Forestry Commission plan tree planting on heathland after barbecue fire

The ground was bone dry and everything was flowering early. I was up at Poundbury (near Dorchester), checking on an area of wildflower meadow that I’d arranged to have sown. After the incessant downpours of the Autumn and Winter, the rain stopped. Then we had just 60mm of rain across two months. It was yet another clear blue day, when I noticed an odd-looking cloud on the eastern horizon.

Then I realized it wasn’t a cloud. It was smoke. A vast pall of smoke, billowing high into the air.

Returning home, I checked the news. The fire was out of control, spreading across hundreds of acres of Wareham Forest. Flames leapt up 20 metres and more, to the canopy of tall mature conifers. It took fire crews and Forestry Commission staff two weeks before the fire was finally extinguished, by which time it had raged across 220 hectares of land.

Smoke from Wareham Forest. © Miles King

The ‘Forest’ isn’t really a forest. It is a 1500-hectare modern conifer plantation planted on one of the fragments of what was once a vast heath stretching across Dorset, from the Hampshire border to Dorchester, immortalised by Thomas Hardy as ‘Egdon Heath’. Over 80 per cent of the former lowland heathland area has been destroyed or damaged, particularly during the 20th century. One of the reasons heathland disappeared was because it was planted with conifers by the Forestry Commission. The Commission acquired the heaths that would become Wareham Forest in 1924 and commenced planting what they regarded as worthless wasteland with fast-growing conifers. The country had almost run out of wood (for pit props) during the First World War and, as land prices crashed during the agricultural depression, the State snapped up land very cheaply, with the aim of securing future national timber supplies.

Wareham Forest comprises land leased by local landowning estates to the Government. The problem was that heathland has extremely poor soils. This is why it is heathland, because only the hardiest wild plants, including heather, can grow there. The heath is also wet – in places it is bog, with several metres of peat. The Forestry Commission set about trying to convert this wild place with poor wet soils (but thriving wildlife) into a suitable place for conifers to grow. They ploughed the soil into ridges so the trees could be a few inches above the water table. They drained the bogs.

During the Second World War, when once again the nation needed to draw on its own timber supplies, “lumberjills” from the Women’s Land Army lived in huts in the Forest, or were billeted in nearby Wareham. The lumberjills continued felling trees, planting trees, clearing drainage ditches and managing the forest, but the soils were so infertile that the trees produced were low quality – and always vulnerable to fires.

Forest ploughlines revealed by the fire.  © Miles King

After an exceptionally dry summer in 1947, Wareham Forest burnt in October. The fire even made it into “Life” magazine. That time it burned for four days, fuelled by the trees and ammunition dumps left over from soldiers training for D-Day. Fire was clearly a problem at Wareham Forest from its earliest days. In 1969 Francis Parsons, Chief Forester for Wareham Forest, was awarded the MBE for “his outstanding work in fire control”.

It was not fully appreciated in the 1920s that lowland heathland is a very important wildlife habitat – and that England has an international responsibility for its conservation. For 30 years now, however, the Forestry Commission has recognised that lowland heathland is valuable for wildlife, and has, commendably, started to remove some of the conifers to restore heathland, but large areas still remain. Cattle grazing has been reintroduced to a small area of the Forest to aid recovery from the damaging effects of planting conifers.

Cattle graze part of Wareham Forest. © Miles King

Fire is no stranger to lowland heathland. Fire contributed to the creation of the lowland heaths that once covered large parts of England – perhaps as long ago as the Mesolithic period, before the advent of farming. By the time farming became established in the Neolithic period, heaths were present, maintained by deliberate burning, and grazing by domestic livestock. This usage, alongside other resources provided by the heaths, ensured they were a valued part of the economy until the 19th century, when they started to be perceived as waste land. Many were commons, and subjected to enclosure and conversion into agricultural land. Fire continued to be used, to create lush new spring growth for livestock to graze.

Fire, when carried out sensitively, does no lasting damage to the heathland wildlife, and small regular fires (combined with grazing) prevent fuel from building up. Forestry management, by contrast, creates dense stands of flammable conifer trees. It also creates brash (what’s left over after the economic trunk of the tree has been harvested) that is left on the ground. Both live trees and brash create large sources of fuel for uncontrolled, devastating fires such as the one in May.

Dense conifer stands fuelled the fire. © Miles King

It’s almost certain that the 20 May fire was caused by a disposable barbecue: several were found by the Fire Service. Dorset Council is now considering a ban on the sale of what are effectively fire-bombs, when lit on tinder-dry heaths. The Government has changed the Countryside Code, such that it now states “Don’t have Barbecues”. The Forestry Commission have erected signs to the same effect.

Forestry Commission ‘No BBQs’ sign. © Miles King

Updating the Countryside Code and installing signs is an obvious reaction, but its success presupposes that those intent on having an enjoyable outdoor experience would take any notice of signs and ‘codes’. Covid-19 has created increased demand for access to the countryside. It seems likely this additional demand will continue through the summer and autumn while other leisure activities are still curtailed. Furthermore, acess continues to rise, as more houses are built in the area.

The Forestry Commission has launched a ‘crowdfunder’ appeal, asking for the public to raise funds for Wareham Forest, including for “restocking.”  Restocking means replanting with conifers, on heathland.

We are now in the midst of a climate and ecological emergency, with our climate shifting to a pattern where droughts are more frequent, increasing the risk of fire. Instead of planting more conifers to replace those destroyed by fire, it would be better to restore the heath through more grazing – even bringing back lost species, as has been done in Kent.  As Dr Lesley Haskins of the Erica Trust, a charity dedicated to heathland conservation, points out:

To be asking the public to fund this restocking of these pines, especially at this time, is nothing short of shocking.”

