The State of Europe’s Nature

Wisdom for Nature?

Wisdom for Nature?

 

Today is International Biodiversity Day. Instead of being out and about enjoying biodiversity (or nature as I prefer to call it), I’m sitting at my computer writing this. Does that make any sense?

How is biodiversity nature doing in Europe? A weighty report has appeared from the Eco-gnomes at the European Environment Agency, entitled State of Nature in the EU.

Thank goodness they have not forgotten that people care about nature, but may well not know what biodiversity means. One UK survey found 80% of people thought it was a washing powder. Whether this is true or a factoid, I cannot say, but it has been quoted extensively.

The State of Europe’s Nature report is based on each country’s reporting on what is happening to the Birds and Habitats (and species other than birds) listed under the Birds and Habitats Directive, which occur in those countries. So this reporting is assessing the status of the species and habitats in the EU which are regarded as needing the most protection. It is not a report about all nature across Europe, far from it. In the UK, Birds and Habitats Directive listed habitats and species are protected in sites covering just 7% of the land surface.

 

Birds Directive Reporting

Recording of data on bird populations is very good in most countries, with the exception of Greece, who did not provide any data either for Birds of Habitats.

For birds listed on the Birds Directive, the most recent reporting found that populations of just over half of all bird species were stable, while a third were either near threatened or really threatened. For breeding birds, the short term trends were that half the species were stable or increasing, and just under a third were decreasing. The long term trends were 44% stable or increasing, 27% decreasing. For those birds whose populations are under pressure, Agriculture was identified as the main cause of pressure, followed by “modification of natural conditions” which I suspect is Eurospeak for loss of habitat quality.

Habitats Directive Reporting

The Habitats Directive story is very different. While there were 7259 reports on the Birds Directive across the EU, there were only 10,100 for all habitats and non-bird species, despite there being many more habitats and species listed on the Habitats Directive, than on the Birds Directive. In some countries, more reports for birds were sent in to the EC than for habitats and non-bird species together. The picture painted by the reported data is also less positive. For the 26 countries which have reported back, only nine reported that more than 25% of all their habitat assessments were favourable; and these nine included the very small countries of Cyprus and Malta. The UK was third from bottom in reporting a positive assessment, with only about 5% of assessments being favourable and 90% unfavourable/inadequate or unfavourable/bad. Only the Netherlands and Denmark fared worse.

The reporting of non-bird species was more positive, with only nine countries reporting less than 25% of species assessments as favourable; and the UK doing relatively well here, coming 7th in the ranking.

The overall assessment for Habitats Directive listed habitats across the EU found 20% in favourable or unfavourable improving, 30% unfavourable declining and 33% unfavourable stable. There is also a big difference between EU biogeographical regions in the proportion of positive assessments; Macaronesia, Alpine and Steppic bioregions (26-50% favourable) fared much better than the Atlantic and Boreal regions (over 50% unfavourable status).

For groups of habitats, the assessment also reveals changing fortunes. Dunes, coastal habitats and grasslands are doing badly, while heath, scrub and Alpine habitats are doing best. Even so, those habitats doing best still only score 25-30% favourable, and 45-75% unfavourable.

Non-bird species again are doing better than habitats, but not as well as birds. 27% of assessments were favourable or unfavourable improving, while 20% were unfavourable stable and 22% unfavourable declining.

Once again Agriculture was identified as the principal pressure on Habitats Directive listed habitats, followed by “modification of natural conditions”; and the same result was found for non-bird species, although Forestry was also identified as a significant pressure.

There is wealth of detail in the report which I have just skimmed across here, but you can go and look for yourself.

So, the picture is that birds are generally doing better than species other than birds, and both are doing considerably better than habitats. And these species and habitats are the highest priority for conservation action. So one conclusion could be that the Birds and Habitats Directives are not really doing very well at protecting or restoring population of top priority species or habitats. However, the extent to which these Directives have achieved what they set out to or not, has to be considered in light of all the other things that are happening to prevent or promote those achievements.

It is no coincidence that the EU pays out billions of euros in farm subsidies on the one hand, and that agriculture is far and away the single most significant pressure on the future survival of Europe’s “finest” species and habitats. Despite 36 years of implementing the Birds Directive and 23 years of the Habitats Directive, there has been little success in altering the course of the Common Agricultural Policy Supertanker.

Fitness Check

The new European Commission last year announced a review of the Birds and Habitats Directive, a so called Fitness Check. The RSPB have launched a campaign to protect the Birds (and Habitats) Directive from what they perceive to be a serious threat to weaken the measures currently available to protect nature. The bells of doom are being rung, and 100 organisations under the Joint Links banner have signed up to a statement that this refit is “the biggest single threat to UK and European nature in a generation”.

But if these Nature Directives really are doing such a fantastic job that any changes to them would be so threatening, why are their own reporting mechanisms showing that the highest priority birds, other species and habitats are still declining? Could it be because these Directives are not helping with the conservation of Europe’s nature, as much as RSPB would like us to think they are?

Certainly in the UK, where only 7% of the land surface is protected under these Nature Directives, it has to be said that positive action for nature brought about by the Directives has been very limited and mostly restricted to that 7%. There has still been some fantastic work done under the auspices of the Nature Directives, including many projects funded through LIFE; and the extra protection afforded these sites through things like the planning process has done some good in preventing impacts from new housing developments or roads, for example. But, as the Directives own reporting shows, there has been little to stop the continuing damage to nature from intensive agriculture or forestry, or unsustainable fishing practices promoted by the Common Fisheries Policy.

