Monday, 23 November 2015

State of Nature ... and paving paradise

Joni Mitchell had something to say about parking lots some forty-five years ago:

Big Yellow Taxi - Joni Mitchell - YouTube

The question is how much have we learnt since:

Comment: Government is putting green issues at the bottom of its list

By Exeter Express and Echo | Posted: November 23, 2015

A rare dartford warbler, which can be found in East Devon

Claire Wright, Independent Devon County Councillor for Ottery St Mary Rural Ward and Woodland Trust Tree Champion For Devon, warns protection of the environment is being put at risk by a government planning review

Joni Mitchell wrote the activist environmental hit, Big Yellow Taxi back in 1970. Its lyrics are stark and apocalyptic. Clearly, a commentary on what she saw as relentless damage to nature at the time.

Further back still, the Town and Country Planning Act was brought into being in 1947 because ad hoc development was taking place across the country and the government was concerned about our green and pleasant land being despoilt by unregulated and uncontrolled building.

As long ago as 1895, campaigner, Octavia Hill, anxious about the lack of natural open spaces, spearheaded the foundation of the National Trust, which has since morphed into a fabulous and proactive environmentalist behemoth.

But that was then. In 2015 our natural world is more perilously balanced than ever before.

How concerned are today's politicians about climate change, habitat loss, the rapid decline of many indigenous species and steadily reducing natural resources?

Worryingly, most don't seem very concerned at all.

We have seen relaxed planning rules, infrastructure bills that promote something called bio-diversity off-setting, which allows for destruction of precious habitat including ancient woodland, providing trees are planted elsewhere… and so many other initiatives that have only served to weaken protections for nature.

Environmental issues were barely mentioned in the run-up to the general election and soon after, the Government announced a review into some really important EU laws. The Habitats Regulations have been described by our own politicians including George Osborne, as "gold-plated" and big business has been putting the pressure on for weakening them.

The Habitats Regulations apply to the fragile eco-systems that support the pebblebed heaths in East Devon, where the rare Dartford warbler and nightjar can be found. Also protected is the Exe Estuary and parts of Dartmoor.

Development near these areas is strictly controlled, and rightly so.

The EU's review has now ended and we are awaiting a response, but the survey was so hopelessly complicated that wildlife campaign groups had to issue a guide to help people complete it.

Essentially, unless you had specialist knowledge you would not have been able to answer the questions.

Devon County Council environmental officers robustly defended the laws as they related to Devon, after I urged the council to act at a Cabinet meeting in June.

They are the only such laws to prevent development. All else is policy and can be overridden by this Government's determined pursuit of economic growth – apparently at whatever cost.

The 2013 State of Nature report was the first ever comprehensive stock-take of our native species. The results were alarming. It revealed that 60 per cent of the species studied had declined over recent decades.

One in 10 species are under threat of disappearing altogether.

This report is what prompted me to set up a wildflower verge pilot scheme, with Devon Wildlife Trust and Devon highways officers. It is now being extended across other parts of Devon. The numbers of insects will be monitored and I very much hope that the current trend for seeding wildflowers in gardens will become ever more popular, and will result in a boost in insect numbers.

Without a thriving insect population, our mammals and birds don't stand a chance.

Hedgehog numbers are in massive decline – down from around 30 million in the 1950s, to just one million today. Causes are likely to include loss and fragmentation of habitat, as well as poisoning by things like slug pellets.

Bee numbers are dropping frighteningly fast. This is thought to be due to a number of reasons, including disease, intensive farming with less untamed land, and increased use of pesticides such as neonicitinoids.

An update of the State of Nature report, with a raft of recommendations for urgent action, was published last month and was supported by a sea of environmental charities.

The government's response? Um, an announcement that it would cut the Department of Food and Rural Affairs budget by 30 per cent over the next four years. Add that to the cuts in the last parliament, it amounts to a 57 per cent budget cut over two parliaments – the largest budget cut of any UK government department. Devon Wildlife Trust swiftly joined wildlife trusts across the country and the RSPB to protest about the proposed cuts. More than 5,000 staff could lose their jobs and the ability of Natural England and the Environment Agency to legally safeguard our waterways, drinking water, advise landowners on how to manage farmland in a wildlife friendly way, as well as other activities, will be hugely compromised.

RSPB chief executive, Mike Clare said: "This seems to us to be a truly perverse decision. Investing in environmental protection is an essential part of any plan for a better future."

Speaking last month, David Bullock, head of nature conservation at the National Trust and co-author of the Response for Nature report, says: "We have to do more than simply halt nature's decline. We need to reverse it once and for all."

But unfortunately, the government appears to have placed nature at the bottom of the list. I suspect that politicians will be forced to act one day but things will probably have to become dire before their eyes are opened.

I just hope that if and when it does happen, it isn't too late to turn things around, as per Joni Mitchell's predictions.

Comment: Government is putting green issues at the bottom of its list | Exeter Express and Echo

See also:
Futures Forum: State of Nature
Futures Forum: State of Nature: one year on...
Futures Forum: State of Nature: one year on ....... the Conference for Nature

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