Covid-19 could provide the opportunity for us to rethink many aspects of our lives. It could also be the catalyst for a different way of thinking about land, especially public land. Restoring ‘Wareham Forest’ to Wareham Heath might be an example for others to follow.

This article was originally posted on West Country Bylines

Posted in climate change, Forestry Commission, lowland heathland, tree planting | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

Building Back Greener – Defra’s Eustice announces Govt plans to weaken nature protections


George Eustice – hard Brexite and Environment Secretary

I’m not much a zoom enthusiast but the invitation to listen to Defra secretary of state George Eustice give a “major” speech on the environment, via Green Alliance, seemed like too good an opportunity to miss. So, having finally got zoom to work on my computer, I sat and listened to him talk for 15 minutes or so. Gone was the verbal virtuosity, the jokes and the skilled delivery of Gove, replaced by a workaday trudge through a speech no doubt written by someone else, with the occasional stumble and a bizarre prounciation of plover (to rhyme with over).

Hidden amongst the greenwash/rhetoric (interestingly Defra trailed the big story of the speech as the tiny amount of money for Green Prescribing) were some big announcements though. As I didn’t take notes during the talk, I waited for the speech to be published before writing this. You can read it if you really want – here. This I think is the big one

“Later this autumn we will be launching a new consultation on changing our approach to environmental assessment and mitigation in the planning system. If we can front-load ecological considerations in the planning development process, we can protect more of what is precious.”

The EU’s EIA Directive ( from 1985) has been a cornerstone of UK environmental law for well over 30 years. While it has always been weak on things like Agriculture and Forestry, the EIA Directive and the Regulations which implemented it in UK law have shaped the way that built development of all kinds has impacted on the environment, not least through the Mitigation Hierarchy. This is an Environmental Principle akin to the Precautionary Principle. Simply put it says protect what needs to be protected, Minimise the impact of developments that have to happen, and compensate only as a last resort. Offsetting, of the kind being developed at breakneck speed in the “Net Gain” project, has been added onto the bottom of the Hierarchy. Take away 30 years of regulatory evolution and case law, and you blow a very large hole in the side of environmental protections, especially for internationally important species and habitats.

Eustice makes it sound like “Front-loading ecological considerations in the planning development process” is a new and exciting thing we can do once we’ve got rid of these pesky “spirit crushing” EU Directives. But this is what the Local Development Plan process is all about – identifying environmental features that need to be protected, restored or created, instead of having houses, roads of Free Ports built on them.

Far from protecting more of what is precious, stripping away the protections afforded via the EIA mechanisms will do precisely the opposite.

Eustice indulged in some historical revisionism in his speech –

“while the environmental legislation we currently have is often credited to flagship EU directives like the Habitats Directive or the Birds Directive, these directives themselves were often principally about implementing at an EU level things that had already been agreed internationally through other international conventions like the Bern Convention. International conventions that the UK was always part of, will remain part of and where we will continue to drive international consensus for change and progress.”

This is an old canard and used to be wheeled out frequently, so it’s entertaining to see it again after all these years. It’s rubbish. When the UK made this claim as a way of avoiding having to do anything to implement the Habitats Directive in the early 90s, it was taken to the European Court and forced into action. It’s STILL failing to implement the Habitats Directive for some species and habitats 28 years later. The reason the Habitats Directive was created, was precisely because the Bern Convention had failed to arrest the decline of species like the err very well-counted Great Crested Newt.

So the EIA framework is under threat. This has been on the cards since Brexit. What else isn’t new? Eustice also announced that he was overseeing a change in the way environmental data was going to be collected. To be honest I found his explanation in the Q and A very confusing. He talked about gathering better data from per-urban areas, but then got distracted into talking about Cauliflowers and Broccoli (no really).

It sounded like the old systems of Phase One Survey, NVC surveys; and Common Standards Monitoring for SSSIs are going to be abolished. Phase One is already on the way out, to be replaced by some new fangled system – called the Natural Capital and Ecosystem Assessment. If I were to be cynical I would conclude that a new system was going to be based on aggregate metrics, rather than data on individual species or habitats. That is after all where Net Gain has always been heading. Eustice says:

“If we can improve the baseline understanding of habitats and species abundance across the country in every planning authority, then we can make better decisions towards achieving our vision to leave the environment in a better state than we found it.”

Which begs the question what does Eustice think has been happening in planning authorities for the last 30 years and more? Or is he aware that thanks to cuts under this and previous Tory Governments, local planning authorities have almost all lost the expertise that held this knowledge, Local Record Centres have been cut to the bone, and nature NGOs which held this information have also been shutting projects through lack of support.

Eustice made mention of other things, not least redefining the Precautionary Principle to say more or less the opposite of what it actually says – so expect this to be incorporated into the new Environment Bill.

In conclusion, we can expect this Govt to continue its attack on all things EU-derived, and Regulation more generally.


Posted in Brexit, EIA, George Eustice, regulation | Tagged , , | 21 Comments

A Tale of Two Speeches – Gramsci, Newts and the Instrumentarians

Gove references the Italian marxist Gramsci at the beginning of his speech

As we finally reach the point where the first wave of covid19 has effectively passed (excess deaths in the week to the 19th June were the same as the 5 year average – 65000 dead so far),  it’s clear that the Government (ie Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings) has decided that now is the time to strike, while everyone else is looking forward to the pubs opening on the 4th July.

When I say strike, I mean return to the agenda that they had had all along, going back to the point where they first started working together, in about 2007, after Cummings had spent a couple of years in the bunker he’d built on his dad’s farm (yes without planning permission) reading and plotting.