Elsewhere in Europe the Nature Directives have had more of a positive effect, especially in countries which had little in the way of domestic nature protection legislation. Some EU countries have declared large areas as protected under the Birds and Habitats Directives – Slovakia has 29% coverage of SACs/SPAs while Slovenia has 36% coverage. In fact every single other country in the EU has a larger proportion of land protected under the Nature Directives than the UK, even large countries like Spain have 27% land area protected. To what extent these are really protected is moot, but designation is certainly a step further along the road towards nature recovering or thriving.

EU Referendum

It seems we will be voting in a referendum next year to decide whether the UK (or the rump UK minus Scotland) stays in the EU or not. Given the UK Government’s lack of enthusiasm for all things regulatory, including nature protection laws, there is certainly a risk that implementation of the Nature Directives (or get out clauses from that implementation) is used as a bargaining chip in the coming negotiations.

Actually of all the countries in the EU, given our paltry implementation of these Directives,  nature would lose out least were we to lose the protections afforded by the EU legislation, assuming we continued with the domestic nature legislation that was there before. That may not be a particularly popular statement with the conservation NGOs, but it is still true.

It was almost a year ago that I wrote about the pros and cons of being in Europe, for the environment. I am still none the wiser. It would be great if we could have an open honest debate about the EU and whether it has helped nature (in the UK and more widely in Europe) or not, and what would need to happen for it to be a strong force for nature, before the referendum.

The least we can do is all try and make the environment and nature a prominent part of that debate, something which frustratingly did not happen in the general election.

 

 

Posted in Birds Directive, Common Agricultural Policy, European Commission, European environment policy, Habitats Directive, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments

Countryside Alliance get their man into Defra

Wolf and Fox Hunt: Rubens

Wolf and Fox Hunt: Rubens

The slow death of Defra continues, as it loses Lord de Mauley as the Defra minister in the Lords.

Lord de Mauley is a decent sort of chap. He didn’t agree with his former Boss Owen Paterson’s ravings about being stalked by the Green Blob.  He took up the call for action on Bees and became the Minister for Bees. He was given the task of creating the National Pollinator Strategy, which is all about saving Bees. Needless to say the Bees have not responded yet to the Strategy, the ungrateful blighters. That the strategy doesn’t mention doing anything about bee-cidal Neonicotinoids insecticides might explain that.

It will be interesting to see who is given this particular political hot potato now that de Mauley has gone.

The new Defra spokesperson in the Lords is Lord Gardiner. Gardiner had a long career as private secretary to a variety of Tory Ministers before becoming the Countryside Alliance’s chief spin doctor. He was then in the deputy chief exec role which he held until 2010, when he was ennobled and joined the House of Lords. Between 201o and 2012 he continued to be an executive director of the Countryside Alliance, while carrying out Government duties in the Lords.  In 2011 for example the Countryside Alliance boldly celebrated an intervention:

“During a House of Lords debate on biological diversity on Monday 20 June (2011), Lord (John) Gardiner – Executive Director of the Countryside Alliance – singled out the work upland landowners and grouse moor managers do in halting declines in habitats and species.”

Here are some things he said in that debate:

I turn to matters rural, for it is here that much of Nagoya in the UK will be achieved. With more than 70 per cent of the UK managed by rural communities, farmers and land managers play a crucial role for the nation in so many regards such as water supply, flora and fauna, food production and landscape. We need increasingly to ensure that we produce enough food in this country, as food security becomes an ever higher priority in public policy. There is of course a range of professionals who have cared for the land over many generations. The Government should back them in this role.

When it comes to halting declines in habitats and species-a key objective in the Nagoya agreement-one needs to look no further than the uplands of the north of England. There, heather moorland that has been managed for grouse shooting has been responsible for making the greatest contribution to the improvement in the environmental health of the country’s outstanding wildlife and geological sites. Sites of specific scientific interest cover more than 2 million acres of the land surface of England, and provide vital and extensive refuges for wildlife and essential free natural resources for people. Today, 96 per cent of grouse moors are in a favourable or recovering condition. The support of upland landowners and grouse moor managers has been crucial in achieving this goal. Moorland managed for grouse shooting accounts for some 850,000 acres of uplands, 60 per cent of all upland SSSIs and nearly one-fifth of all England’s SSSI land.

What is either not known or overlooked is that the majority of that management is carried out at the private expense of the land manager. The rural community of this country has a long track record of working in harmony with nature. Since the Moorland Association was formed 25 years ago, members have regenerated and recovered more than 217,000 acres-including 57,000 in the past decade-thereby exceeding the Government’s 2010 conservation target by 170 per cent. Grouse moor owners have shown that they have the ability to achieve this at their own cost, but it should be with the Government’s backing.

It may be an inconvenient truth for some, but it is the case that the hare was in its most abundant numbers when its habitat was managed for coursing and hare hunting; the red deer herd on Exmoor was one of the finest in the world because of the management undertaken by the three packs of staghounds; and the fox was best managed and looked after when the species was considered quarry rather than vermin.

Here is Gardiner’s statement and the Countryside Alliance’s fond farewell to Gardiner in October 2012, when he took up his role as a Whip in the Lords

Fare Well from John Gardiner

Following my appointment as a Government Whip in the House of Lords, I have to stand down as a Board Member and Executive Director of the Countryside Alliance. It has been the greatest of privileges to work for the Alliance and the rural cause since December 1995. The opportunity it has given me to meet so many members and supporters and to enjoy their friendship and encouragement will remain with me forever. Even in the more testing political times, no one could have received greater support from colleagues and members alike. Words cannot adequately express just how much my time at the Alliance means to me. I leave with the Alliance in good hands and I wish Barney and his team every possible success.

