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.
It's another big day. The future of the landuse planning system in England is to unveiled at 12.30pm this afternoon.
The draft National Planning Policy Framework created a furore last summer because it gave priority to economic development over social and environmental concerns. The National Trust, CPRE, ourselves and many other environmental organisations kicked up a fuss. We shall find out today whether the Government has listened to our concerns.
If you remember, we sought to constructively engage with the review and Simon Marsh, our excellent Head of Planning Policy, even contributed, in good faith, to an early draft.
We were all for simplifying planning guidance and speeding up the system. Yet, the great clunking fist of the economic growth imperative changed the empahsis of the draft Frameowrk completely. So much so that our own legal analysis suggested that SSSI protection would be weakened under these proposals. See here, here and here.
Following the furore last autumn thousands of campaigners wrote in to make their feelings heard - in the words of the Daily Telegraph campaign, they urged politicians to keep their "hands of our land".
So, we and many others will be listening carefully when the Minister stands up to address the House of Commons today. We'll be paying particular attention to three key areas.
1. The definition of sustainable development.The existing draft is based on the Brundtland definition. We (and 20 other organisations) support the version proposed by the CLG Selectg committee, which is based on the five guiding principles of the 2005 UK Sustainable Development Strategy. This set the twin goals of a healthy just society which lives within environmental limits through good governance, sound science and a sustainable economy. The question today is - does the NPPF do this, and (critically) does it refer to the need to live within environmental limits?
2. The presumption in favour of sustainable developmentWe understand this will remain in the NPPF. But is it reframed in a way that does not promote one aspect of sustainability over others? The ‘significant and demonstrable harm’ test is a particular problem for SSSIs – how has this been reworded? Has the phrase, “the default answer to development is ‘yes’ been removed?
3. Proper protection for the natural environmentThe presumption, and the natural environment policies, must not weaken existing protection. Our legal advice showed us the draft didn’t do this for SSSIs, despite Government reassurances. We will be looking critically at this: is the presumption reworded (above) and is there new explicit policy for SSSIs?
We'll be scoring the final document against these key tests.
Do keep an eye out for our initial analysis on our Saving Special Places blog.
I began last week a little nervous of the fate of key environmental legislation. But I ended the week with a smile on my face - the Environment Secretary had confirmed the Government's commitment to the EU Birds and Habitats Directive. There was no guarantee that the Habitats Regulations (which transfer the EU Directives into English law) would come out unscathed - it has been reported to us on a number of occasions that the Birds Directive is seen as the most hated piece of legislation in Whitehall. I always take this with a pinch of salt, but it is clear that emotions run high when wildlife protection laws are discussed.
Even with the publication of the National Planning Policy Framework due tomorrow, I am determined to remain upbeat this week. There were more positive noises in the media over the weekend and I know that we are able deal with whatever comes our way.
So, with much respect to Ian Dury and the Blockheads, here are three other reasons to be cheeful...
Part 1 - Spring has arrived. The chiffchaffs are back, nests are being eagerly constructed, the woodland flowers are bursting into life and the butterflies have taken to the wing. Nothing brings optimism and hope better than a Brimstone butterfly.
Part 2 - Knowing when to stop. At the end of my management team's meeting on Friday, we took a little time out to find a pair of Black Redstarts that had turned up on the Lodge nature reserve. The day that we stop taking time to notice nature is the day that we might as well give up and go home.
Part 3 - More land for more heathland wildlife. On Friday I received, on behalf of the RSPB, a lease for phase two of a major habitat restoration programme at Sandy Heath - land opposite the Lodge. The lease was handed over by Tim Deal from Lafarge (the aggregates company). This is another example of how we are working with the aggregates industry to turn quarries into nature reserves. Our ambition is to create new heathland for species including Woodlark, Nightjar, Dartford Warbler as well as many rare plants and invertebrates such as the Spider-eating Wasp. It complements the major restoration programme that we are doing at the Lodge and is part of our ambition to try to provide stepping stone habitat for heathland specialists likely to need to move north due to climate change. Perhaps the Chancellor would like to come up to Sandy Heath to see that it is possible for development and environmental protection to work together. I make absolutely no comment at all about our failure to secure a meeting with the Chancellor or indeed the Prime Minister since the election.
Whatever you are doing this week, make sure you take a little time out to enjoy the weather and the onset of Spring. I promise that it will cheer you up.
Sandy Heath - view of restored phase 1 area (Andy Hay rspb-images.com)
As you’ll be all-too-aware if you’re a regular reader of this blog, in the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement last year he announced a review that would ‘make sure that the gold-plating of EU rules on things such as habitats do not place ridiculous costs on British businesses’.
Yesterday the conclusions of the Habitats Regulations review were published. They show, as I confidently (ha!) predicted, that there is no evidence of gold-plating of these rules. Far from being the barrier to economic recovery that some have framed them as, the report clearly shows the economic value of the sites and species they protect. And, many of the problems arise due to lack of implementation rather than over-implementation.
Defra’s website, announcing the report, states: “The Government strongly supports the aims of the Habitats and Wild Birds Directives to protect our rarest and most threatened habitats and species, which contribute to the economic value of our natural environment”.
So, good news for great crested newts, for bats, and for many of our best loved birds and special places.
I am pleased (as I hope are the Directors of the Bat Conservation Trust and Amphibian and Reptile Conservation who contributed to this blog last week). As reported here, it's not all good, but I think that the Defra team have done well to ensure that the report reflects evidence rather than anecdote.
Just remember that the Directives were born out of a desire for no Member of the European Union to gain competitive environment by trashing the environment. And also remember that the United Kingdom has the smallest percentage of its land protected compared to all other 26 Member States.
There were clearly rumours that others in the Cabinet wanted the Environment Secretary, Caroline Spelman, to do more to free up business. As with debates about planning reform and the red tape challenge, some within government have chosen to place the blame for lack of economic growth at the door of environmental regulations.
We get a few days to draw breath now before the next instalment in this run of major government announcements: the National Planning Policy Framework next Tuesday. Rumour and counter-rumour about the final state of this last piece in the reform of England’s planning system abound. Some state that the central definition of the presumption in favour of sustainable development is still being hotly debated between the Treasury and the Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles. Whatever the outcome, the true test of these new planning rules will come in real places, in real communities. But one thing is now certain - if important wildlife sites get damaged as a result of these reforms, it is clear who should take responsibility.
If you have taken the time to read the results of the Habitats Regulations review, what did you think about its conclusions?
It would be great to hear your views.