That agenda has been pretty clear from the  beginning  – and the Gove/Cummings chaos time when they were at the Department for Education, is illustrative of what will come next. Gove/Cummings entered the Education Department with the intention of throwing all the books up in the air, attacking Whitehall inertia; and the education unions to fatally weaken them; destroying the long standing relationships between local authorities and schools; attacking what they perceived as the dominance in educational academia of the intellectual left; reasserting the glories of the British Empire in the curriculum (Gove failed in this, to an extent) and pushing for much greater emphasis on teaching science and maths, not these namby pamby subjects which did nothing to further their own dreams for what Britain could become (remember this is before their double act in the Vote Leave campaign).

They had a plan of destruction and chaos from which they sought to build a new education system which fitted with their combined ideologies. That they only partially succeeded before being removed from the Department was mainly by luck rather than judgement, and Cummings’ inability to control his desires to attack, by almost any means, those he despised or who sought to block his way.

Fast forward 7 years (and skipping over Brexit for now) and here they are again, back in control, only this time, it’s not just a single Whitehall Department, it’s the entire Government. Gove has laid out his plan in a speech last weekend, which clearly has a big input from Cummings. Today Boris Johnson’s speech also has a big wedge of Cummings in it.

Taken together these provide some indication of what Gove/Cummings plan is for the rest of us. They have clearly seen Covid19 as the crisis from which they can take their opportunity to push through radical change to society. Witness the dispatch of the head of the Civil Service, Mark Sedwill, who they clearly saw as a major obstacle on their path.

What kind of society do Gove and Cummings want to create? One where bureaucracy is a dirty word. Whitehall is obviously in their targets, but today we also hear Johnson talk about a “project speed to scythe through red tape” to speed up housing developments, new roads and other infrastructure. This is a very old trope – I’ve been writing about Tory plans for a bonfire of red tape for pretty much 10 years, though its history goes back much further. How much red tape is left, but a few cinders to be swept back into the flames?  Anyway, regulation and red tape and restrictions placed on the “wealth creators” will be swept away so a New Britain, free of the shackles of Europe, free of the dead hand of the man from the ministry, wielding his clipboard, to build faster, bigger, cheaper.

Gove refers repeatedly in his speech to the New Deal – Roosevelt’s plan to spend his way out of the Great Depression. I can’t see a Hoover Dam being built, but perhaps some big infrastructure projects – Boris Island could well make a return, for all those zero-carbon airliners to fly from. Austerity is history (for now) and Gove must have reluctantly accepted that a swing to Keynesian borrowing to spend was in order, if only  to create the conditions for a grand new era of neoliberalism to flourish. But this is I think where Gove and Cummings personal philosophies diverge.

We know Gove is a neoliberal and neoconservative. He will want to set the market free to rebuild the post-covid economy – the Singapore on Thames future that the EU have predicted, warned against and prepared for. We can get a hint of what Gove wants to see with Johnson’s throw away remark (presumably intended as a joke) today:

the newt-counting delays in our system are a massive drag on the productivity and the prosperity of this country

There’s a certain irony here, as the Government champions net-gain for biodiversity as a centrepiece of the forthcoming Environment Bill. What is net-gain if not newt counting?

This also references an infamous speech by George Osborne (remember him) in 2011 where he claimed the poor Newts had placed a “ridiculous cost on British Business“.

So much for a Green Recovery. And Cummings has already dismissed retrofitting insulation to the existing national housing stock, possibly the single most important activity needed to reduce domestic greenhouse emissions, as “boring old house insulation.”

Gove is also a bit of a Maoist and gleefully prods his conservative colleagues by quoting from Italian Marxist Gramsci (famous for his call for a long march through the institutions) at the beginning of his speech.

Cummings is much more interested in creating a UK equivalent of DARPA  – the US defence research agency (that in part invented the internet). Cummings is obsessed with technology, the possibilities of AI, using the vast computing power of global giants like Google, Facebook and Microsoft, to create a new society. A Techno-utopian if you will.

It was the Behaviourial Insight Team which recommended the Government adopt a Herd Immunity approach to covid19 initially, believing that the best approach was to nudge people into making the right decisions. This is behavioural science, which is about predicting and controlling the behaviour of individuals, and societies. If you believe Shushana Zuboff, in her compelling book Surveillance Capitalism, this is the real reason why Facebook, Google and the others want your data.  Not only do they want to create profit from it, but they also want to ensure the certainty of future profit through behavioural control. Subtle control, of the nudge variety. She calls this instrumentarian power.

I suspect Cummings is an instrumentarian. His desire to bring in AI and other tech companies to work within the Cabinet Office, providing solutions to problems that would previously have been developed within the Civil Service, is illustrative of this approach.

Either way, the Gove/Cummings axis is going to push through some major changes to the way we live over the next 12 months. As for Johnson, I’m increasingly of the view that he’s there to provide distraction, but otherwise has no involvement in any of the significant decisions.

Posted in coronavirus, covid19, Dominic Cummings, instrumentarian, Michael Gove, neoliberalism, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Pheasant’s or Pheasant’s-eye? Nature Connection and Conservation

Subterranean clover – diminutive and overlooked on an urban road verge ©Miles King

What’s important about nature? I’m not talking about however many tonnes of Carbon a Sitka spruce tree locks up during its short life, or whether a Beaver stops a town flooding.  I mean what is important to you, as a person. Why do you care about nature?

A recent study by Natural England found that when asked 87% agreed with the statement “Being in nature makes me very happy” with nearly half agreeing strongly.

