Connections. Essential for the preservation and expansion of habitats and protection of wildlife, allowing species to move between locations, and giving them a lifeline if things go wrong in one area. Connections between wildlife sites are what we are trying to establish by planting Betty’s Wood. Building connections between wildlife sites, as well as increasing their size, number and quality, was a keystone of the Making Space for Nature review of 2010 to which the Natural Environment White Paper is the Government response.
Lots of ideas with a great deal of potential are outlined: Local Nature Partnerships made up of local authorities, charities, voluntary organisations and private sector to look after natural spaces in local areas, crossing administrative boundaries. Nature Improvement Areas for landscape-scale natural space protection and enhancement, made up of groups of LNP’s. Designated Local Green Areas in urban settings. Natural Value Ambassadors to help make planners understand the value of the natural resource.
So much potential, such lovely words, but does this have any teeth? So much of the potential of this white paper seems to be bound up in good will and voluntary compliance. LNP’s and NIA’s may be great, but if local authorities are not obliged to incorporate their recommendations into local plans, and into their planning framework, how will these designations stand up in practice. Will they only escape development if they are not deemed to affect the needs of housing, jobs and industry? Will there be a presumption in favour of sustainable development? Will nature yet again be squeezed to the areas that people don’t want, or that are not profitable?
Then there is biodiversity offsetting: developers who damage habitats can voluntarily offset or mitigate this by investing in habitat improvement or enlargement. Nice idea, but will the habitats enhanced and replaced be of the same type, same value and in the same area as those destroyed or damaged? Or will people be gradually distanced from valuable natural habitats and certain habitats win out at the expense of others that are more easily and cheaply expanded and improved?
There are targets for increasing the proportion of priority sites in having improving or favourable status. But effectively this is about SSSI. Not all valuable habitats are SSSI. Connections are important – little pieces of natural habitat not sufficiently extraordinary to be SSSI are still vital. Protection is envisaged for ancient semi-natural woodland such as ours, as well as plantations on ancient woodland sites, but there is little here about the degree of protection, or to what extent that protection can be swept aside for competing economic, social and development needs.
There are lots of other potentially good things: joining up the English Woodland Grant Scheme from the Forestry Commission with the Stewardship Schemes run by Natural England. Logical, and making connections between habitats and landscape-scale change and improvement easier to achieve. Also the commitment to remove barriers to outdoor education for children, about which I have written before.
But it seems to me that the the ball is in the air: there are opportunities here to make things much better, but without teeth to grasp it, the potential benefits are likely to slip away. I am left with the feeling that too much is left to volunteers, without specifying how they will be trained, how professional advice will be delivered, and how the outcomes of their actions will be monitored. Too much is left to voluntary schemes and good will, and that without teeth to back it up, nature is not placed at the heart of our ecosystem, but remains something to be fitted in where it can, in places that nobody else wants. Connections are important, but will only work if they are not repeatedly cut. Words are important, but teeth are too: will this have sufficient teeth to deliver?
The full text of my thoughts on the Natural Environment White Paper is Here (Word Document)