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.
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.
My Friday afternoon was pleasantly disturbed by news that the Government has decided to call in for public inquiry an application to build 5000 homes on Lodge Hill, a Site of Special Scientific Interest, in Kent.
Not only did the Government's own statutory advisor, Natural England, seek a call in, but 12,400 people contacted ministers to express their outrage and condemnation that the nation's finest nightingale site had been considered for development without public scrutiny.
I am delighted that the Government has listened to these concerns, and has reached the only logical conclusion. Failure to call in this case would have set an alarming precedent for other SSSIs. I trust they will reach the same conclusion over Rampisham Down SSSI.
Call in means that this case will be examined at the highest level where the full merits and values of the site and associated issues can be aired.
But, a rather obvious point is that the battle is not over. We still have to win at public inquiry.
Through an inquiry we hope and expect that this development will be rejected and the future of this Site of Special Scientific Interest will be secured. North Kent's housing need must proceed without impacting on nationally-important wildlife sites. As I will show on Monday, it is possible to build houses with nature in mind and I hope other local authorities and developers take note.
There is huge solidarity amongst the conservation community on this case as there is over Rampisham Down. As we continue to support the Wildlife Trusts in Dorset, so the Lodge Hill campaign has been supported by the Kent Wildlife Trust, Buglife, Butterfly Conservation and the Woodland Trust. And that is the way it should be.
Have a great weekend.
Today, Sir John Randall, who at the next election is standing down as Conservative MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip, will introduce a ten-minute rule motion in the House of Commons to promote the Nature and Wellbeing Bill. Here, he explains why...
Way back in 2001, I introduced the Marine Wildlife Conservation Bill in the House of Commons.Talking with the RSPB, it was clear to me that the level of protection afforded to our marine wildlife was nowhere near the standard we provide to our sites and species on land. The underwater wonders of British corals, fish, molluscs and eels were at risk of being lost. And those amazing seabirds that depend on our seas were disappearing from around our shores: arctic skuas that peck at your head, gannets that dive deep underwater, kittiwakes with their distinctive and evocatice calls - all were in trouble.
There was great consensus around Parliament that action was needed.
But even then, the passage of law can be a difficult process. Only a handful of Bills introduced by a backbencher like me ever become law. My Bill got stuck in the House of Lords and ran out of time.
It was only later that the Government introduced its own version of my Bill. The Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 finally gained Royal Assent on 12 November 2009, establishing the legal mechanism for designating Marine Conservation Zones. Today, we are still pushing Government on marine conservation. I hope to see all parties commit to a proper network of MCZs and protection for wildlife in our Overseas Territories with Marine Protected Areas around Ascension, the South Sandwich Islands and Pitcairn. I am really optimistic about that things will happen.So, when I introduce my Ten Minute Rule motion for a Nature and Wellbeing Bill today, I know that change won’t come overnight. But we do need to change.
The problem is that despite the high level of protection afforded to some wildlife, we still fail to take nature’s needs into account in most of our decisions: in Government, in business and in our day-to-day lives. As a result, 60% of the species we know about are in decline.
For politicians, it’s the urgency of political cycles and short-term issues like housing and the economy that can lead us to ignore what’s happening to our natural world. But we all know that saving money by abusing nature is a completely false economy. We absolutely depend on nature in almost everything we do and by using up nature’s resources today, we are only stealing from our children. We’re stealing the natural assets that fuel our economy, we’re stealing the natural services that protect us from flooding and air pollution, and we’re stealing the natural wonders that make everyone’s world a better place.
So I’m introducing a Nature and Wellbeing Bill to do four things.
First, it would set long-term targets for nature. That means statutory, legally-binding targets for sites and species. I want to see an increase in the biodiversity index by 2040 and our SSSIs in good condition. We need long-term targets in law to make sure that this objective guides political decisions even in tough times and to give certainty to businesses that we’re determined to make a difference.
To achieve those targets, we need to put nature into the heart of our economy and communities.
The second clause in my bill would establish the Natural Capital Committee in law, with new independence and powers. Now, I want to make it absolutely clear that I’m not in favour of turning nature into a commodity. But the NCC has already helped to demonstrate the economic case for looking after our natural world; our need for nature needs to be built into everyday decision-making, across all Departments, not just reserved for DEFRA regulations.
Next, I want to make sure that nature is built into our communities and our everyday lives. To plan properly for nature, we need to recognise that it’s part of the fabric of our communities. Sometimes species are important for their international scarcity or a wonderful feature. But just as often, they’re important for the impact they have on particular people and communities. And it’s the tiny patches of nature near us that form the natural networks Sir John Lawton identified as the next step in nature conservation.
Finally, nature is important to our health and wellbeing, but it’s ever-more distant in our lives. My Bill would set a standard for access to nature that would guide local planning and spending decisions. For new build developments, it would help to make sure that there’s plenty of greenspace accessible to everyone – like the RSPB and Barratt Developments are planning in their partnership at Kingsbrook in Aylesbury.
But for built up areas, it’s just as important to make sure that we’re thinking about providing safe access and enhancing the quality and richness of the open spaces we have. Doing so could help to save millions of pounds for the NHS by helping to get us fitter and healthier, as the Centre for Sustainable Healthcare is showing with its NHS Forest scheme.
Of course, new targets and accounting mechanisms won’t solve everything. We need these laws to build on the powerful legislation we already have in place – rules like the EU’s Birds and Habitats Directives, which are the most essential safeguard for sites and species. We need to protect those laws and implement them properly, to prevent outrages like wildlife crime.
But it’s clear to me that the time has come for new nature laws; firm commitments to say that we will pass our natural world on to our children in better condition than we received it.
The Bill I’m introducing won’t become law today, but I know there are MPs on all sides of the House – and businesses, NGOs and people all across the country – who recognise that the time has come to turn round the state of nature. I hope that all parties will commit to come together in the next Parliament to Act for Nature. I will be watching them!
I shall share the detail of the debate as soon as it is published by Hansard. Until then, thanks once again to Sir John for using his considerable voice for nature.