So perhaps nature is important to people because it makes them feel happy. But what does that mean? Were the respondents asked to describe the nature of the nature that makes them feel very happy? Unlike the previous MENE survey which used face to face interviews (468000 over a 10 year period), this new survey is performed online using the Kantar Profiles Network.The opportunity to explore nuance is limited. Then again the MENE surveys never actually asked people which parts of nature made them happy or sad, aside from some very broad categories.

Some might ask whether it matters what aspects of nature makes people very happy, as long as they are happy, that’s what counts. It’s an important question. If people are made very happy watching Grey Squirrels cavorting in the park, or Pheasants strutting their stuff in the countryside, aren’t we being elitist telling them ‘No, you must not gain any happiness from watching these creatures, they are introduced, they do a lot of damage to our native wildlife. You are doing it wrong!

Then again we are approaching Ragwort Time. Yes it’s that time of year when Council phones ring red hot, as people complain about Ragwort. Even when most of the time it’s not Ragwort. And they don’t own horses. And it isn’t in a hay meadow. Because there aren’t any left.

Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to the topic of this blog – the fallout from what could be termed Chris Packham’s Roundabout Tweet. Now I can hear the groans – it’s time to move on, we’ve been around this roundabout too many times already and Kevin Walker has explained very clearly why road verges are very important.

What I’m interested in is how this whole sorry episode illustrates why we are failing to make any headway in trying to reverse the general decline in nature across the UK.

The roundabout had lots of pretty flowers on it. OK, so some of them were from elsewhere in the world, and some of them were formerly known as arable weeds, but they were pretty. Oh hold on, no they were there for pollinators – part of a B-line. So their prettiness was actually aimed at bees. But it was really important showing a local council doing something for nature. Hooray!

When I suggested to Chris that this was an expensive wildflower mix, pretty but of limited value for wildlife, and perhaps they should be being encouraged to spend their meagre resources on road verges his response was;

“Let’s just get them started Miles eh ? Maybe deal with the detail when they are on board . . .”

Pheasants and Grey Squirrels.

These are perhaps the most commonly seen bird and mammal in England. Having been on about Pheasants for some time now, I am still surprised to hear people are surprised that not only are they not wild and of this country, but have to be released in their 10s of millions every year. It’s the same with Grey Squirrels. People assume, quite reasonably, that they are an integral part of nature here.

I suspect that the vast majority of people who feel very happy when in nature, would be just as happy in an environment where everything had either arrived at some point from elsewhere on the planet, or was being constantly released into that environment for whatever, but usually economic, reasons. And it would be very easy from this, dare I say populist perspective, to attack anyone who seeks to place native wildlife on a higher level of importance than the introduced or released, as elitist. On my daily lockdown route around an arable field on the outskirts of Dorchester, I meet a variety of people, not all of them walking their dogs. As far as I can tell I am the only one looking at the ground to see what arable weeds have popped up. Others will no doubt be taking pleasure in nature, from the swish of the wind as it moves through the crop of Rye, or the recently planted trees growing on part of the field. Or the clouds in the sky. It’s all nature.

This is confirmed by nature connection research, carried out for example by my namesake Miles Richardson at Derby University. His and other’ work show that for nature connection to work it doesn’t matter whether that nature is a Pheasant of Pheasant’s-eye.

What’s important is engaging through all our senses; reflecting on the positive feelings nature engenders; looking after nature in some way; finding meaning in nature and appreciating the beauty of nature. None of this is predicated on differentiating between native and non-native nature. If joining the Local Wildlife Trust is a way of strengthening the feeling that we are looking after nature, their work conserving native species and habitats would be an incidental benefit of that activity. But its purpose is to make that individual feel happier, more content and have a more meaningful life.

Returning to Chris’s suggestion that the important thing is to encourage councils to get started, by whatever means, and the detail can then follow. For some reason this has stuck in my head and it’s the real reason why I felt the need to write this piece. It reminded me of something and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it for a few days, until I remembered. Its exactly the same argument put forward to promote the natural capital approach. Get the Treasury interested in nature for its economic value, then once they’re hooked, we’ll be able to talk to them about all the other things nature does for us.

I didn’t buy it then and I don’t buy it now. The Treasury and the equity industry see nature as just another asset to be valued, bought and sold, commodified. The councils see a pretty flowery roundabout – the seed paid for by someone else – of course they are happy to agree to it. They won’t then magically jump from this to understanding the particular habitat requirements of a rare moss that occurs on some land that they are either planning to sell off, or considering whether to give planning permission for a housing development. But they are more likely to see nature as needing to satisfy aesthetic appeal.

Of course it’s vitally important that people care about nature, in its widest sense. But perhaps they always did. Does that translate into caring for, or taking action to conserve native wildlife? And if it did, why is our native wildlife continuing to decline. Perhaps everyone caring about nature in its broadest sense has little impact on the fate of our native species and habitats.

The two may not be particularly connected after all. Does that matter?

I happen to think it does. It’s hard work advocating for the slightly scruffy, the diminutive and the little brown jobs that lurk in all corners of nature in these islands. It is more difficult to tell the story to Councillors or Council officials, about why a perennial wildflower meadow is better than an annual mix of pretty plants from all over the world.

And it’s challenging to explain why it’s not ok to introduce Hen Harriers to Southern England, while they are being persecuted in the uplands; or why 50 million Pheasants released into the countryside every year isn’t that good an idea.  But it still needs to be done.


This post first appeared as a guest blog on Mark Avery’s blog.

Posted in Chris Packham, nature connection, pheasants, pictorlal meadows, road verges | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

New Board members for Natural England: the banker, the mandarin, the natural capitalist and the media exec.