Barney White-Spunner writes: As you know John has been a long serving and is a very experienced member of the team whose expertise and commitment to our countryside has been total. I am sure you will join me in wishing John every success in his new role and thank him for his outstanding and unstinting contribution to the work of the Countryside Alliance over many, many years.

As Gardiner was chair of the Vale of Aylesbury Hunt from 1992 to 2006, joining the Whips seems appropriate. I expect he is looking forward to Hunting across the Vale again.

That reminds me of a personal experience I had with the V of A Hunt. It must have been around 1992, when I was a conservation officer for BBONT as it was then, in Buckinghamshire. I was in my favourite nature reserve at Finemere Wood, with a group of volunteers who were on an scheme for unemployed people. We were doing some scrub bashing, when I heard the unmistakeable sound of hunting horns nearby. I moved as quickly as I could towards the sound, to see the entire hunt illegally entering the nature reserve, after a fox. I tried to remonstrate with them, but it’s quite hard getting your point across to men on horseback, who clearly had the “blood up”. They ignored me and carried on. I was not amused. The volunteers, who were all from Buckinghamshire and a rural bunch were not keen on the hunt and I remember vividly they waved them waving their billhooks and slashers in the air as the hunt rode past. It was a scene straight out of the Peasant’s revolt, though there were no clashes other than verbal ones.

I remember fuming about it with my colleagues later, but what could we do? The Hunt were a law unto themselves.

Gardiner’s declared interests include being a Partner in a Buckinghamshire farming enterprise C M Robarts and Son of Kimble Wick. The farm is in ELS, all 250 off hectares of it, so it’s good to know our Defra Lord is benefiting from the Common Agricultural Policy.   He is also a Director of Robarts Investment Limited ,which is not registered in Bucks, but in Essex. Robarts Investment Limited is valued at £2.6M. It’s not clear how much of the business Gardiner owns.

I think we can expect Gardiner to be involved in the repeal of the Hunting Act, given his personal interest and his experience as a Whip in the Lords. He will also no doubt speak up in support of rolling out the Badger Cull. We might also expect him to get involved with the debate around Grouse Moors and Raptors, especially in light of the Judicial Review against Natural England on licences for gamekeepers to shoot Buzzards.

Will he start to make statements about the need to remove Beavers from the Countryside, or how damaging Lynx might be? Or perhaps he is a fan of rewilding, on  the condition he and his mates can hunt in the rewilding zones.

 

 

Painting by Peter Paul Rubens [Public domain or CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Posted in 2015 election, bees, blood sports | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Which is the biggest threat to sheep – Dogs or Lynx?

Found_something_interesting_-_geograph.org.uk_-_777471

It’s understandable why sheep farmers and their organisations should be worried about the reintroduction of Apex Predators such as Wolf and Lynx. Recent proposals to reintroduce Lynx have met with stiff opposition from the likes of the National Sheep Association, and their revulsion at the idea of a predator that eats sheep being brought back into the countryside forced Natural England to make a statement.

Any application to introduce lynx into England would need very serious consideration in terms of its impact right across the UK. If such an application were made, Natural England would consider it in line with prevailing legislation; international guidelines; following proper public consultation and evidence gathering, and taking into account any input from government.”

The Lynx Trust has garnered much attention and a good deal of public support over the last few months, and it’s great that they have created debate around the issue of reintroducing large extinct mammals. That they didn’t really help themselves by making nonsensical statements that “the countryside is dying and the Lynx will bring it back to life” is beside the point.

Farmers will not want their sheep to be killed by predators such as Lynx or Wolf, and even though Lynx take relatively few sheep in countries where they are currently found, for a sheep farmer to lose a prized breeding ewe or ram is always heartbreaking. But there is another angle here, which is that this is happening already. There is an apex predator roaming the hills killing sheep. It’s the domesticated Wolf, or dog as its more commonly known.

North Wales police have been gathering statistics on the number of dog-worrying sheep incidents and found there were 108 incidents over the past 12 months. They found there were on average 9 incidents a month, with one incident involving 30 sheep. When a dog is found to have attacked sheep, the owner can be fined and the dog destroyed. And this is what North Wales police have done, enforce the law. But as far as I know, the sheep farmer does not receive compensation for their loss. In this case, 70 sheep were killed by three dogs, casuing a £20,000 loss, but no compensation was paid.

So here’s the rub; Lynx, when they do take lambs or sheep, only take what they need, just one animal per kill. Dogs will behave differently, and especially if there is more than one dog, can kill large numbers of sheep in one attack. There would be a compensation scheme for sheep lost to Lynx attacks, no such compensation scheme exists or is likely to for domestic dog attacks.

Would the presence of Lynx in an area cause the behaviour of domestic dogs to change? Would they behave more warily in those circumstances, or indeed would their owners behave more circumspectly? Perhaps not.

But it does seem pretty clear to me that if I were a sheep farmer I would rather have the minor problem of having the occasional animal taken by a Lynx (with compensation), than having the major problem of sheep worrying by domestic dogs.

Dog worrying incidents continue to rise across the UK….yet the NSA seem keen to focus publicity on what a handful of Lynx might do to their flocks. Have they given up the fight to get dog owners to act responsibly?

Photo by Evelyn Simak [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Posted in dogs, lynx, National Sheep Association, rewilding, Uncategorized, wolves | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

Two Years of A New Nature Blog

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

I’m celebrating two years (yesterday) since I started writing this blog.

