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.
In her much anticipated speech today, the Prime Minister gave more detail on what the UK vote to leave the European Union will mean.
Crucially, she ended months of speculation by confirming that, in its upcoming negotiations with the EU, the UK Government will not be seeking membership of the EU Single Market.
Why does this matter for nature?
This matters because the trading arrangements between the UK and the EU have a bearing on environmental standards we need to adopt.
Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
If the UK remained a member of the Single Market, it would have needed to continue to comply with most – but not all – EU environmental legislation. There would still have been some very notable gaps, including when it came to key pieces of legislation like the Birds and Habitats Directives and sectoral policies covering agriculture and fisheries, but many other policy areas would have been largely unaffected (the UK would simply have lost its vote on influencing the future direction of such policies).
Therefore, the implication of today’s announcement is that the vast majority of existing EU environmental legislation will not automatically apply following the UK’s departure from the UK.
Nevertheless, the Prime Minister has re-affirmed the Government’s commitment to converting the full body of existing EU law in UK law via the proposed ‘Great Repeal Bill’. Of course, we know that this will not be a straightforward process. Indeed, according to a recent report by the Environmental Audit Committee, it could still result in a significant weakening of environmental protections in the absence of full parliamentary scrutiny and a means of replacing the loss of existing EU governance mechanisms relied on to hold decision-makers to account and secure robust enforcement.
So, while the Prime Ministers speech provides some additional clarity, many questions still remain. As such, we agree with the Environmental Audit Committee’s call on the Government to urgently set out how it plans to “provide an equivalent or better level of protection” for nature as we exit the EU.
Looking to the future
Instead of Single Market membership, the Prime Minister has stated that the UK will seek “the greatest possible” market access via a bespoke Free Trade Agreement with the EU. On this issue, the Environmental Audit Committee has also been clear, recommending that when it comes to negotiating any such agreement, the Government must guarantee that “it will not trade away environmental protections...as part of the negotiations to leave, or as part of future trade deals.”
We agree. Indeed, to be a truly ‘Global UK’, maintaining current levels of environmental protection must be a red line in any such negotiations. We do not want to see a ‘race to the bottom’ in environmental standards as a means of trying to secure favourable terms in any future trade deal. Ultimately, protecting our environment and securing our future prosperity must go hand in hand. This will be a key message for the Greener UK coalition of which we are a founding member.
Working together to maintain standards and secure high levels of protection should be seen as an opportunity for on-going cooperation and collaboration both within the UK and across the EU as a whole. This is essential for future generations to be able to look back and know, as Theresa May put it today “...that we built them a better Britain”.
I am convinced that the RSPB is at its best when, through practical projects, it demonstrates how to reconcile the needs of people and wildlife and inspires others to follow our lead.
With partners, we’ve shown how to farm profitably while recovering farmland bird populations, how to catch fish rather than albatrosses and how to protect homes from flooding while creating new habitat for wildlife.
We recently turned our attention to housing.
The Westminster Government is expected to launch its Housing White Paper for England very soon. This will announce a number of changes as part of the wider drive to increase housing supply towards its stated ambition of a million new homes over the next five years.
Clearly, there is a significant need for new housing in the UK. However, the quality and location of this housing is just as important as the quantity: new housing developments should be delivered in harmony with nature and planned to achieve reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, whilst providing resilience to the impacts of climate change.
Through our work with the house builder, Barratt Developments, we want the Kingsbrook project near Aylesbury to set a benchmark for nature friendly housing developments.
Construction started in summer 2016. It is anticipated that the 2,450 home development will include a major new urban fringe nature reserve as well as nature-friendly elements in the built environment such as sustainable urban drainage system (such as swales and detention ponds), hedgehog highways in fences, flower-rich grasslands in public open spaces, native tree planting including the rare black poplar, fruit trees in gardens, and recently launched swift bricks.
These new bricks (below) are particularly impressive. Developed by Barratt, the RSPB, Action for Swifts and Manthorpe Building Products Ltd, the brick acts as a nest box while easily incorporated into the construction process. We hope that providing replacement nest sites in new buildings will help to reverse the decline in the swift population.
While we hope these measures will deliver environmental improvements, we are also keen to improve people’s lives. To investigate this, we have established a research project to assess the health and wellbeing benefits of access to nature and greenspace in the Kingsbrook development. We hope to demonstrate that it is good for us all to have contact with nature close to where we live.