An image speaks a thousand words, doesn’t it. Imagine being the person at Defra who decides which image to use for each story. “Natural England board members appointed.” Natural. England. Something natural perhaps. Hmm – perhaps a picture of a soaring Eagle. Ooh no, bit controversial they’re being shot all over the country. Ok how about a wildflower meadow? We don’t want to upset the farmers. Err dolphins? Oh god, that’ll just remind people that post-Brexit fishing is in a complete mess. Let’s just go with the Defra name plate. Keep it neutral, boring.

Yesterday Defra announced four new members have been chosen to join the Natural England Board. Natural England Board has ten members. The Board sets the strategic direction of Natural England’s work, and is in theory independent from Defra. In reality Natural England lost its independence when the Cameron Govenrment came in in 2010.

The Board members that are retiring are:

Andy Clements – who has had a long and illustrious career in bird conservation, latterly as chief exec of the British Trust for Ornithology – the BTO. The BTO gather the data on bird populations which is then used to influence how the land is managed, at least in theory.

Teresa Dent – chief exec of the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust. GWCT, or the Game Conservancy as they used to be known, have a foot in two camps, conservation and shooting. In the past they have produced valuable research on birds and other wildlife living on farmland, and how to tweak management for their benefit (mostly in order to shoot it).

Simon Lyster – Simon has worked in nature conservation at national and international levels for well over 30 years. He was a senior director at WWF and at one point Director General of the Wildlife Trusts, but I think it’s fair to say he was too radical for them back then.

Professor Mike Winter from Exeter University is a rural policy academic so has expertise useful for developing Natural England’s countryside stewardship agri-environment scheme.

All four of these have experience, expertise and a wide network of contacts with the environmental and conservation world.

The six that are staying are:

Tony Juniper – chair. Doesn’t really need an introduction.

Lord Blencathra – deputy chair. He’s mad keen on hunting, and I wrote about Lord Blencathra back in August 2018.

Marian Spain – newly appointed Chief Executive after a long period as stand-in. Marian was previously running my old stamping ground at Plantlife.

Catherine Dugmore – a chartered accountant from Price Waterhouse – the firm that ran the “industrial scale” tax avoidance factory.

Prof Sue Hartley – Prof of Ecology at University of York.

Henry Robinson – farmer with 1000 acres of land near Cheltenham; and former President of the CLA.

The four new directors are:

Kerry ten Kate – one of the leading lights globally in the natural capital movement. Kerry developed the ideas behind biodiversity offsetting. Kerry and Tony have worked together a lot over the years.

Rosamund Blomfield-Smith – worked in the city at Morgan Grenfell the blue chip merchant bank, before moving to Rothschilds and ING Baring. A city banker.

Kim Shillinglaw. A TV executive, Shillinglaw commissioned Horrible Histories at the BBC so deserves a lot of credit for that. She went on to head science and natural history commissioning, before a  stint as controller of both BBC2 and BBC4, when 4 lost its own controller. She also commissioned Springwatch and Autumnwatch. In more recent times she’s been in the commercial sector at Endemol.

Peter Unwin. Unwin was a senior Defra mandarin when I spent far too much of my time at meetings with Defra civil servants, back in the day when that was my day job. Unwin left Defra in 2015, having first joined the Department of the Environment (DoE) in 1983. I remember Unwin as a senior figure, who would slip into meetings after they had begun, sit quietly listening and then slip out again, often without saying anything.

There you have it. Four senior figures from the conservation world, replaced by none.

This leaves the board with a hunter (and former Tory politician), two natural capital champions, a banker, an accountant and a former civil servant.

On the plus side, there’s someone who has a real expertise in engaging the public with stories about nature; an ecology academic, and a farmer who is undoubtedly interested in nature.

I understand Natural Capital is the only circus in town now, and that’s just reality, whether I like it or not. But Natural England is supposed to be first and foremost the Regulator, for the natural environment. I don’t get the impression from these new appointments, that regulation is going to be top of the list of priorities when the Board sets its agenda. Not just its agenda, but Natural England’s agenda.

As I discussed yesterday post-pandemic, and post-Brexit for that matter, society is having to deal with The Freeloader Problem, perhaps to a greater extent than it has in many decades. One way of challenging the Freeloaders is Regulation. From what I’m hearing, the Freeloaders are at work in the environmental sector just as much as they are elsewhere.

We need Natural England to be that strong effective regulator, more than ever.






Posted in Natural Capital, Natural England, regulation | Tagged , | 4 Comments

Coronavirus diary: the Freeloader Problem

It’s Magic Monday, or Happy Monday or whatever new slogan has been dreamt up by Dom Cummings and his Vote Leave team in Downing Street to distract us.

How quickly things change.

Just last December Cummings and his libertarian band of brothers (and a few sisters but mainly brothers) were celebrating their resounding victory in the General Election. Then Coronavirus came along and swept all their dreams, of smashing the system and letting the free market rip, away. Then Dom himself added cream on the top of that Coronavirus Tsunami, by showing the people that he really didn’t see himself as one of them. It had all been a ruse.

Segueing seamlessly from the iconoclast to the icon, in a single week of revelations. Dom’s political career, or at least the current incarnation, now survives from one day to the next.

So today we are invited to celebrate the end of lockdown. The Shielded Can Walk In the Streets! The Children can Return to School! Everyone Can Go To The Beach!

Except everyone has already gone to the beach. At least down here in uber-sunny Dorset.

Pictures of Bournemouth beach and Durdle Door were widely shared over the weekend on social and traditional media, inviting comments of astonishment and concern. Social distancing might have been possible at Durdle Door until two air ambulance helicopters had to land on the beach, at the same time, forcing the thousands into a pack, almost like penguins in the Antarctic. Three people (they must by definition have been young men) had seriously injured themselves jumping off the Door into the sea. (spoiler: there isn’t enough depth of water and there are rocks.)

