February, 2013

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  • Pickled think

    The successful development of the Thames Estuary is our birthright.

    The Right Honourable Eric Pickles MP, Secretary of State, Department for Communities & Local Government (c) Grahame Madge

    That was the assertion of the Rt Hon Eric Pickles, above, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. The Banner behind him reads 'Greater Thames' and he was speaking at the official launch of our Futurescape.

    So what is it all about?

    I'm glad you asked me that. It's about the body and soul of the Thames Estuary. As the Minister says: "stand on top of one of central London's tower blocks, look east and you will see one of the most biologically rich and valuable landscapes in the UK", but it's under pressure. "A bird's eye view is all very well", he said, then added. "But, I'm keen to encourage people to make their views known about the developments that are good for them on the ground and good for the environment, because that will be good for business."  I paraphrased a bit, but that's the gist.

    Who's involved?

    The event brought together residents, farmers, politicians, leaders from business, industry, transport, development and charities. It's a start but there are more communities and sectors we need to reach out to; such the fishing and tourism sectors, faith groups, minority communities and young people, especially young people because what we're talking about is what they'll inherit.

    Mr Pickles was concious of this too, saying "take the spirit of London, Essex and Kent to make a place that reed warblers, kingfishers, brent geese and people can enjoy; it’s our birthright’".

    What's the payoff?

    Several people at the event pointed out the UK's green economy is growing while other sectors stagnate or wither. In fact, the green economy is bigger than that generated by the UK's motor trade. A sobering thought with Dagenham just down the road. The Communities minister described east London as once being London's most polluted and dreadful area, but recounted how he’d spotted a meadow pipit in the wildflower meadows at the Olympic Park last year. To him, that bird is like a phoenix. A symbol of how putting nature at the heart of development can completely transform an area. 

    I know what he was saying, but as someone who lives in Hackney, I must say it wasn't dreadful before the Olympics. Some of those brownfield sites were home to black redstarts and other species. Some of them have moved on, but in their place there is a more varied biodiversity, cleaner and navigable waterways, more job opportunities for local people and improved community facilities too.

    So what's next?

    Join us in raising your voice to speak-up for your birthright. Shout Je Thames (#jethames on Twitter) and let us know if you think development of the Thames Estuary, with people and nature at its heart, is what you'd like to bequeath to future generations.

    Is this just another ploy to get money?

    No. This is an opportunity to turn the Thames Estuary into an economic and environmental powerhouse.

    Whether you're a farmer or gardener managing your land for wildlife; an industrialist building a shipping port; a teacher taking students out of the classroom to explore the world; a transport planner improving public networks; a commercial mussel farmer; an individual with a business plan, or a parent on a family day out along the Thames - we can all collectively make it happen. 

  • What goes round...

    My day started with a real bang the other morning, when my bike tyre exploded. Everyone stared, wondering if it had been a gunshot.My exploded inner tube

    Forced to find another way in to work, I took full advatage of being on the bus and tube with commuters to eavesdrop ... and the conversation was not typical for a grey and chilly urban midweek schlep. It was all horses and foxes. Not the hunt gathering sort of conversations, but outrage at subjects that aren't normally relevant to urban residents lives. When it comes to our kids and our food; it's personal.

    Horsemeat used to be tracked across the EU, but then members, including the UK, voted for a voluntary scheme. We can only officially claim to be aware of 1.8 million kilograms of horsemeat  being exported out of the UK to countries within the EU between January and November 2012, and 2.2 million kilograms to countries outside the EU in the same period. Not sure what happened after that.

    "You get what you pay for," commented the farmer selling his own butchered meat at my local market. "When markets force prices down beyond suppliers limits to produce goods, something gives - and that's made worse where there's a legislative vacuum." He added. 

    Hedges, flood plains all alive with wildlife and struggling farmersAs if horsemeat isn't bad enough news for consumers, I sadly have to report that we are at a crucial junction and the path chosen now by our Government will shape the very future of farming, the food we get in our shops and the wider countryside. In short, the very future of our green and pleasant land is hanging in the balance.

