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.
Last week, former US Vice President Al Gore was the latest (here) to question the wisdom of fracking in our finest wildlife sites yet in my discussions at Labour and Lib Dem conferences over the past couple of weeks there seems to be some confusion about what is actually happening.
With a string of Westminster Government announcements and consultations in recent months, as well as a u-turn or two to boot, the situation around fracking has become more complicated, if no less contested by different, often vocally expressed, opinions.
I hope that this blog can help to straighten some things out and clarify our position.
This summer, the Westminster Government announced 159 new licences for onshore oil and gas in England. Many of these could lead to the use of horizontal hydraulic fracturing to access new reserves of oil and gas trapped in the shale rock formations beneath our countryside. The licences are just the first step, and companies will also need to apply for planning permission and go through other approvals before they can begin exploring for fossil fuels.
New analysis conducted by my colleagues have shown that 293 Sites of Special Scientific Interest (national important sites for wildlife) fall within the 159 licences, but outside other protected areas (such as National Parks) where government has committed to ban fracking. These 293 SSSIs make up just 0.9% of the area of the licence blocks that have been awarded yet are vitally important for wildlife.
Also in the 159 licence blocks, at times overlapping with these SSSIs, are nine RSPB reserves – places like Bempton Cliffs, Fairburn Ings and Nagshead, which will be well known (and loved) to many RSPB members.
David Wooton's image of RSPB Fairburn Ings
Government has also issued licences that cover the Forest of Dean, the Somerset Levels, Salisbury Plain and large parts of Dorset, as well as much of the North of England.
Recent signals are that the Westminster Government is keen to press ahead with the growth of a fracking industry to provide a bridge between coal power and renewables. A blog last week from Minister Andrea Leadsom said that opposition from the ‘anti-fracking’ lobby was costing time and money.
This intervention reminds me of some conversations that we had during the consultation over the National Planning Policy Framework in 2011 which suggested that SSSIs were fair game for development and that was in the interest of economic development. I said at the time and I’ll say again, economic development that is reliant on the needless destruction of our finest wildlife sites is the wrong form of economic development. In the end, we won the argument and we hope to do so again.
Since 2014, we’ve argued that greenhouse gas emissions associated with fracking must be consistent with legally binding carbon budgets and we have called for a tougher regulatory regime for this new onshore industry in the UK, in order to ensure the environment is protected. Specifically, we called for frack-free zones that ruled out development in all protected areas.
In February this year we thought we had achieved a partial victory when Amber Rudd, at the time a Government minister in DECC, announced that fracking would be banned outright in National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and SSSIs.
Then, in July, the Government brought forward legislation that ruled out fracking beneath protected areas at anything less than a depth of 1200m. This list of protected areas included National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, World Heritage Sites and The Broads. But SSSIs were absent from that list.
At the time, the Westminster Government reiterated a promise to ban fracking at the surface within this list of protected areas (now excluding SSSIs).
When the 159 new licences were announced, they were accompanied by an environmental assessment of each licence. European sites for wildlife (Special Areas of Conservation, Special Protection Areas and Ramsar sites) have now essentially been ruled out from fracking at the surface. That’s good news which we welcomed in the consultation response we submitted today.
But we also think that the same protection should apply to other sites too. We’d like to see government rule out fracking in their whole list of protected areas AND Sites of Special Scientific Interest. 85% of SSSIs in the licences are sheltered by other protected areas. So ruling out SSSIs from fracking would affect just an extra 0.9% of the licence block area.
Either the Government is happy to see fracking within SSSIs which would lead to huge public opposition (and no doubt an enormous amount of time and money tied up in planning inquiries) or it doesn’t in which case it should clarify the situation and rule out fracking within 293 very special places for wildlife.
Currently, Government appears to be sending a signal that SSSIs are fair game for development and are of lower value than other protected areas. This risk is heightened as the Government seems intent on establishing a fracking industry and has said "the number of them [SSSIs] would have an adverse effect on the development of the shale gas industry".
Fracking under these areas is also not risk free. Fracking infrastructure would need to be placed nearby and associated development would result in noise and light disturbance as well as chemical pollution could put wildlife at risk. And, of course, it would jeopardise the ambition to deliver the more, bigger, better and joined protected area network that Sir John Lawton has espoused and Defra has embraced.
So, we’re asking Amber Rudd, now Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, to fulfil her promise from February and ban fracking in all protected areas, including SSSIs.
The protection of wildlife sites is our most immediate concern; but we’re still not convinced that the other regulations around fracking are strong enough. And as the UK prepares to play an influential role at international climate negotiations in Paris in December, we’re yet to be convinced that fracking is a good idea when we need to be weaning ourselves off fossil fuels.
We think it would be common sense to:
If you agree, please do join our campaign (here) and send the Secretary of State a message that SSSIs aren't fit to frack.
Week two of party conference season and we're now in sunny Brighton with the Labour Party. Last night, it was my pleasure to introduce Rt Hon Hilary Benn at a reception organised by WWF, The Wildlife Trusts and the RSPB. Mr Benn is now Shadow Foreign Secretary but was, of course, Environment Secretary during the last Labour Government.