Now I’d be the first person to point out that, generally speaking, the chances of catching coronavirus from standing or sitting near another person outside is going to be very low. But what about standing in a queue for an ice cream, or in the car park, or on the single path to the beach. Or after a few cans of beer? I don’t know. I suspect the chances (the R number) starts to go up, the more people there are, the more alcohol consumed.

The rest of us – the locals (yes I know I’m a blow-in, only here for 23 years) but I do feel like a local some of the time, stayed away. We had friends who lived in West Lulworth, and know what’s it like during a normal Summer.

I went for a walk on one of my well-worn local circuits. Down to the river, across the water meadows, back through the town. It was pretty quiet, a few family groups. Quieter than it had been in a long time. Perhaps some locals had gone to the beach. The meadows were all looking parched. Haylage was cut and baled, in May. I can’t remember a year when everything has been this early. I was thinking there won’t be much to see in the countryside aside from a lot of brown fields, in a few weeks time. A Red Kite dipped and curled in the thermals off the river banks, as if it really was on the string of a skilful flyer. A youngish dad had caught a little fish, perhaps a Trout fry, in one of the streams and was trying to interest his little daughter in it, perhaps a little too over enthusiastically. She didn’t seem so keen on leaving the dry of the river bank.

Haylage mown & baled from the Frome water meadows. © Miles King








During the depths of lockdown this walk would be preternaturally quiet. Bird song would be so loud as to startle. Yesterday a Cetti’s warbler exploded its song – well not really a song, but a violent expulsion of air, about 3m from me. It was loud, but the noise from the bypass was louder.

It’s a paradox.

Even though there is still much less traffic the normal, it’s as though those on the road are trying to make up for the absent ones. As though there is an aural space that must be filled. There is a physical space, left by the absent traffic, which means that those who wish to can go faster, accelerate faster, achieve yet higher revolutions per second, and that little bit more g-force in the small of the back, or the fingers gripping the handlebars. Can I get it up to 12000 before I have to slow down for the next roundabout?

Did the pressure of lockdown build up such that it needed to be released in a mass exhalation, a mass acceleration, a celebration of noise – and fire? Witness the ever increasing number of fires now being lit – ostensibly by accident as single-use barbecues are lit on tinder dry heathland or moor. Perhaps subconsciously the food is the excuse, the underlying reason is that release of energy – the pent up energy of lockdown.

Fire, is after all, just a release of energy.

I don’t imagine the wildlife killed or made homeless by the 220ha Wareham Forest fire will sympathise.

smoke from the Wareham Forest fire ©Miles King


Of course Dom doesn’t care. He may be relishing this outpouring of libertarian behaviour.

Why shouldn’t I have a barbecue on the heath, if that’s what I want. Who’s going to stop me?

Why shouldn’t I go as fast and as loud as I like on the bypass. Who’s going to stop me? (speeding had dramatically increased during lockdown)

Why should I take my rubbish home when I can leave it in the park, the council will come and clear it up.

Why shouldn’t I jump off that cliff if I want to. The NHS will patch me up afterwards.

Why shouldn’t I kill as many raptors as I can find during lockdown. No-one’s going to see me.

Why should I care about climate chaos? it’s sunny. Let’s go to the beach

This is known in economics as the Free Loader or Free Rider problem. It’s people taking advantage of opportunities to benefit themselves, provided by the collective action of society. And it feels like there has been an outpouring of free-rider behaviour since lockdown started to collapse on or around VE day. Once it’s out of the genie’s lamp it can be very difficult to put back in.

I read a report of a survey this morning suggesting 57% of people didn’t want things to go back to the way they were after coronavirus has been tamed or passed through – and that home working would stay, commuting would decrease and even foreign holidays might decline. All I would say is that, based on what’s happening at the moment, there will be a significant section of society who are thinking how can I take advantage of this situation for my own personal benefit, and screw society. We can call them the free-loaders.

Tackling the free-loaders is going to be a significant challenge post-coronavirus. And having libertarians like Dominic Cummings in power is going to make that challenge much much harder.

Posted in coronavirus, Dominic Cummings, free-loaders, libertarians | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

A few thoughts on how Coronavirus might reshape the UK

will zombies take over Britain?

I’ve been putting off writing this blog, but after the weekend’s Cummings and Goings, there was a certain inevitability that it had to be written. The question I keep asking myself, as I am sure many of you are also poising – is:

What is the UK going to look like after the first, second, and even third waves of coronavirus have passed through in the next year or two?

Apologies if some or indeed all of these thoughts are only half formed – that is in the nature of crystal ball gazing – the clouds parts for a second before closing again – and I’m no Yoda.

I suppose it makes sense to consider how life will change as a result of the virus continuing to circulate in society – as opposed to the long future when a vaccine or effective antiviral treatment becomes available, assuming either of those actually happen. I think, as with most things, that they will happen eventually, but that could be a long long time away.

I’m not going to continue to prefix everything with “I think” because it should be obvious to you all that these are my thoughts – and as usual they could be right or wrong.

I’m going to start out making an assumption which I think it is now safe to do. That is that people are not going to catch coronavirus when they are outside, unless they are outside and very close or actually physically in contact with another person. This virus spreads indoors or via direct physical contact between people. It spreads through the air (droplet or aerosol) and on surfaces indoors – in trains, buses, planes, cars, factories, offices, shops, restaurants, cinemas, theatres, hospitals, care homes. You’d have to be incredibly unlucky to catch it from touching a gate or sitting on a bench in the park.