In addition to the Kingsbrook project, our work with Barratt should lead a net positive impact for wildlife across all Barratt operations. This should be the ambition for all development. We need to build great places for people and nature to live.
So we urge the Government, through its White Paper, to...
...ensure all new homes are designed to the standard we are setting at Kingsbrook.
...maintain and enhance our network of protected areas of biodiversity (international, national and local) and other land of high environmental value as articulated in the National Planning Policy Framework.
...maintain protection for brownfield land of high environmental value.
...deliver new housing developments in harmony with nature and aim to achieve reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, whilst providing resilience to the impacts of climate change. A good place to start will be to show leadership and demonstrate what can be achieved in recently proposed Garden Towns and Villages.
With Barratt, we think we can set the benchmark for nature-friendly housing developments in the UK.
And we hope and expect the Government will share this ambition: to build new homes while fulfilling its commitment to restore biodiversity in a generation.
I’ve just finished reading a new review (the Hendry Review) on the Role of Tidal Lagoons. I think it is a considered piece of analysis that takes into account the many issues at stake in a place as precious for wildlife as the Severn Estuary.
In particular, I am delighted to see that the Review has taken on board the RSPB’s recommendation that the planned tidal lagoon at Swansea acts as a test project or “pathfinder” project from which we can learn the lessons ahead of a wider push to develop further lagoons in the Severn Estuary and elsewhere in the UK.
Hendry has recognised the potential opportunity of renewable energy from tidal but I’m really pleased that he is backing a measured approach such that if lagoon technology is to be expanded there is time to fully understand environmental impacts and avoid or mitigate them, so that this technology can be deployed in harmony with nature.
Shelduck in flight (Ben Hall, rspb-images.com)
A key objective for the Governments of the UK is to decarbonise our energy supply. In 2008, the UK Government introduced a legally binding target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80% by 2050 against 1990 levels. To achieve this our energy system will need to change, and we will need to significantly increase our use of renewable energy sources.
Last year ‘The RSPB’s 2050 energy vision’ looked at how we could do this. This was not a prescriptive document and we remain open to new ideas, innovations and technologies as the world works to meet the targets set out in Paris in 2015. As the UK transforms its energy system to meet the Government’s 2050 climate targets, our belief is that it must be in harmony with nature.
As well as being a key focus for tidal lagoons, the Severn is one of the UK’s natural wonders.
These habitats providing winter feeding grounds for up to 76,000 waterfowl and waders (such as shelduck, dunlin, redshank – all with Internationally important populations) according to the Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS) count.
And, in the water the Severn is home to 110 different fish species, including seven migratory species (among which are three of the five known UK breeding populations of twaite shad, as well as sea lamprey and river lamprey – all of which are internationally important).
And that is just a snapshot of the amazing wildlife that inhabit or use the Severn and adjacent areas. So, as you might expect we are protective of this precious habitat.
The RSPB supports the Swansea lagoon proposal subject to the outstanding environmental questions for example the potential impacts on fish, being satisfactorily resolved. We have long urged that lessons are learned from this first scheme so that we can fully understand the environmental impacts and mitigation potential of this technology to inform any future developments. I am therefore pleased to note the emphasis the Review places on in depth monitoring and research to learn these environmental lessons.
The Review goes on to suggest the development of other small scale schemes from which further lessons can be learned. If Government chooses to adopt this approach, we see it as absolutely essential that the right coastal locations are selected for these projects, taking into account the likely wildlife impacts from the outset. The role of the National Policy Statement (NPS) will be key to selecting the right locations as will the role of a new Tidal Power Authority should Govenrment choose to adopt the recommendation to establish this body. It is essential that this process, is subject to the rigorous tests of UK wildlife law.
The challenge to address climate change is so great that we need an energy revolution and tidal lagoons may have a role to play. The Review concludes that tidal lagoons would help deliver security of energy supply and help us meet our decarbonisation commitments.
I believe that if we learn the lessons from the Swansea Bay lagoon project, and understand how to deploy this technology in an ecologically sensitive way, tidal lagoons can play a role in decarbonising our energy future. However, this is a new and expensive technology; it must also not distract from the need for continued investment in existing affordable alternative and potentially more sustainable sources of renewable energy. And it absolutely must not cause needless harm to nature and fabulous sites like the Severn or our other precious estuaries around the coast of the UK.