My passion for wildlife was stimulated in my teenage years, mainly thanks to my Mum (a biology teacher) who made me look at the world differently and being inspired by writers such as Paul Colinvaux. This early interest developed into biological research in my 20s, when I did practical conservation work in places such as the Comores and Mongolia.
Today, any free time I have I spend pottering around the flatlands of East Anglia or escaping to our hut on the Northumberland coast looking for wildlife and castles with my wife and children.
I studied Biological Sciences at Oxford and Conservation at UCL, and worked at Wildlife and Countryside Link before spending five years as Conservation Director at Plantlife.
I joined the RSPB as Head of Government Affairs in 2004, became Head of Sustainable Development in 2006, before becoming Conservation Director in 2011.
Every now and again I receive messages from
readers enquiring how they go about posting comments. It’s a slightly confusing
process and one that I thought required a bit of explanation so here goes.
It’s really easy and well worth doing. Once you’re logged in, you can comment on not only my posts but the many others that keep you updated on things like marine issues, how to bring nature into a learning environment and our work within the farming community.
The key is that you need to sign in or register
to RSPB Community to get involved in the conversation.
Occasionally, even when you are
logged in, you may not immediately see the ‘comment’ box. If this is the case,
click on the title of the actual blog post and that will take you through enabling
you to share your thoughts with me and all my readers.
So, remember you need to
either register for a community account or, if you’ve registered
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Once you’re registered,
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In 1994, John Major's Conservative Government brought in the Habitats Regulations to implement the European Habitats and Species Directive – a beautiful piece of legislation. Yes, that’s right, I did just describe a piece of legislation as beautiful.
The Habitats Regulations are something to be proud of - they have been helping to protect English wildlife and wild spaces of European importance for seventeen years. That is why alarm bells are ringing about the expected announcement today that they are to be reviewed.
What the Directive, and the regulations that followed, means is that major developments like ports, airports and housing estates have to pass a series of tests before they cannot be allowed to damage the very best wildlife sites. Tests of genuinely sustainable development.
These Special Areas of Conservation and Special Protection Areas (designated under the earlier Birds Directive) cover over a million hectares in England – magical places like Chesil Beach, Lindisfarne, the Thames Estuary, the New Forest, Salisbury Plain and the North Norfolk Coast. These are the cream of the crop when it comes to wildlife habitats – some of the most important in Europe. Developers have learned to live with (if not exactly love) these regulations and those that have taken the time to understand them manage to cope perfectly well.
As part of the Chancellor's economic statement later today we expect that the Government will unveil its plans to look at these regulations. If this is a cleaning up exercise, then yes, there probably are some areas that could be improved. But, if it is a wholesale review, then that would be a shock and could have disastrous consequences unless handled with care.
As I have blogged before, the mood music coming from the Treasury and other bits of government is a cause for concern for the environment: environmental regulation has been put under the spotlight as part of the Government’s Red Tape Challenge, while the National Planning Policy Framework clearly placed economic growth above the needs of the environment. In his conference speech George Osborne bemoaned ‘a decade of environmental laws and regulations' before adding, ‘we’re not going to save the planet by putting our country out of business’.
Some people think that protecting the economy and protecting the environment, whether on land or at sea, are mutually exclusive concepts. We don’t. And neither did the Conservative Government which introduced the Habitats Regulations.
Over the past decade and a half they have ensured major developments can take place without destroying wildlife habitats. This is the very essence of good planning policy, good economic policy and good environmental policy.
So yes, this is a beautiful piece of legislation and, if we must review the Habitat Regulations, then my plea to government is, please take extreme care.
I shall post details of the review as soon as it is published.
In the space of just three hours yesterday, the tension at the heart of government was revealed warts and all.
First, I chaired a highly entertaining and informative marine question time with the Biodiversity Minister, Richard Benyon. We wanted to put him on the spot over his plans for delivering a network of marine protected areas. Ever positive and full of passion, Richard impressed the assembled audience of RSPB supporters as well as those who watched online (yes, we've tumbled into the twenty-first century by airing this as a webcast).
Richard recognised that the timetable was slipping and that more needed to be done to protect more than 20% of our seas. He also acknowledged that we would not give up until there was a network of sites to protect the feeding and roosting areas for seabirds.
Is Defra moving fast enough? No. Do they have a convincing business plan? Not yet. Can Richard Benyon deliver? With support, yes and this is why we gave him this little momento of the event - an image of a common tern made up of the 50,000 signatories to our latest marine petition.
Within an hour of this event, my bubble of optimism was burst by the Chancellor's Autumn Economic Statement. Mr Osborne did not pull any punches. He bemoaned the burden of ‘endless social and environmental goals’ on industry and described the Habitats Regulations as a ‘ridiculous cost on British business’, claiming that they amounted to ‘gold plating’ on European legislation. Defra is now set to carry out a review of the regulations.
The Chancellor’s attack on vital environmental regulation is below the belt and shows how short sighted his policy for growth is. These regulations have been in place for 17 years and they have not been a brake on development. Many large scale projects have gone ahead in that time and this legislation has ensured that they have not trashed some of the most important wildlife sites in Europe.
The Davidson report carried out under the previous Government in 2006 looked at the claim that the Habitats Regulations had goldplated European legislation, and it found there was no case to answer.
Clearly the chancellor believes that he can bring about a quick fix of the economy by allowing unrestrained growth to trample over our precious natural environment.
He also failed to rule out the development of an airport in the Thames Estuary saying the Government would look at all options for a new airport hub, except a third runway at Heathrow. This signals a u-turn as the Coalition Agreement had ruled out new runways in the south-east. The Thames Airport would be an act of environmental vandalism and would further undermine the Government’s commitment to a low carbon future.
The Treasury’s plan is a simple one – let’s build our way out of recession.
For me, this marks the biggest backward step in environmental and planning policy for a generation. It simply serves as a short term economic sticking plaster on a problem which requires a long term plan for effective, sustainable growth.
If only Mr Osborne would come and talk to RSPB supporters. They'd put him right.
What did you think of the Chancellor's Economic Statement? Would you like to be Biodiversity Minister in these austere times?
It would be great to hear your views.