The nature of work is already changing radically and I think that will continue until that long future vaccine/treatment. Face to face meetings will largely be a thing of the past, beyond one to one’s or a few people space far apart in a room, for a very short time. Unless they move outdoors. Large offices with tens, hundreds or thousands of people in them – how will they survive? Factories where much is already automated are continuing and can function in the future, indeed this may spur a further round of automation. Others where close contact was the norm and hasn’t changed – well look at what’s happening with outbreaks in meat processing plants – here but much more in the USA. What is happening is that workers on low pay with no other choice are being forced to continue to work in unsafe working conditions with the constant threat of catching the virus. Over a hundred years of progress in workplace safety is now at grave risk.

But manufacturing has long been a minor element of the UK economy. We are a service economy – jobs are office jobs or in other parts of the service sector, particularly leisure  – shopping, eating out, cinemas, music etc. Shopping was already moving online and that has obviously accelerated hugely during lockdown. This was always a one way street. Now retailers find that street has disappeared altogether. How many more big names and small shops will re-open? As each month goes by the chances diminish, which is why the Government is now desperate to re-open the economy, even if it means risking the second wave appearing before it would normally have done ie in the late autumn/winter.  Those that can move online only will do so. Others may find they can survive by limiting the numbers of physical shoppers entering shops – as those that have stayed open are finding. But unless fixed costs change, no retailer can survive with only 10% or 20% of former footfall. Fixed costs mean rent, business rates (for which the Government has offered new exemptions), energy costs, staff costs etc. The big one is rent.

Owning and renting out Commercial Property is big business. It’s worth about £100Bn a year, 7% of the economy, using the Gross Value Added measure. That’s about the same as the entire food and drink sector (UK agriculture is worth 0.53%). Commercial property covers everything from shops, retail estates, massive shopping centres, office complexes, industrial estates, big storage sheds on the M1, you name it. It’s all sitting there making money. Money is made two ways – from rent, and from capital appreciation ie the value of the property goes up (or down.)

It’s such big business, that lots of money, searching, always searching, for a return on investment, flows into commercial property. Since the 2008 crash the search for a return on investment has become frenetic, because of historically low interest rates and other factors. That money could be coming from individual investors or institutions, like private equity funds, hedge funds, pension funds.

What happens to the commercial property market if shops close or can’t afford to pay their rent? Just looking at Dorchester where I live, there are lots of empty shops – they have been empty since 2008. Or some have been filled for a year or two while they have a cheap introductory rent deal. Then they are empty again when that runs out. The landlords don’t care whether the shop is empty because they can bank on capital appreciation, the value of the property going up, over the long term. What happens to that value if those shops are never filled again? What happens to all the money invested in big office complexes if no business ever comes back to occupy that office space? It becomes worthless.

Those places could be revamped for some other purpose – but equally they may just be demolished or abandoned. Repurposing industrial or office space for residential use is fraught with problems, as the Government has found because that process started several years ago.

Many people have found that it is possible to do their jobs, to some extent at any rate, from home. Obviously this has its advantages and drawbacks and as someone who has worked from home on and off (mostly on) for the last 27 years it didn’t make much difference to me, but I appreciate that trying to concentrate on some knotty problem with a 2 and 5 year old running around screaming, when you’ve never had to try and do that before, could be something of a nightmare. But equally, if you could do your job at home and not have to do a 2 hour each way commute every day on a crowded train – what would you do? Even 10 years ago the idea of being able to have a meeting with 10 people online with video would have seemed a pipe dream. Now it’s a daily occurrence – and if you have a decent broadband connection it works most of the time. It may not be perfect, but then again how many times were people late, or just never appeared, at physical meetings because a train was cancelled, or there was an accident on the motorway.


Does this spell the end of mass-transport commuting? It’s hard to see it continuing in the same fashion as before. Our creaking rail system which has been severely damaged by mismanagement and ideological obsession with creating fake markets. Overcrowded unreliable trains have a new dimension – take one and play a daily game of Russian roulette – will today be the day you catch coronavirus when someone coughs and fills the entire carriage with aerosolised virus particles? Buses could conceivable survive but with fewer passengers on each vehicle, but any public transport system where the future involved far fewer passengers would mean either much higher prices or a massive public subsidy. It’s difficult to imagine anyone being prepared or even able to pay more for their tickets, especially if they are struggling because their income has dropped. And this Government, despite it’s emergency bail-outs, is not going to change its spots and start giving large subsidies to keep ticket prices down.

Does that mean everyone jumps in their cars to commute? That’s certainly possible but the roads are already at full capacity. And there’s also a new found appreciation that cities and large towns are nicer places to live, and healthier, when there are fewer cars around. Already in London and other big cities, road networks are being transformed to encourage more walking and cycling. Cars are being excluded or strongly discouraged. If everyone jumped in their car to make the commute they previously used the train for, the roads would immediately become permanently gridlocked. Most drivers know this. Those that don’t will find out in the first week they try.

What about a massive new road building programme then – say multiply the current £28Bn new roads programme by 10 and create lots of construction jobs to help the economy. As anyone who takes an interest in these things know, you cannot build your way out of a congestion problem, because new roads generate their own new traffic, on top of the traffic problems they were supposed to solve.

And then there’s HS2. The Government is forging ahead with HS2, mostly I think on the basis of the sunk cost fallacy, which is “we’ve already spent this money, so if we stop now, we’ll have wasted it all.” HS2 won’t be open for business for a long time and I guess they think that coronavirus will have been sorted by then. They may be right. But if the rest of society has shifted to a different pattern of working, what will be the point of having it? If people don’t need to get from Manchester or Birmingham to London in comfort, with a few minutes shaved off the journey time, they won’t use the train.  Imagine what a couple of hundred billion pounds invested in the national cycle network could do.


this is already getting to be a long post so I’ll stop soon. But I wanted to say something about leisure. So much of our economy is based around what could loosely be described as leisure, in the sense it’s the stuff we do when we are not working. I already mentioned shopping. For some that means football, whether watching it in the pub or going to the match. Other sports are available, to take part in or watch. Or it could be going for a meal, a drink, to a club, the cinema, the theatre, a concert, a festival. It’s lots of different things. Much of it happens indoors, especially during the cold rainy months (remember them?).

