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 was a pleasure to welcome the Shadow Environment Secretary, Maria Eagle MP, to the Lodge today. In the run up to the General Election, we are encouraging all political parties to be clear about their environmental ambitions and what they would do if they are elected.
So, it was good to hear Maria Eagle share thoughts on what we can expect from a future Labour Government. I expect more details to emerge closer to the election (for example how they plan to tackle wildlife crime) but she outlined some concrete proposals regarding ambition, governance, policy and resources. Here are a few extracts from her speech (my emphasis in bold)...
...As the Environment Secretary in the next Labour Government I want to improve on our proud record. Just as we did in 1949 we need to rebuild a nation and an economy but also honour our duty to protect and enhance the natural environment. And we need to this at a time of unprecedented threats caused by climate change.
...The next Labour Government will pick up the work done in the Pitt and Lawton reviews as part of our plan to develop a new climate change adaptation programme. Both of those reviews taught us that we must increase our resilience to climate change whilst at the same time enhancing the natural environment.
...We’ll publish our new adaptation programme before the international climate change negotiations take place in December. We’ll ensure a UK Government led by Ed Miliband goes to Paris with a strong domestic record on climate to support our credibility at the negotiations. Action on climate is made easier in the UK by the targets and milestones we set ourselves in the carbon budgets
...And we need start doing the same for nature. I recognise the valuable work done by the Natural Capital Committee and the need to build on its work. So the next Labour Government will develop a 25 year plan for the recovery of nature. And it will have clear 5 year milestones to measure progress. This will be a framework under which public and private sector bodies can integrate decisions about nature into their all their activities
...We need to do much more to ensure that payments under the Common Agricultural Policy and Common Fisheries Policy contribute to environmental protection. So the next Labour Government will put an end to the perverse approach where in some cases we spend public money twice. Once to pay for damage to ecosystems and then again to pay for their repair. Take the example of our upland peatland sites. They store carbon, reduce flood risk and help provide clean water. But despite large amounts of public money going in to the conservation of the English uplands, only 10 per cent are in good condition
...A Labour Government will make it clear that our future is in Europe, and we will defend the directives that protect nature. And on the Common Agricultural Policy Labour believes there should be no arbitrary trade-off between food production and wider issues of sustainability, or between food affordability and the natural environment... So today I can announce that Labour will move to a full 15% of CAP money going to pillar 2 from 2017. No review. No rehearsing of the arguments
...We also need to ensure better value for money by giving local authorities the tools to protect nature. We need to stop environmental problems upstream through better planning...So the next Labour Government will develop brand new guidance to give local communities the tools they need to protect and improve nature
...I can pledge today that the next Labour Government will protect our forests, keeping them in public ownership. And we will reform the forestry commission to increase public access to nature
...And Labour will ensure that a coherent and resilient ecological network is created over time in line with the Lawton Review's recommendations. The economic and social case for these reforms is overwhelming, the Natural Capital Committee made that clear last week. But crucially, woodland has to be located near towns and cities. That’s because of the strong correlation between the quality of the natural environment where people live and their health and wellbeing.
During a full question and answer session (involving friends from WWF, The Wildlife Trusts, Friends of the Earth and the Woodland Trust), we explored other issues such as...
...the UK's leadership role on global conservation - pool Whitehall budgets to develop shared agenda and get own house in order before preaching to others
...how to secure support from the Treasury - political leadership is key but Natural Capital Committee would continue to be important
...whether her ambitions should be wrapped up in a Nature Bill - not ruled out, but currently unconvinced it is necessary to deliver the 25 year plan
...and the current threats to SSSIs such as Rampisham and Lodge Hill - not aware of detail of individual cases, but clearly SSSIs should be protected
These are conversations that I am sure will continue in the run up to the May poll.
I look forward to welcoming to the Lodge or any of our nature reserves spokespeople from the other political parties so they too can share their plans for nature.
In the meantime, what do you think of Maria Eagle's speech?
It would be great to hear your views.
To tackle the housing crisis, there is consensus that we need to build a lot more houses - maybe up to 200,000 a year by 2020. We don't disagree. We need affordable homes and we need to accommodate the expected growth in the English population - another 8 million by 2040.
But we do want these houses to steer clear of sensitive sites like Lodge Hill (now, thankfully, subject to a public inquiry - see here). And, we also want developers to create communities which people want to live in and where they have contact with nature.
This is why I am so excited by Kingsbrook - a sustainable urban extension to Aylesbury which includes 2,450 new homes, new schools, community facilities and employment land.
Much contemporary development on greenfield land makes provision for green infrastructure, following the example of developments such as Cambourne, close to where I live in Cambridgeshire. Yet, what marks out Kingsbrook as distinctive is the extent and quality of the planned green infrastructure, and the way that wildlife-enhancing measures are embedded into the fabric of the built environment, not just left to the public open space. Kingsbrook’s green infrastructure will include orchards, hedgehog highways, newt ponds, tree-lined avenues, fruit trees in gardens, bat, owl and swift nesting boxes and nectar-rich planting for bees. It also includes more than 100 hectares of wildlife-rich open space, accessible to all residents.