This isn’t the first blog I have written though, as I started in October 2010 when I was working for The Grasslands Trust. That one lasted just under two years, before TGT went under.

It’s customary to bore you with statistics on anniversary days, so here goes:

I have written 240 posts in the last two years (that’s got to be a book’s worth) and I have received 102,711 page views, for which I am eternally grateful.

My best day for views was the 4th October 2014 when I had 2415 views. That was when I published The Strange Case of Dr Earth and the UKIP Environmental Policies. This has been my most popular blog, so far, with 4326 views; and I’m pleased that people are still discovering this particular bit of fun. I don’t know whether Dr Earth himself has read it yet, if he has, he hasn’t let me know.

In a very respectable second place on the list is Held to Ransom: Solar Farms: green or greed, with 2295 views. And in 3rd place with 2,040 views is The New Natural England Chair Andrew Sells.

Perhaps the one that means most to me is the Obit I wrote for my brother Simon, who died nearly two years ago; and being able to publish the tribute written by his great friend Bob Hornegold.

I’m really pleased to have received 1215 comments from a wide range of contributors. Top commentators are Dave Dunlop, Mark Fisher and Mud-Lark – all from the North. Thanks to you and to everyone else who has commented, especially those who have disagreed with me.

I can see this blog being part of my life for some time to come. It has certainly been helpful to me, in some kind of therapeutic way. As some of you will know the last five years has been very difficult for various reasons. But despite what happened on Friday and its potential consequences, I feel positive about quite a lot of things (even if that doesn’t necessarily express itself in what I write about) and I am still hoping to set up a new nature charity this year.

In the meantime, kind people have given me paid work which I find interesting and doesn’t cause me ethical problems: for which I feel lucky. I have also lost nearly 4 kilos in the last 7 weeks on the 5:2 diet and that is definitely helping my health and wellbeing.

Thanks for reading.

Photo By Anssi Koskinen from Turku, Finland (2) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Posted in blogging, Uncategorized | Tagged , | 14 Comments

Some initial thoughts on what may happen to Nature under the new Government.

future fields?

future fields?

 

After the shock that arrived about 130 yesterday morning when it became clear that the exit poll was right and all the polls had been wrong (or rather had not picked up that the undecideds would vote Tory), I started to wonder what impact a Tory Government with a weak majority might have on Nature over the next Five years.

This is really just a few first thoughts, so please don’t hold my feet to the fire if I get it wrong. I may be overplaying the influence of the hard right in the forthcoming Government, but I do see them in a much stronger position to demand concessions in return for being well behaved this time round (they were not in the last Parliament but it didnt matter so much as the Coalition had a proper working majority.)

  • Abolition of DECC, replaced by Department of Energy.
  • Abolition of DCMS, dismembered parts go to various departments, including BIS.
  • Abolition of Defra, merger with DCMS, BIS and/or the Department of Energy.
  • Badger cull rolled out to 25 areas, reducing badger populations by 70% in those areas.
  • A free vote on repealing the hunting Act, but with a small majority it won’t get through.
  • Natural England either merged with EA and/or required to consider “economic growth” when making all decisions on eg new SSSI notifications.
  • Moves to support the EU in weakening the Nature Directives (Birds and Habitats).
  • Further weakening of implementation of other EU Directives such as EIA, SEA, under Red Tape Challenge 2.
  • Abandonment of Biodiversity 2020, introduction of new 25 year Natural Capital plan.
  • A large scale sell off of Public Land. This will include areas which are either already recognised as being highly valuable for nature, or not.
  • Pressure from landowners will prevent further reintroductions of large mammals (Lynx) or the expansion of existing populations of Beaver.
  • Wild Boar may be re-eradicated.
  • Further relaxation of the planning laws, making it easier to build on greenfield sites as well as brownfields – a possible reform of the Green Belt.
  • Introduction of Biodiversity Offsetting and incorporation into the NPPF.
  • Introduction of trading in biodiversity credits.
  • Introduction of GMO crops.
  • Repeal on ban of Neonics.
  • Very relaxed implementation of Cross Compliance (or at least as relaxed as possible within EU rules.)
  • Very onerous implementation of standards for Agri-Environment Scheme entrants.
  • Negotiating position to abolish the CAP in 2022.
  • Abandonment of Terrestrial Wind Farm and Solar Farm subsidies.
  • Fracking introduced to Britain.
  • Possible repeal of the Climate Change Act.
  • Payments introduced for landowners to store floodwater on their land.
  • All Schools will become Academies, total loss of Education function within Local Authorities.
  • Further heavy cuts to Local Authorities  – ecological functions (including planning) will be outsourced or shared between authorities.
  • Management/ownership of Parks and other open spaces will be divested to local community groups.
  • A PPG17 type review to identify “surplus” land will see much more sold off to cover loss of central government income. Total sale of remaining County Farm estates.
  • Charities are further prevented from lobbying and “political activity” is redefined to make it much harder for Charities to speak out on work to change policy.
  • The London Garden Bridge, but eco-activists secretly sow Japanese knotweed into the concrete structure while it being built, turning it into an impenetrable knotweed jungle. It is subsequently destroyed.

If this sounds rather depressing, I’m sorry and I may be painting an overly dark picture. How many of these things will actually happen depends on how society views nature and how much nature is valued. A small Government majority means that people like Zac Goldsmith; and others who are sympathetic to nature, become really key figures within the Tory ranks.

