Natural England & the future of SSSIs?

Mark Avery recently raised the issue of Natural England’s performance on SSSI notifications, and quite rightly so in our opinion.  Avery cites the West Pennines  as a case study: the site was surveyed by the Nature Conservancy Council back in 1991 but its successor body, English Nature, passed on the file to Natural England in 2007 and more surveys have been completed since 2012.  Local naturalists, many of whom helped collect the data, were hopeful that the site would be notified by December last year, but it wasn’t. It’s so easy to forget things at the tops of hills in the north of England.

Sadly a familiar scenario, locally we have Thorne and Hatfield MoorsThorne was first notified in 1970 under the 1949 Act and in 1986 under the 1981 Act.  Hatfield was first notified in 1954 under the 1949 Act and in 1982 under the 1981 Act.  The last revisions for the two sites was 1986 and 1988 respectively.  At each twist and turn it has been input from local naturalists and campaigners which has delivered statutory ‘protection’.  Throughout the whole of the periods detailed above the sites were subject of planning consents and were mined mercilessly for their peat.  Even when the planning consents were bought out in 2002 for some £17.3m + £1.32m and extraction on the majority of the Scotts (UK) Ltd holdings (gifted to the public in 1992, lease back agreement from English Nature in 1994) ceased around 2004 there has been no review resulting in any revision.

Avery’s example covers statutory inertia of around 24 years, here at Thorne and Hatfield ours can be traced back to 1989 so the lethargy here in South Yorkshire / East Riding / North Lincolnshire is some 26 years!  The Executive have written to Senior Managers in Natural England, the reply sadly fails to answer the questions asked.  One might be forgiven for wondering if the civil servants have been on the same training courses as politicians, that is to say how to avoid answering a question or how to use selective diversionary phrases?  The support staff are certainly familiar with the cut and paste technique and then incorporating with the ‘local NE staff contribution’ to give the appearance of a bespoke reply.

With far more eloquence Avery ‘challenges’ both the Executive Board (senior staff) and the ‘real’ (appointed through civil service appointment system) Board of Natural England to explain what they are about.  The Executive Board are using a bunch of unknown criteria in secret discussions in order to choose which qualifying sites should be allowed to progress to their deserved protection whilst the Board it might appear do not realise that SSSI notification is being ‘filtered’ and notification is being delayed and ‘prioritised’?

It would be interesting to consider why there appears to be a ‘DNR’ (do not resuscitate) instruction on the SSSI file?  Is it because the risk assessment lists too many issues that the lawyers / legal advice to the Executive have recommended the ‘procrastination’ tactics rehearsed in the letter Avery quotes?  Incidentally the same paragraphs are contained in the Forum’s response.  Is the issue one of the expense in consultations with landowners, is there fear of protracted legal wrangling (as happened here when European designations were being progressed), is it that NE no longer have the staff competencies, perhaps they have lost the files (that was what was claimed back in 1989 here)?

In 1997 “A muzzled watchdog” appeared and painted a bleak state of affairs around the delivery of nature conservation by English Nature.  That same parliamentary session a House of Commons sub-committee looked into the workings of English Nature.   In due course, despite dissatifaction reported of English Nature’s performance the NGOs rallied and secured an additional £6m for their budget so they could deliver their core outcomes.  Here were are again, some 17 years later and how the public body has metamorphosised, the most recent re-brand being Natural England?

It is interesting to read the comments on Avery’s well read post and recent critique of Natural England.  It’s not the first but it is a quite damming one, the case study used like ours here is one of either inertia or deliberate obfuscation or perhaps even both.  Irrespective it seems that the conservation campaign, like that for ‘Henry’ is calling for change.  Well respected figures from the conservation movement are beginning to speak out and openly criticise Natural England and their concerns are shared by many grassroots activists.  They have been described as ‘not fit for purpose’ at a recent conference and blog comments posted on Standing up for nature and others illustrate further examples of the ever evolving “toothless terrier”.   Even Tim Sands in his book The Wildlife in Trust reminds us that back in 1997 WWF reported in “A muzzled watchdog” that 45% of our SSSIs were still deteriorating “behind the smooth and professional facade of the restructured English Nature” and that there were “serious questions about the willingness of the new agency to stand up for nature in difficult and controvertial cases”.  What, if anything, has changed in the intervening 18 years?  NGOs are still having to pick up where statute stepped back from, a good contender for a recent cause celebre might perhaps be Wuthering Moors?  

Miles King’s ‘a new nature blog’ likewise raises concern about the government agency.  King’s research and  comment about the new Chairman of NE is certainly worthy of a read, likewise the post which informs us of the new Chief Executive of NE.

What in an ideal world would we like to see in an organisation charged with protection of the natural environment?  How would it be structured, what would an effective proactive organisation look like?  What governance would best ensure independence?  Where would the NNRs and forests and other public land be in the mix?  All these issues should be on the political agenda, but thus far deafening silence in the main from the major parties?

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If readers have similar case studies with supportive documentation then drop us a line via execsec@thmcf.org with a brief synopsis of the case.

 

Have you voted for BRITAIN’s NATIONAL BIRD yet?  Polling stops on May 6th!  Usual suspects and a few outsiders ….

With any election there is always a candidate that is billed as having an outside chance.  This beautiful raptor is a hot political potato as it is the most persecuted in the UK.  Shamefully, there is just one pair remaining in England – if Britain wants to back an underdog then the Hen Harrier is the one. 

Again, Avery explains well the logic and the benefit to nature conservation here. 

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