Brownfields, greenfields, NNRs & what of the future?

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A packed hall in the Whisby Nature Park Education Centre saw around 70 delegates listening intently to a range of speakers delivering Buglife’s second Brownfield Conference on Halloween (31 October).

Presentations from the eight speakers included interesting case studies which illustrated a wide range of work, from industry to Buglife’s own Stepping Stones project.

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A typical industrial site, although this is the Cemex cement factory at South Ferriby in North Lincolnshire.

For me it was the planning dimension and the interaction of Defra agencies, particularly Natural England which raises concerns.  In terms of planning, brownfield has traditionally been the preferred option over greenfield for develpment.  However, brownfield sites have been havens for many rare and threatened species hence a dilema for conservationists as well as planners and not forgetting government.

Now that Natural England have a centralised ‘advice function’ (my words not their title per se), when a Local Planning Authority submits an application into the Defra agency, they have to make a response in a short timeframe, if they are short staffed with staff who are not aware of colleagues on the ground with local knowledge, so do not make contact with them to fully appreciate or understand the application and any nature conservation issues which might not be evident from a developers or consultants submission then there can be problems?  Developer friendly environmental consultants and there are many, create tomes of reports which generally fail to do any more than scratch the surface of the biodiversity interest of a site beyond rejurgitating copious text from statutory guidance or local development frameworks, perhaps a desk top search for data from natural history societies or Local Records Centres (who in turn rely on local naturalists), very rarely any fieldwork in an appropriate season.  Now that NE make available much of their planning and development advice on line and they also offer a Discretionary Advice Service so a money making consultancy by any other name, there appears to be very little consistent and meaningful communication or correspondence.

West Thurrock Marshes is an interesting case.  Despite the judgement going against Buglife it did accept that the NERC Act was an important consideration in such cases.  It also highlighted failings in the Biodiversity Duty, the court system, planning policy and SSSI system.

The presentation provided a synoptic overview of the work which can be found in “The state of brownfields in the Thames Gateway” in more detail, certainly worth a read.

We heard from industry representatives who had worked with conservation organisations and Defra agencies to create easily managed sites which provided suitable habitats for rare and threatened species.  There is clearly much useful work being undertaken, but is it sustainable and who will ensure its longevity in perpetuity?

Not surprisingly most of these sites generally exclude the public unlike NNRs many of which are failing to meet their favourable condition status monitoring targets.  So, there is a conundrum, local authorities are not always managing their country parks as the public might like by allowing bikes, horses and unleashed dogs so that could now be an option for NNRs instead?  Will these new industrial reserves become the future for habitats and species conservation?

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A view of Thorne Moors SSSI, a Natura 2000 site and a National Nature Reserve from Thorne colliery pit tip.

Natural England’s Senior Technical Adviser outlined the creation of an inventory of open mosaic habitats on previously developed land and whilst this is not the presentation itself it is broadly speaking very similar.  Anyone looking to prepare a case for conservation of a brownfield site is certainly recommended to read the OHM Survey Handbook  Similarly it is useful to understand the statutory agency definition of Open Mosaic Habitats from the UK BAP Priority Habitat Descriptions, although the BAP system is now defunct, it is still understood by many so remains useful until fully updated post ‘evolution’.

There were copies of Planning for Brownfield Biodiversity A Best Practice Guide in delegate packs, and as with many of their publications and reports a useful tool to any local campaigners trying to put together a submission about a local planning application.  Please note that the planning section is out of date, and Buglife report that an updated version will be available shortly.

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Thorne Colliery site, post demolition and illustrative of how quick nature heals scared landscapes.  See also an earlier blog post this year when a number of interesting species were discovered across the complex.

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Araneus marmoreus pyramidatus, the Humberhead Levels is a stronghold for both colour variants of this species.  The colliery site hosts a population of the species.

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Calluna vulgaris doing quite well on areas within the colliery complex.

The networking between the presentations, as often the case with such events was the useful bonus of attending a well run and informative conference, an enjoyable day.  Another refreshing aspect was that as an organisation their staff certainly did seem to ‘buzz’ and they invited delegates to contact them for advice and that’s not a common commodity these days.  Membership organisations are all too ready to take your money and hand out glossy PR but I can count on my fingers the number of organisations who actually do get down to grassroots and try to help empower or assist local casework.

So, well  done and thank you to the Buglife team!

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