 

 

Posted in 2015 election, Uncategorized | Tagged , | 16 Comments

The Dog Poo Bag Deposit Mystery

Dog Poo Bag Deposit

Dog Poo Bag Deposit

There’s a house on the corner of our road which doesn’t seem to be occupied, or at least only occasionally. The hedges grow out over the pavement and there’s an old hawthorn – much of which is dead, which is gradually dropping large lumps of deadwood. So far no-one has been brained. I worry that one day the whole thing will come down onto someone’s car.

The house is near the top of the hill and exposed to the south-west wind which can rip through, and quite often a fence panel gets punched out by the wind. The owners haven’t been by for a while and the fence panel has blown into the garden, leaving a laurel hedge exposed to the pavement, as the photo shows.

A local dog-walker walks past this spot. Having picked up their dog’s poo and bagged it (in what look like biodegradeable bags), they consciously drop it through the hole in the fence, into the garden beyond, under the Laurel bush. They don’t do it every day, just some days.

There are five poo bags there now, plus one which is on the pavement nearby.

I am trying to put myself in the place of the dog-walker, trying to work out what thought process would lead me to pick up my dog’s poo, bag it, tie a knot in the bag, carry it a certain distance, spot a hole in someone’s fence, drop the bag through the hole, then do it again, and again.

In some ways the person should be congratulated for having not just left their dog’s poo on the pavement, or in the local park at Maumbury Rings – as others do. But on the other hand, it seems extraordinary to deliberately drop it into someone’s garden.

Do they have some long-standing family vendetta with the owners of the house? Or are they making a critical (excremental) statement  about the lack of fence maintenance undertaken by the owners? Or are they suffering from some sort of mental health disorder where they feel compelled to create a collection of dog poo bags in that particular spot for some unknown reason.

It’s a mystery which has compelled me to write about it and share it with you. Is there some metaphor to be drawn about personal and civic responsibility and society?

Yes there probably is, but I will leave you to draw that for yourself.

Posted in dog poo, Uncategorized | Tagged , | 12 Comments

The Uninspiring Election

Fiddler Crab waving

Fiddler Crab waving

 

It’s a while since I have written anything on here. To be honest I have been feeling uninspired – and this may in large part be down to this extraordinarily tedious election campaign which seems to have been going on forever.

Of course it’s disappointing for nature and the environment to have been completely excluded from the political debate – and I’m not alone in thinking that. A poll from YouGov showed Education and the Environment were the topics electors wanted to hear more about from the parties. Even the Green Party has had almost nothing to say about nature. And plenty of commentators and politicians are happy to conflate action on climate change with environmental action, let alone any concern for nature. Why should I be surprised? Nature and the environment are not issues high up on any politician’s priority list, and they will say “the electorate is concerned about the economy, or the NHS or Europe, so we have to say what we will do” blah blah. As if we only want politicians to hold up mirrors to ourselves, rather than provide leadership.

The election appears to be being played amongst the politicians and the media, without any reference to the electorate – and that means that there have been very few genuine policy debates, just a lot of posturing and positioning.

There’s a very good reason for this. As the polls have consistently shown, another hung parliament has been guaranteed for months, so we have been subject to the unedifying performance of the parties appearing to talk to their electors, but in reality signalling like fiddler crabs on a beach, to each other, as to what they would be prepared to do (or not do) to work together.  Because of our now thoroughly anachronistic first past the post voting system, the battle has focussed down on a few key marginals, and just a hundred thousand voters will determine the outcome for the other 65 million inhabitants, so all the resources of the parties are concentrated on these pressure points.

It is no real surprise that, apart from in Scotland where PR and the close fought referendum has energised politics, the electorate feels disenfranchised and angry or apathetic; and this in part will lead to a large “protest vote” for UKIP on the right and the Greens on the left, but also could see the lowest turnout in modern election history. Whoever ends up in Government may struggle to persuade the country they have a mandate, though whether they will care about that seems questionable.

Who will I vote for? West Dorset isn’t a real marginal and the campaigning has been very sub fusc. Our MP is Oliver Letwin and he has slowly increased his majority over the past few elections  – in 97 it was a very slim 840, in 2010 it was just under 4000. I don’t think it will surprise anyone that I won’t be voting for him, even though he is evidently quite a good constituency MP. The Labour candidate and the Green have both said they support the Rampisham solar farm development, which will make it difficult for me to give either of them my vote, even though I usually vote Green.

That leaves the Lib Dem Ros Kaye who has changed her mind and now objects to the Rampisham development, which is good news. And the Lib Dems are the only party who could unseat Letwin. But then they have been complicit in so many awful policy decisions as part of the last coalition Government – could I really hold my nose, ignore that, and vote on local issues close to my heart? To be honest I am still undecided and I am not alone. Apparently 40% of the electorate have not made up their mind yet.

How will you vote? Will you bother, and what sort of a Government would you like to see at the end?

 

 

Photo by Mnolf (Photo taken on Taveuni, Fiji) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Posted in 2015 election, Nature | Tagged , , | 16 Comments

An outbreak of nonaerophobia among UKIP spokesmen

20020717_Expo_Yverdon_21

gas-extracting machines have been smuggled into Britain by evil foreign master criminals

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What is it about UKIP Spokesmen and their fear of gases disappearing?

First there was farm spokesman and chicken farmer Stuart Agnew, telling the European Parliament of his desperate worries that the EU’s action on climate change will lead to all the Carbon Dioxide being sucked out of the air, preventing plants from growing.

Now their housing (and Environment) leader Andrew Charalambous invites us, on his fascinating blog, to ask “when our countryside and forests are radically diminished where will we get our oxygen to breathe from?”. A question indeed.

