight to protect our natural places from being destroyed.
This time though the stakes are higher. If destruction of a SSSI goes ahead for development it will green light a whole raft of other proposals and render the laws which protect our countryside invalid. If Lodge Hill goes ahead then no where is safe.
But Lodge Hill could be famous for another reason. For the place where a local authority refused to bow to the pressure from Westminster to build all over the south east and said, “No. We will drop our support for the development of Lodge Hill and concentrate housing and retail back in town centres.”
If development at Lodge Hill goes ahead it will taint Medway for generations. The area will be associated with protest and dirty politics, the roads will be clogged by cars and we will have destroyed a nightingale colony which should be something of which we are rightly proud and promote as one of the reasons to visit. Is this really the legacy that Medway Council wants?
It is time for us all to stand up and make the name Lodge Hill synonymous with a legacy of which we can be proud.
Voice your protest at the proposed development of Lodge Hill by e-mailing email@example.com
Natural England, English Nature and it’s many predecessors was once a organisation you would feel proud to work for. I remember feeling that only those at the top of their game would be likely to get work with them.
Then things changed, whispers within the conservation sector grew that Natural England were increasingly employing people who did not have the character to really make a stand for nature. I attended meetings with Natural England staff where people proposed terrible developments to wildlife rich areas and wondered why I was the only one making a fuss. Now I know. It was the beginning of the end for what was once a highly respected organisation that were the last line of defence against all of those who would seek to destroy our countryside.
In the last few years everyone has known that Natural England is on its knees. It still employs a few people of excellence but they are increasingly demoralised. It’s local offices are a ghost town, it’s work is more often than not farmed out to others.
An article in today’s Guardian sounds the last bell. Natural England’s budget is to be cut, it’s staff reduced further, it’s resolve to take people to court weakened, it willingness to be paid for by developers increased. Now we have an organisation who is happy to turn a blind eye to outrageous contraventions of European law such as the peat bog burning at Walshaw Moor in which they dropped out of a case after the landowner spoke to a government minister. Now we have what the government wants, no one to stand in their way while they plough, burn and build over our SSSI’s and National Parks.
Who is there to stand up for nature now?
Read The Guardian article here.
Last night on BBC’s Springwatch I learnt why loyalty is not always such a good thing. A nightingale, it turns out, flies from Africa in the spring back to exactly the same bush in England it left from the previous year. No wonder nightingales in our country are doing so badly.
The nightingale currently breeding in the scrub at Bakersfield at the end of my road will be one of the losers next spring. He will fly back to his favourite spot to find that it has been turned into a building site. So, I fear, will many others.
In the current rush to throw up as many houses as possible, in the current rush to sweep away planning restrictions, in the current rush to destroy all brownfield sites many of our countries nightingales will lose their territories.
In this country we have tree preservation orders, protection for trees which are special. Why can’t we have the same thing for the places that are so important for one of our most iconic birds? Why can’t we have nightingale territory preservation orders? Extra protection for the trees which are important to them.
It will never happen of course because we fail to see beyond our anthropocentric world view. Tree preservation orders protect trees which are important to us because they are beautiful to our eye or important for our history. Our first national parks protected landscapes considered to be attractive by the people choosing them.
But what’s good for wildlife is not always what is good for our eye. Scrub is often not beautiful, wet grassland is not beautiful, brownfield is not beautiful. If only we could shift our thinking to protect not just the pretty but the pretty damn important then our countries wildlife and in turn our own lives, would be richer for it.