Protect the best? A week of mixed fortunes for our finest wildlife sites

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I’ve been the RSPB’s Conservation Director since May 2011. As I settle into the job, I’ll be blogging on all the big conservation topics and providing an inside view of our conservation projects. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel inspired to join in t

Protect the best? A week of mixed fortunes for our finest wildlife sites

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In a week when the UK Government has (see here) ruled out fracking from our finest wildlife sites, the RSPB has joined the Wildlife Trusts' campaign to protect Rampisham Down, a grassland SSSI in Dorset.  Below, my colleagues from our South West region, Tony Whitehead and Renny Henderson, provide an overview of the case.  At the end, I draw some parallels with Lodge Hill case and offer you a way to get involved.

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This is London Calling...

From 1939 until its closure in October 2011, the array of over thirty radio masts at Rampisham Down in Dorset broadcast the BBC World Service.  In these seventy plus years the masts transmitted daily news of a world that was changing dramatically. However, beneath the masts, within the security fences, something precious remained, protected from the changing world outside.

Free from the wholesale farm intensification all around, the grassland around the masts remained untouched save for the attentions of a few sheep to stop it scrubbing over. And in this “unimproved” state, the grassland remained rich in plant species – species that most of us would nowadays have to make a special journey to find. Species with names redolent of an England now passed – sweet vernal grass, sheep’s fescue and hawkweeds, quaking oat grass, pignut and bedstraw.

These sorts of grasslands are often of ancient origin, dating back up to 7000 years to the times of the first forest clearances. And they come in numerous flavours. At Rampisham botanists describe the grassland as “lowland acid grassland”, and ascribe it the code “U4” due to the very particular mix of species. U4, an unappealing title for this plant community, is, to say the least, rare with only 3-4000 ha in the UK. And Rampisham has one of the largest areas of this type in the country.

Rampisham (pronounced “Ransom”) was sold by the BBC in 1997 to a management buyout, then sold on in 2001 to Vosper Thornycroft who subsequently were taken over by Babcock International Group. In December 2012 an application was submitted  by British Solar Renewables to construct on site a “40MW solar park following demolition of 32 of 35 existing masts and towers...”.

The proposal involves the erection of some 119,280 photovoltaic panels mounted on steel frames fixed by short driven piles. These assemblies are to be arranged in rows along an east-west axis, with the panels facing south.  It is proposed that approximately 40.5ha of the site (56%) will be covered in this way, leaving 33ha undeveloped.

Unauthorised building work began on site in January 2013, which the local planning authority stopped, but sadly some damage had already been caused to the site. 

At the same time, as part of the Environmental Impact Assessment, the site was thoroughly surveyed. As a result, the national significance of the grassland, to date hidden behind security fences, was revealed. It was thus notified as a Site of Special Scientific Interest in August 2013.

With this, Rampisham became part of our national network of precious wildlife sites, sites that are as the nature equivalent of protected buildings, the likes of Stonehenge or our great cathedrals.  Its designation meant, or at least, should have meant, that it be given special consideration when faced with a threatening development.

The principle, as reiterated in the recently produced National Planning Policy Framework, is crystal clear:

"proposed development on land within or outside a Site of Special Scientific Interest likely to have an adverse effect on a Site of Special Scientific Interest ... should not normally be permitted. Where an adverse effect on the site’s notified special interest features is likely, an exception should only be made where the benefits of the development, at this site, clearly outweigh both the impacts that it is likely to have on the features of the site that make it of special scientific interest and any broader impacts on the national network of Sites of Special Scientific Interest"

However, on 15 January 2015, West Dorset Council’s Planning Committee voted to approve the application by British Solar Renewables to build a solar farm on Rampisham Down.

Reacting to the news the Wildlife Trusts described the decision as both “astonishing” and “perverse”. Paul Wilkinson, Head of Living Landscapes for the Wildlife Trusts said:

“The protection and recovery of the natural environment should be at the heart of all planning decisions.  This Council's decision goes against the statutory obligations of local authorities to protect important designated wildlife sites for future generations.  This is simply the wrong place for this development and Rampisham should be protected not destroyed.”

Although the RSPB had not been directly involved in Rampisham to this point, this would set a terrible precedent for future development and it was immediately clear to us that this decision needed challenge. 

As with wind farms the RSPB is in principle supportive of renewable energy developments. But as with wind farms our line is simple – they must be built in the right places, and must avoid damaging sensitive wildlife sites.

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As I said at the beginning of this blog, the Rampisham decision had remarkable parallels with another case currently close to our hearts – the threat looming over Lodge Hill in Kent. Here too is a site that has what could be described as “urban” elements – though in this case military infrastructure rather than masts.  It is a site where the activity of its old owners had historically lent protection.  It is a site that was sold off,  a site that then had a proposed development, but on investigation linked to the application was found to be of huge wildlife interest, and thus declared a SSSI by Natural England. And it is a site where, despite it’s newfound protected status, a planning application was approved by the local council – Medway, in the case of Lodge Hill.

Both these cases strike to the core of issues involving the planning system and the protection of our best wildlife sites. As shown above, the planning framework is clear - there should be a presumption against development on SSSIs and development should only proceed when the benefits significantly outweigh the costs.  I am unable to understand how these developments are compatible with the Government's stated ambition to pass on the natural environment in an enhanced state to the next generation when everyone knows that nature conservation starts with existing protected areas.  Indeed, the Government has a commitment, through its own biodiversity strategy, to improve the condition of our SSSIs - for 50% to be in favourable condition by 2020.

The RSPB believes both of these cases are of national importance, because of what the decisions to date reveal about attitudes towards SSSIs. If they were to go ahead, they would also set a terrible precedent for future development.  As such they should both be called in, and their cases heard at a public inquiry before a decision made by the Secretary of State. This would be consistent with the will of Parliament that this week ruled out fracking from SSSIs.

The RSPB will shortly be writting to DCLG requesting such a “call-in”. If you too believe that the Rampisham decision should be called in, please support the Wildlife Trusts e-action here.  I believe that we have until 6 February to make our voice heard.

For more background information visit the Wildlife Trusts pages here or read more from Tony Whitehead on our Saving Spaces blog here.  Alternatively, read Conservationist Miles King's blog as it provides some useful background and an independent view on the decision to approve Rampisham see here.

Comments
  • Martin, Surely we should be pushing harder for legislation to protect these unique publicly owned (or at least it was) sites that because of their use have preserved really exceptional remnants of natural habitats which can be almost unbelievable if you have never been on them - MOD is the biggest, with more SSSI than any other owner in England, and some of its sites, effectively untouched by modern land management, are as much a cultural window on the past as a fantastic assemblage of species - but, as in this case, they all too often fall into hands used as part of the bulldozer defence industry to simply overriding any other consideration. For the proposal to be a solar farm - a dubious use of our limited space in cloudy England - is doubly wrong.

  • Excellent, thanks.

  • Is that better, Redkite?

  • Another terrible planning decision by a locsl council, (when will they ever learn). I will certainly support the e-action and make my voice heard. (Note the Wildlife  Trusts e-action "here" link, above, does not seem to connect, perhaps its me.)