I wonder if this is a subtle new election tactic, to ignite the electorate’s own smouldering fears of the loss of gases – a latent nonaerophobia just waiting to break forth into mass hysteria, resulting in a late swing to UKIP in the polls – it will go down in political history as “The Great Gas Swing”.

Will we hear climate change and energy spokesman Roger Helmer decry moves towards a Hydrogen Economy, as he reveals his fears that all the hydrogen will float away into space, before it can be used? Perhaps someone could attach some large hydrogen filled balloons to Mr Helmer, to see whether it does.

Could we even see the Great Leader Nigel Farage raising the prospect (in a very high voice) of Helium disappearing from the planet?

No-one in UKIP has directly stated who they believe is responsible for these gases disappearing, but one can make some educated guesses. It must be migrants, coming here, breathing in too deeply (and holding their breath).

Or worse, evil foreign super criminals must have secret gas-extracting machines they have smuggled into the country and are at this moment, quietly pumping all our gases away. I can feel my throat tightening as I struggle for breath…..

 

The Blur Building. Photo by Norbert Aepli, Switzerland [CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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Rampisham Down Factsheet #8: Politics and Politicians

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As the election draws closer, I thought it would be worth looking at the politics and politicians of Rampisham Down and who supports the development of a Solar Farm on one of Britain’s most important nature sites. There are some surprises, but you’ll have to read to the end to find out.

While Westminster Politics may seem a long way away and one small vote in West Dorset has very little influence, the same is not true of local councils. Here, a Councillor can regularly be elected with a majority of a hundred or less, so every vote really does count.

District Council Elections

All West Dorset District Councillors are up for election this year, including members of the planning committee, so you can vote for who you want to represent you, both as Councillors, and as members of the Planning Committee, who make decisions like the Rampisham Down decision. Of course we don’t know who will end up on the Planning Committee after May, as some Councillors who get re-elected might not want to join that particular committee.

We know one planning committee member will not be there after May – Tony Frost, the only independent Councillor on the planning committee, was elected unopposed ie appointed in 2011. His ward has now been abolished and as far as I can see he is not standing anywhere else. Regular readers will recall it was  Frost who wittily remarked, at the planning committee meeting, that Rampisham was a brownfield site, on account of the brown vegetation there. It was a Tumbleweed moment.

There were eight Tory Councillors on the planning committee:

Chair of the committee was Ian Gardner, voted in by Chickerell Ward (a 3 councillor ward). Ex-MoD, he started his political life as a Tory Councillor, but was then voted in as a Libdem councillor in 1997, before moving back to the Tories. Chickerell returned 3 Tories, his majority was 341. Gardner claimed he had abstained from the Rampisham vote, but I was there and he didn’t.

John Russell was voted in for the Burton Bradstock ward (covering Burton Bradstock, Chilcombe, Puncknowle, Shipton Gorge and Swyre). He’s a retired chartered surveyor, and won with a majority of 208 over the LibDems.

Tom Bartlett represents Chesil Bank (covering Abbotsbury, Fleet, Kingston Russell, Langton Herring, Littlebredy, Litton Cheney, Long Bredy, Portesham). He is a farmer and beat the Libdems by 115 votes.

Dominic Elliott is one of two councillors representing Sherborne East, and he has retired from the RAF and has declared that he is a Freemason. His majority was 242 over the LibDems.

Margaret Lawrence represents Yetminster ward. (covering Chetnole, Ryme Intrinseca, Stockwood and Yetminster) She lives at Trill Farm Thornford, so I assume she is a farmer. She had a majority of 141 over the Libdem.

Frances Kathleen McKenzie is one of three Councillors representing Bridport South and Bothenhampton ward. She also had been a LibDem Councillor for many years but left them in 2011 complaining “they no longer appears to stand for Social Justice or caring about the underdog“. Presumably that’s why she joined the Tories, the party well known for caring about those things.

Jacquie Sewell represents Broadwindsor ward (covering Broadwindsor, Burstock, Pilsdon, Seaborough and Stoke Abbott). She has a furniture shop, is involved with Beaminster & villages local area partnership and Broadwindsor and district community enterprise limited. She beat the LibDem by 369 votes. At the planning committee Sewell was particularly enthusiastic about the Solar Farm and dismissive of the nature value at Rampisham. She said that 25 years of Solar Farm was a “good use” of the site and “what harm” would be caused?

George Symonds is one of two Councillors for Lyme Regis ward. He’s an amusment arcade owner in Lyme Regis and member of the  Showman’s Guild. His majority was just 76.

The LibDems had three Councillors on the planning committee.

Stella Jones is one of two Dorchester East ward councillors and she’s the WDDC Lib Dem leader. She is a retired teacher and her husband is also a County Councillor. Jones stated at the planning committee that she is “a great supporter of renewable energy” and said that because “45% of the site will be left where we will have this unique acid grassland” this would create “significant environmental benefits”.

The idea of creating significant environmental benefits by destroying over half of a nationally important nature baffles me, but then I’m no politician.

The LibDems walked into the Councillor seats in Dorchester East in 2011, Jones won by 1046 to 478 votes.

Robin Potter is one of the two Dorchester South ward councillors. He is a school governor and a retired teacher. He had a 437 majority in 2011.

Potter joined a West Dorset Local Plan working group on Renewable Energy, as did Tory Councillor Jacquie Sewell. One of the issues this working group explored was this:

There is a conflict between the delivery of renewable energy and the protection of environmental assets, such as areas of ecological importance and areas designated on the basis of their landscape beauty.