The Coalition Government inherited and respected much of Mr Benn’s legacy...
...it was Hilary Benn who commissioned Professor Sir John Lawton to produce his seminal Making Space for Nature which was published during Caroline Spelman’s time as Secretary of State. This argued for more, bigger, better, more joined protected areas and helped provide the impetus for the establishment of Nature Improvement Areas. Today, the conservation community is united around the desire to think big and restore landscapes for people and wildlife.
...it was Hilary Benn who, in concert with the devolved administrations, commissioned the UK National Ecosystem Assessment which outlined the value that nature gives us, but concluded that a third of the free services that nature provides have been degraded. The UKNEA not only paved the way for the NEWP, but also provided the framework for the establishment of the National Capital Committee.
...it was Mr Benn that had a role in the Climate Change Act (2008) and then took the Marine and Coastal Access Act (2008) through parliament. The coalition Government established an ambitious fourth carbon budget to drive down greenhouse gas emissions and slowly (many would say too slowly) took steps towards establishing an ecologically coherent network of marine protected areas.
So, Mr Benn is well placed to determine whether the current Government will continue to respect his legacy, for example, as it begins to set out its stall for a 25 year plan for nature and map out a future for the Natural Capital Committee.
He is also in a key position to shape the Labour Party’s contribution to the forthcoming referendum on the European Union. Anyone that has ever worked for Defra will have experienced the best and worst of the EU. The best, to my mind is the high standards of environmental protection that the EU demands most notably through Directives such as the Birds and Habitats & Species Directives. The worst is the lack of public benefit secured through the c€400 billion of European taxpayers’ money that will be spent on the Common Agriculture Policy over the next six years.
A positive reform agenda for the European Union would be one that upheld high environmental standards thereby respecting the principle that no Member State should gain competitive advantage through trashing their environment whilst also demanding greater value for European taxpayers’ money through the CAP to support those farmers that provide things that the public want and need such as an attractive countryside rich in wildlife accessible to all.
Yet, Mr Benn of course, along with the new Shadow Environment Secretary Kerry McCarthy, are in opposition. The first job of opposition is to oppose, the second job is to seek renewal and a vision for the country and a policy programme which attracts sufficient votes at the next election to win them power.
Last night both politicians spoke with passion and commitment and were warmly received in a packed (and very hot) Grand Hotel meeting room. My hope is that the Labour Party opposes anything that undermines Mr Benn’s legacy, supports measures that build on it and challenges the Government to a healthy competition for the best policy agenda to help us recover our threatened wildlife and help us live in harmony with nature.
As ever, our role is to propose, based on our evidence, experience and expertise, what we think nature needs and share our ideas with each of the parties. We shall continue to do that in Brighton this week before heading north to the Conservatives in Manchester next week.
We covered a lot of ground at a well attended fringe event with the Liberal Democrats yesterday - from fracking on SSSIs, to housing policy, spending cuts and Europe. As a party they are clearly finding their road to recovery, but they have a stake in many of the issues that are relevant today not least because they were live when they were part of the coalition government.
For example, the Natural Capital Committee was born on their watch and today we had the first clues as to what the new government thinks about its future.
At the end of January, I welcomed the NCC's third report (here). It deserved applause because it contained a series of ambitious recommendations for environmental protection and restoration. Today the Government responded to those recommendations.
The most welcome feature of the announcement was confirmation that the NCC , which formally ends in September, will be re-established and continue for the duration of this Parliament. It is also encouraging to know that it will continue to report to the Government’s Economic Affairs Committee. The first tasks of the newly constituted NCC will be to help develop the Government’s 25 year plan for biodiversity and begin the process of recalibrating the way environmental values are included in decision making.
Our recommendations for the new NCC were for it to be given:
The Government’s response does not match the ambition of the Committee nor accept our recommendations. There are no additional resources, no intention to integrate natural capital considerations into the National Infrastructure Plan and no support for pursuing the innovatory financing proposals suggested by the Committee. It will also remain an advisory Committee without a broader remit to assess environmental impacts of government policy.
Nonetheless, there are welcome signs that the government is beginning to accept a main premise of the work of the NCC – that nature underpins our wellbeing and future economic prospects. While protecting and restoring nature is a responsibility we all share, the government has a critical role in providing the necessary resources to secure the vast array of public benefits which nature generates but which markets cannot provide. There are a number of ways Government’s can correct for the failings of markets and some form of action will be necessary if the government is to achieve its ambition to leave the environment in a better condition than it inherited.
So I wish the new Committee well in continuing this work and hope they can make further inroads into amending an economic system which over exploits nature because it chronically undervalues it. One thing that impressed me about the first NCC, was the determined independence of the Committee members and their commitment to providing clear objective advice. For the new NCC to attract the same quality of membership and produce the same quality of outputs, retaining its’ independence and integrity will be key.
I look forward to hearing what the Liberal Democrats and other parties think about today's announcement.