The plans are impressive and it almost makes me want to move to Aylesbury - I have my eye on one of the plots close to the proposed sand martin bank.
I met the team behind the project a fortnight ago. It was good to see the plans and to go on site to get a sense of what will be created.
The project is over a decade in the making and is principally a partnership between Barratt Developments and Aylesbury Vale District Council. The RSPB became involved in 2011 and since then we have deepened our collaboration both with the project but also with Barratt as a business.
I hope and expect that this project - with construction due to begin this summer - will become a beacon for future housing developments. While meeting future housing needs, we must find ways to meet the needs of wildlife as well. Kingsbrook gives us clues as to what is needed for this to happen. Here, I outline what I think are the key lessons for housebuilders, policy makers and local authorities.
Lesson 1. The housebuilder, Barratt Developments, is concerned with profit margins rather than just chasing the volume of output. Barratt believes that people will be attracted to a nature-friendly development and that it makes economic sense for them. They may see this either through a price premium or a faster rate of sale, or possibly both.
Lesson 2. Previous planning policy on eco-towns (2009) required “Forty per cent of the eco-town’s total area should be allocated to green space, of which at least half should be public and consist of a network of well managed, high quality green/open spaces which are linked to the wider countryside.” Kingsbrook shows that 50% green space, excluding private gardens is achievable.
Lesson 3. The local planning authority, Aylesbury Vale District Council, recognises the value of nature to people and employs ecologists in a Green Spaces Team (as featured in our report Planning Naturally). This enables the council to get the most ecologically out of developments such as Kingsbrook and gives it credibility in refusing proposals that don’t meet the high standards required. AVDC’s Green Spaces Team supports itself financially by carrying out work for other local authorities. This is one way that councils can get access to the right expertise, but it does mean that the expertise is spread thinly. The Government needs to consider how specialist skills such as ecology are best supported by local authorities.
Lesson 4. Kingsbrook shows what can be achieved by willing partners even without an up-to-date local plan in place. For most planning authorities, the best way to ensure that development is nature-friendly, is to have planning policies that set high standards. Local authorities such as Exeter City Council have led the way with high design standards in supplementary planning documents, allowing them to require developers to do more for nature. Again, there are more details in Planning Naturally. Perhaps the biggest barrier to other local authorities following suit is a perception that such policies would prove a prohibitive cost burden to developers. Kingsbrook shows that this need not be the case, but rather that nature-friendly development can add value.
Kingsbrook is a 15 year project, but its impact could be immediate if others become curious about their ambitions. The pioneering team behind this project deserve huge credit - they offer hope that we can give both people and wildlife a home. With just 80 days until the General Election, I hope that politicians sit up and take note.
What do you think about the Kingsbrook development?
It would be great to hear your views.
As trailed in her speech at the Lodge a fortnight ago (see here), Maria Eagle MP today launched the Labour Party's plans for protecting animals. These include proposals to tackle wildlife crime and help Hen Harriers.
Regular readers of this blog will know that this was one of the three issues we raised in our joint rally for nature before Christmas. On that day, we had support from across the political spectrum and we are encouraging all parties to set out their plans for how they will stop illegal killing.
Here is what the Labour party has pledged...
Tackle Wildlife Crime and Reduce Animal Cruelty on Shooting Estates
Birds of prey are intensively persecuted, and iconic birds such as the hen harrier are in danger of being lost as a breeding species in England. More needs to be done to protect these birds of prey on shooting estates.
The practice of snaring also needs to be reviewed. Snares can cause extreme suffering to animals and often a painful, lingering death. Because snares are used mainly, though not exclusively, on shooting estates to protect game birds, it is right that labour works with stakeholders to address this cruel practice.
The Labour Party is clear that more should be done to reduce the suffering of animals on shooting estates. The next Labour Government will undertake an independent review on how to:
Ongoing persecution of birds of prey as well as the poor environmental condition of our uplands has lead us to conclude that driven grouse moors should be licensed (here) and, as in Scotland, an offence of vicarious responsibility should be introduced so that landowners are also held account for any illegal activity of their gamekeepers.
We need a political focus on tackling wildlife crime so we would, after the General Election, work closely with any commission established by any party to look at these issues. We also believe that it is in the interests of the shooting community to do the same. Many landowners and farmers that run shoots do great things for nature conservation but they are let down by those that continue to flout the law. Together we should all speak out against illegal killing and work with politicians of all parties to improve the environmental standards of shooting.
And, of course, the RSPB will continue to work with the police to end bird crime. Our charity was established more than 125 years ago over public outcry over exploitation of wild birds in the hat trade. It is a sad truth that persecution continues to this day. In just this past week, we have worked with the police to secure a successful conviction of a game farm owner for using a pole-trap (see here) and, with the police have appealed for information about the shooting a protected bird in Norfolk (here) and two men shooting at a goshawk nest in Scotland (here).
The current review of environmental legislation by the European Commission should also be used as the opportunity to bolster the implementation of laws currently in place. Making sure that the National Wildlife Crime Unit is properly funded would be an important component of this.
You can read the Labour proposals in full here.
I look forward to hearing plans from the other political parties about how they would tackle wildlife crime.
What do you think about the Labour party's plans to tackle wildlife crime?