The working group concluded that the Local Plan should “not mention which environmental assets should be protected. The group feels that current planning restrictions on renewable energy schemes are too severe, preventing the delivery of renewable energy within West Dorset and Weymouth, and that policy on other issues will be sufficient in protecting the environment.

However they came up with a solution: “the renewable energy policy should aim to protect the Dorset Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). Renewable energy can be delivered without compromising the landscape qualities of the Dorset AONB by encouraging the development of small community energy schemes and installing solar panels on large scale agricultural buildings, where the landscape impacts are likely to be less severe.

Two members of the planning committee clearly stated their enthusiasm for solar energy, but not in the AONB. And then both voted in favour of a large industrial solar development in the AONB. Perhaps more worryingly neither mentioned their involvement in the development of this policy when they were asked to declare any conflicts of interest at the Planning Committee.

 

Robin Legg represents Bradford Abbas ward. (covering Beer Hackett, Bradford Abbas, Clifton Maybank and Thornford). Legg is also South Somerset District Council Solicitor, so of all the people on the planning committee he should know about planning law, as it is part of his job. Legg had a majority of 117 over the Tories in 2011.

Legg also took his own Council to appeal  over a development which he was applying for planning permission (to his own planning committee, the decision from which he absented himself). The Council had approved his planning permission but made it a condition that he had to pay a contribution towards affordable housing.  They calculated that contribution based on a draft policy from the Local Plan, because West Dorset have so far not had a Local Plan approved. Legg argued the contribution was excessive and that the draft policy had no legal weight.  The Council were waiting for the Local Plan to be approved, so he appealed on grounds that the council had failed to determine the application in the legal time period. The Planning Inspector upheld his appeal, but criticised Legg for withdrawing his offer to make a voluntary contribution towards affordable housing. The development had met with stiff opposition from the residents of Bradford Abbas.

It’s ironic to say the least that a Councillor was able to avoid making any affordable housing contribution from his own development, because the policies that should have been in place to require that contribution were not active. And the reason they were not active is because the Council had been delayed in getting its Local Plan in place. Of course I’m not suggesting that Legg played any part in delaying the Local Plan, but he undoubtedly benefitted from it.

 

The other Councillor who played such a key role in the Rampisham decision is Councillor Jill Haynes, who represents Maiden Newton ward.  She has taken it upon herself, to be the local champion for the solar farm development. Haynes works as a field studies tutor at a local Field Studies centre. I assume she doesn’t teach anything about nature. Yet Haynes claimed expertise on the nature at Rampisham when she spoke at the planning committee: she argued that because a tiny area of the site had been fertilised, it meant the nature value of the entire site had been removed: “even if the species are there, they are not particularly of national importance“. She stated that for the acid grassland community U4 Rampisham was a “transitional site” (she did not explain from what it transited or to where it was transiting) and dismissed Rampisham as a “man-made landscape“. History is not her strong point either, since all of Britain’s landscapes are “man-made”.

Haynes, who sits on Toller Porcorum Parish Council, specifically asked that the decision at Rampisham should be made by the planning committee and not by the Planning Officers. Had it been left to the Officers, I am sure it would not have been approved. Haynes is a District and County Councillor, with a 316 majority over the LibDems in 2011.

It’s also worth noting that Julian Brooks of British Solar Renewables/Community Heat and Power worked at South Somerset District Council as Rural Regeneration Officer, alongside Robin Legg. Brooks also stood as a LibDem Councillor for Chard Town Council in 2011. Brooks gave oral evidence to the planning committee meeting on Rampisham, where he stated that Rampisham was a “brownfield blot” whereas the 50ha of solar panels would create a “sliver of blue-grey” in the landscape. Brooks presented himself to the planning committee as a member of the public, and not representing the developers, which I found extraordinary and deeply troubling. I took this up with the COuncil but they didn’t seem too bothered. Perhaps it happens all the time.

Brooks and Legg worked with Keith Wheaton-Green, who is South Somerset District Council climate change officer and is also an enthusiastic proponent of Solar at Rampisham. Wheaton-Green is also a renewable energy consultant and is press officer for North Dorset Green Party.He sits on the Dorset Community Sustainable Energy Group alongside Giles Frampton from British Solar Renewables. Wheaton-Green commented on Peter Marren’s Rampisham Blog thus:

Peter’s explanation of the situation is excellent. The solar farm would generate the equivalent in a year to more than one quarter of all West Dorset households so this would be a very significant renewable electricity generating station. The vegetation is a plagio-climax (so not as nature intended) that – as Peter pointed out – does not excite the majority of the population. And in any case it will be largely preserved. I believe the threats of climate change to be so urgent that we need to move to 100% renewables ASAP. The calls from nature conservationists to have this application called in and for local democracy to be thwarted does nature conservation a great diservice.”

General Election

So that’s the local politicans. But what about the General Election? Where do the various candidates stand on Rampisham? I have met Oliver Letwin and  discussed the issue with him, as have many others. As a minister, he was unwilling to give his view on whether Rampisham was the right place to build a solar farm, particularly as we were in the middle of a “quasi-judicial process” (the call-in procedure) being conducted by one of his colleagues at the time. Now he is no longer a minister or an MP, just another candidate for the West Dorset constituency, perhaps he will say what he thinks. He does oppose a local wind farm proposal on landscape grounds, so it would be  hypocritical of him to support an industrial scale solar farm right on top of the AONB. We shall see.

