Build, build, build!

Roger discusses how nature desperately needs help from the Government, findings from our Life After Lockdown survey and how we must build back better with nature.

Last week the Prime Minister urged the country to ‘build, build, build’ in order to stimulate the economy following the COVID-19 pandemic. My heart sank at the words, because in the history of GWT, building of any sort is too rarely good news for wildlife.

Over the last couple of weeks, we’ve been packing up our temporary home in central Gloucester ready to move back to Robinswood Hill. In the dusty boxes there were some inspirational finds. The original barn owl drawing by Peter Scott of his logo for the Trust. A fantastic set of volunteer armbands from working parties in the 1960s and 1970s. And boxes of carefully written records of wildlife sightings across the county.

But there was also a series of sealed archive boxes which told a miserable tale. File after file of ‘closed’ buff-coloured folders full of letters between persistent GWT staff and volunteers pleading for the rights of our wild spaces threatened by road schemes and housing development. In most cases our pleas were ignored. Years later, much of the mitigation measures promised have either failed, or were never delivered.

Crickley Hill A417

A missed opportunity

That’s why, along with the Wildlife Trusts across the UK, we are deeply disappointed by the announcement to spend billions on road building projects and just £40 million on nature. Serious investment in nature could provide a green recovery which addresses the twin crises of our age – climate change and loss of the natural world – while simultaneously providing many more jobs.

The frustration is that it doesn’t have to be one thing or the other. This weekend the National Trust urged the Government to plough £5.5 billion into creating a ‘green, not grey economy’ of parks and open spaces to turbo-charge Britain’s recovery from COVID-19. Bold plans to transform thousands of neighbourhoods and spend millions of pounds to upgrade neglected parks have been drawn up by the National Trust, charities and council leaders who say it would create a £200 billion bonanza in physical and health benefits for 20 million people.

Wildlife and Countryside Link has analysed the opportunities presented by ‘shovel-ready projects’ in the UK and found that £315 million of new investment could bring forward the creation of 200,000 hectares of priority habitat in a new Nature Recovery Network. It would begin to reverse declines in biodiversity, providing better access to nature for many thousands of people, creating 10,000 jobs, supporting rural and urban economies countrywide, locking away millions of tonnes of carbon in pursuit of our net zero target, and protecting people and businesses from future natural disasters.

We have a chance to look to solutions that will help address nature loss and climate change, not make them worse. An economic recovery which puts investment in nature first would reap big dividends in tackling climate crisis – helping to absorb up to a third of UK emissions – as well as tackling health inequalities, and providing more jobs, skills and opportunities to support the next generation.

Yellow and pink wildflower field at Crickley Hill

Adam Smith

Weakening protection for wildlife

In his speech, the Prime Minister made specific reference to building fast and removing wildlife that presents an obstacle. I’ve been in too many meetings where developers are dismissive about the legislation that protects some indicator species like bats and newts. They are protected by the Habitats and Birds Regulations which have been reviewed by DEFRA numerous times and as recently as 2012 were declared fit for purpose.

It is important that this legislation, which is vital to tackling the biodiversity crisis, is not blamed for development and house building targets being missed. This Government’s own 2018[1] review concluded that wildlife regulations had little impact and that delays were mainly caused by the type of developments being approved and a lack of market demand for them. This conclusion reiterated previous Government reviews that wildlife regulations only caused significant delays in a small number of avoidable cases[2] and that wildlife protection afforded through the existing EU Habitats Regulations must be maintained[3].

We know that these protections are extremely popular among all voters and have been at the heart of this Government’s green revolution and yet the Prime Minister said in his speech that “newt-counting delays are a massive drag on the prosperity of this country.” A letter published yesterday from all the major nature charities in the UK, including the Wildlife Trusts said that “rebooting our economy needs to be done in a way that doesn’t exacerbate the current environmental and climate emergencies. Ripping up important laws and lowering our standards would be a betrayal of previous commitments and reduce our international standing.”

My own experience is that developers get into trouble with these regulations when either the development is in the wrong place, or when they have considered the environment too little and too late. In both cases, that sounds like they are doing their job.

In 2017 the Government said we have a once in a lifetime opportunity to recast our country’s environment and that there would be no weakening of environmental protections in a post-Brexit Britain. It is vital that we now hold them to that promise. 

[1] Letwin (2018) Independent Review of Build Out. MHCLG, Government, London

[2] Spelman (2012) Report of the Habitats and Wild Birds Directives Implementation Review, DEFRA, London

[3] Letwin (2018) Better regulation for a post-Brexit Britain, Red Tape Initiative, London

Don Sutherland

Don Sutherland

Life after lockdown

A month ago, we published a survey both to our members and others in the county asking them to tell us their hopes and fears for life after lockdown. The survey will be open for another week and then we’ll publish a full report on the findings before the end of July. We had over 1,200 responses and there’s a clear steer that lockdown has profoundly changed people’s priorities.

A quick scan at the emerging headlines proves that lockdown has made people value nature more than ever. The highest claimed benefit of lockdown that people wanted to take forward was simply ‘more time in nature’ (74%). Half said they were planning to reduce use of their car. 67% said they will walk more in the future. I am always being told that public attitudes are the big block to shifting to sustainable transport – and so it looks like we might be missing a huge window of opportunity.

One of the greatest concerns for nature was ‘loss of nature to housing and roads’.

The survey also provided space for people to tell their own story. One respondent said: “I am concerned we will not learn the lessons of lockdown, and unnecessary travel, and lose all the benefits of reduced car and air transport, with regard to our environment and climate change”.

What was clear from the survey is that most people wanted stronger leadership and action from local and national Government on tackling the biodiversity and climate crises.

Building with nature

Build with nature

Yet the survey is full of hope as well as concern. Another respondent echoed many when they said that “development done correctly can be a mechanism for positive change” and despite the evidence in the dusty files of the GWT archive, I agree.

A few years ago, we launched our Building with Nature framework as a set of standards to demonstrate what good looks like when it comes to housing development. We never set out to award a tiny number of excellent schemes, but instead to provide a voluntary mechanism that could be a positive incentive for both housing developers and local authority planners to do the right thing. We wanted to normalise a different approach – and it’s worked. I’m delighted that now most of our planning authorities have either recommended Building with Nature in their policies – or are interested in doing so. And most of the major new housing allocations in the county are aiming to meet the standards. What’s more the idea has spread and now 10 Wildlife Trusts across the county are using Building with Nature and we are also trialling in other parts of the UK. A great success story, born at GWT.

A green recovery

Our own survey has reflected the results of similar surveys over the last few months – demonstrating that nature has provided people with much solace during this crisis. I think that we must value nature for its intrinsic beauty and majesty – that’s the stuff that has given people so much joy in lockdown. Yet we also know now that we need nature for our own health and wellbeing and because restored natural habitats can capture carbon to help us tackle climate change.

The example of Building with Nature and many other initiatives is that we can build back better and build back greener. Investing in new infrastructure does not necessarily have to come at the cost of a loss of wildlife. But continuing with business as usual, investing in the polluting infrastructure of the past and undermining vital environmental protections, will mean nature continues to lose out.