    David Cameron recently welcomed a deal with Europe. But that deal wasn't great for the custodians of our coutryside. Every UK taxpayer contributes money to the Common Agriculture Policy. That money goes in to two pots for farmers. The biggest, lets call it pot one, supports farmers for their business of producing food. The smaller, pot two, covers the costs of value added farming which maintains hedges, ditches, moorland, riverbanks, floodplains and all those other bits of the countryside where wildlife should thrive, people can wander, work and play, and where nature can take care of filtering our water and air and all those other tricksy things that keep up us alive in our fragile ecosystem.

    The thing is, pots one and two haven't really got any bigger in the current financial climate. The UK Government now has to decide how much it can move from pot one to pot two.  Whatever they do it's going to be painful and maybe the end for some farms. The RSPB doesn't want to see that happen. I love farmers, especially Chris and Iain Learmonth - even Jimmy Docherty who wins the prize for most chic farm ever.

    But, what is important is that UK taxpayers money is invested in high nature value farming, which improves our countryside, increases opportunities for rural development and improves our environment.

    There should be plenty of food in the UK countryside to support wildlife, yet species like turtle doves are close to vanishing forever. Food is one of the issues behind that decline. London has seen a thee hundrd per-cent increase in goldfinches over the past few years as they desperately seek food in our gardens. It's easy to get sentimental and to care too much. Feeding wildlife is good and kind in moderation, but remember the first half of that word and give wild things the respect, and distance, they deserve.

    We all deserve a healthy countryside and we all deserve safe food. We all want investment in sustainable development, especially among businesses the length and breadth of the country. I'm sure every MP would agree with that, so please ask yours to support the transfer of as much taxpayers money as is legally possible from pot one to pot two of CAP.  

  • Reaping what you sow

    The other night I was inspired and motivated in equal measure as I attended the launch of the Natural History Museum's new exhibition, "Extinction - Not the end of the world".

    It was an amazing scene in the Central Hall with the dinosaur skeleton lit red and the lights in the vast cathedral-like hall dimmed.

    Guest speaker Owen Paterson, the Defra minister told us all how wonderful our countryside is and what a stirling job farmers are doing to conserve it and the wildlife it supports. It came as a surprise just 24 hours later to hear that Prime Minister David Cameron has secured what can only be described as a regressive deal with Europe. He's effectively pulled the financial rug from under the wellies of the army of farmers who give a damn about wildlife and are rewarded for setting aside land for wildlife instead of cultivating it to grow more cash crops.

    Thanks to the launch of this amazing exhibition, I am able to take this set-back in my stride. Because the real guest speaker was Sir David Attenborough. This quiet, gentle man spoke from the heart of his dismay at the global extinction of species. He was privileged, if that's the right word, to see eye-to-eye with some of the last remaining members of some of those now extinct species. To him, their loss is a real tragedy and our world is poorer for their passing.

    The deal done in Brussels will not help lift Sir David's spirits. David Cameron's deal cuts the amount of money available for conservation by just over 11 billion Euros. Worse still it allows all member states to raid what little is left in conservation coffers and siphon it off into un-targeted subsidies.

    Before the revised negotiation, the UK received about £500m for wildlife-friendly farming payments, but a previous study showed that, at best, this was only half of the sum needed to fund environmental priorities. The need for concerted action to restore farmland wildlife in the UK remains as great as ever. Some typical farmland species, like the skylark, have shown massive declines. Since 1978, the UK has lost over 350 skylarks a day; that’s one every four minutes.

    In the UK, the RSPB hopes that Owen Paterson and his colleagues in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will show leadership and use their powers wisely to ensure that as much funding as possible will go towards those farmers and land managers who provide the greatest benefits for wildlife and the countryside. Other EU leaders will certainly need an example to follow.

    We are now, in the UK, definately in this together as far as securing the future of our native wildlife is concerned. As Sir David Attenborough said during his speech, destroying our environment is destroying ourselves - I paraphrase but the meaning's the same. Scuppering what is effectively the life-work of many farmers undermines the chances of success for a sustainable recovery. We need a healthy land to produce the building blocks of society and industry. Our countryside can't be turned in to a factory.

    I call on Owen Paterson to stand by the beliefs I heard him utter the other night. Find a way, along with his counterparts in devolved administrations, to financially support UK farmers. The UK can lead Europe in a new way forward. More than 30,000 people backed the RSPB's campaign to support the custodians of our countryside. David Cameron was wrong to ignore that many voters, but Owen Paterson now needs that popular support to fight for farmers and fight for a countryside we all want .. and all pay for through our taxes.