I wondered whether the Green Party would be prepared to help oppose the Rampisham proposals and contacted South West Green MEP Molly Scott Cato. Her Dorset replied in surprisingly ambigous tones, saying it was a local matter for the local party to decide themselves. So I pointed out to her the Green Party’s own policies:

According to their own policies, the Green Party is in favour of “a limited
deployment of solar farms.” (EN 214).

The Green Party’s position on protecting the environment, as you might expect, is strong.

In policy NR303 the objective is “To minimise damage, including the
reduction of genetic and ecological diversity, caused to the natural
environment by extracting or growing natural resources for industrial use.”

And in CY400(c) the policy is to “Legislate to stop further destruction of
wildlife habitats, the soil, the landscape, ancient monuments and our
countryside heritage;”

Policy CY501 is quite strong “The Wildlife and Countryside Act
1981 and related legislation will be consolidated and strengthened to remove
loopholes and weaknesses that allow further destruction of wildlife and
habitats. The Green Party will ensure that wildlife-rich sites are adequately
protected and extend a basic level of habitat protection to the whole
countryside. We will ensure that there are sufficient resources to enforce the
legislation.”

In terms of planning, policy CY542 states “The Green Party will strengthen
planning controls for large-scale or damaging land-use changes in the
countryside, in particular, large-scale farm buildings, new and improvement
works by drainage bodies and water authorities, clearances of woodland, works
affecting woodland and large-scale afforestation.”

From these policies I concluded that The Green Party is much more concerned
about protecting wildlife habitats and species, than about encouraging large
scale ground-mounted Solar Farms.

So imagine my surprise when I asked local Green Party candidate Peter Barton, of his view on Rampisham:

Having weighed up all the evidence I could find, I think it should go ahead.”

 

 

Posted in elections, Rampisham Down, renewable energy, Solar Farms | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

Pickles gets in a Pickle over voluntary volunteering days

Eric Pickles dreams of ways to deal with pesky journalists #1: The Scimitar

Eric Pickles dreams of ways to deal with pesky journalists #1: The Scimitar

This morning, there was a bit of a light-hearted diversion from the heavy bombardment that is the election campaign, when Eric Pickles announced a proposal, which first surfaced in 2009, to give employees 3 days “statutory” volunteering leave a year. But for once, he was given a bit of a grilling on Radio 4’s Today programme, by Justin Webb. You can listen to the whole piece here from 1:13:45. It’s worth listening just to hear Pickles lose his cool and get rather snippy with Justin Webb’s persistent calm questioning over the details of the proposal. Webb asked who is going to pay for the extra time off, especially in the public sector. Pickles just repeated that people had annual leave, and it was the same. He also suggested that volunteering per se “enhances productivity” and leads to a “more engaged workforce.” Webb asked Pickles how, for example in the NHS, would hospitals cover for nurses who were off doing voluntary work. Pickles really lost it then, explaining that “it will be worked out according to patterns of work.” Those were his words

Under continued pressure from Webb’s questioning, Pickles then said that there was flexibility and that companies would not have to offer this a statutory right after all.

During this farcical interview, Pickles tried lamely to inject the “key messages” that he had been given by Conservative Central Office about how volunteering has gone up under the Coalition Government. First off he tried with “the amount of volunteering over past 5 years has absolutely escalated”, then he tried again, clearly reading from a script as he asked us to celebrate the fact that there are an “extra 3 Million people volunteering now compared with 2009″. Whether this is true or not is moot, but volunteers do a great deal of work for society.

Pickles has been somewhat eviscerated in the media (social and otherwise) for his performance, and rightly so. He announced an old policy, which is unpopular with private and public sector bodies (who will have to find the money to fund it) – and didnt even both to garner any support from the voluntary sector who are supposed to benefit from it (if you discount a random act of support from Bear Grylls); and then he immediately backtracked to a position where the policy can have get-out clauses, rendering it totally meaningless.

I’ve worked in the voluntary sector for most of my career, and I’ve also been a volunteer. I’m just about to retire as chair of a school governing body, of which I’ve been a member for over six years. I know and understand how important volunteers are in society. Volunteers actually make up much of the glue that binds communities and society together, whether it’s governors, or volunteers making tea at a local church, or people who spend their time visiting and caring for the elderly, lonely or unwell. Or indeed volunteers who like nothing better than cutting down some scrub and having a bonfire. It’s something that should be encouraged at all levels of society and yes Government can help. But this Government is utterly conflicted over the voluntary sector.  On the one hand it symbolises a conservative ethic which is to get on and do stuff and not wait for the State to step in and do it. On the other hand, it is a source of criticism for politicians of all persuasions, and especially those that act against the public interest, as the Coalition has done time and again.

The thing that really sticks in my craw with today’s farce is that Pickles, who clearly dislikes much that the voluntary sector does, is exploiting the good work that volunteers do day in day out, for political expedience. This is the man who calls charities “sock puppets” because they dared to criticise Government when in receipt of Government funding. The Sock Puppet remark led to normally restrained charity sector leader Stephen Bubb calling Pickles “squalid”. Pickles is also the man who oversaw the gagging of Charities during election campaigns, via the Transparency of Lobbying Act.

Nothing was done about corporate lobbying of course, because this is the Government of lobbyists, by lobbyists, for lobbyists.

The “big society” was talked up early on in this Parliament, alongside the “greenest government ever”. Today Pickles has tried to revive the lifeless corpse of the Big Society, but only made a fool of himself in the process. Will we see Liz Truss do something similar over the “greenest government ever” in the next week or two?

 

photo by Department for Communities and Local Government (Eric Pickles and Russell Grant) [OGL (http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/doc/open-government-licence/version/1/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 

 

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