How can any of these things continue? We’ve just heard one of our local restaurants, one of the Carluccio’s chain, is not going to reopen. The food was good, not brilliant. The staff were friendly, the coffee could be great on a good day. It was a regular place for people to meet, chat, catch up with friends. It’s gone. The whole business went bust. That story is going to play out time and again over the coming months. Things can’t just be mothballed until such time as magically they reappear again. That isn’t how business works. It woujld only have happened if the Government had stepped in and agreed to pay for all business costs, 100% of them, for an indefinite period.

But what about leisure that was already happening outside, or could be moved outside? This is a prospect. With the current weather restaurants and pubs could become outside only. Add in some suitable covers and they could function when it’s raining, if it ever rains again. Anything that doesn’t involve physical contact could move outside. People are already discovering that outside can be a great place to be – look at how many people are out walking or cycling, or running now. Far far more than I have ever seen. But especially in cities it’s now clear that the outside space available is very unevenly distributed and many, especially in poor areas, do not have anything like enough.

I’m not going to start on connection to nature, because that’s a whole other topic which I will save for another time.

I’ve gone over 2000 words now so I will stop there and end with a couple of questions.

How do you see society changing in the next year or tw0?

How will coronavirus affect your life in the next year?

Posted in coronavirus | Tagged | 8 Comments

Guest Blog – Stop Graveney Marsh Solar Farm

As regular readers will know I take an interest in solar farms and their impact on wildlife.

With this in mind, I’m happy to host a guest blog today from Matthew Hatchwell of the Faversham Society. Matthew was Director of Conservation at the Zoological Society of London, and before that was head of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in Europe. Matthew writes about a massive proposed Solar Farm on the north Kent marshes.


On May 10, 2020, the Daily Telegraph published an article about the proposed Cleve Hill Solar Park (CHSP) just outside Faversham on the north Kent coast.  If it goes ahead, it would be the largest solar power station in the UK, covering 900 acres of farmland, containing nearly a million solar panels, and including a battery storage system five times larger than the current record-holder, in Australia.  Local residents, although supportive of solar energy in general, oppose the scheme for a number of reasons, including safety risks associated with the massive battery and the environmental impacts of building a solar power station on a site that lies below sea level in an area that is highly vulnerable to rising sea levels as a result of climate change.

According to the Daily Telegraph article last week,

“a spokeswoman for the developers, Hive Energy and Wirsol, said safety was ‘at the heart’ of the farm’s design and a battery safety management plan has been agreed with the Health and Safety Executive, as well as Kent Fire and Rescue Service.”

When asked to confirm the existence of such an agreement, KFRS replied that they had

“at no stage agreed to or signed off any plans relating to the project as suggested in the news article.”

Lithium ion batteries of the type proposed for Cleve Hill have caused fires, explosions and releases of toxic hydrogen fluoride gas in similar facilities in the US, South Korea and elsewhere that have led respected solar industry and financial investment commentators to caution against their use at other sites until safety questions are answered.

Impression of Solar Farm at Graveney © Jim Bennett used with permission.

Regarding its impacts on biodiversity, the Daily Telegraph article reported a claim by Hive Energy and Wirsol that:

“The solar park will deliver a 65% increase in biodiversity on the intensively farmed site.”

In fact, the comparison should not be between the CHSP scenario and intensive farming, which is notoriously bad for biodiversity, but with the alternative that was being planned by the Environment Agency for the site before the solar power station was proposed: reversion to salt marsh.  Salt marshes are the second most productive and valuable ecosystem in the world after coral reefs, providing a suite of benefits including not only wildlife habitat but also protection against coastal flooding, nutrients for marine organisms, carbon sequestration, erosion control, recreational opportunities, etc.  Data from other sites in the UK where agricultural land has been allowed to revert to salt marsh, in Essex, Kent and West Sussex, show that such an initiative at Cleve Hill would result in a dramatic increase in biodiversity compared to the current land use or any increase that might result from conversion to a solar power station.  The increase in biodiversity that is being promised by CHSP developers is far from guaranteed in any case, since there is no way of knowing exactly how bird and other species — including marsh harriers, Brent geese, water voles and many others — would react to the vast area of solar panels, the height of a double-decker bus, that they intend to install.

There is no doubt that the UK and every other country in the world should be moving away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy sources.  Solar technology should be obligatory for all new houses. The proposed Cleve Hill project demonstrates, however, that not every initiative would deliver on the promise of clean energy.  It makes no sense to locate such a project on land that lies below sea level and that was previously earmarked for reversion to salt marsh.  Join me in showing your opposition to this reckless project by signing the petition at  For further information, see

Posted in guest blogs, Solar Farms | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Seven Years of a New Nature Blog

I’m celebrating the seventh anniversary of this blog today. Whoop!

I actually started writing a blog nearly ten years ago, back in October 2010 when I was at The Grasslands Trust (you can still find them here ). After I left TGT there was a break while I was at Buglife before I started writing properly in May 2013.

Either way it all feels a very long time ago. 2013. There was that Tory/Libdem coalition Government – remember them? UKIP was still a fringe political party before that historic 2014 Euro election victory. In 2013,  no-one was seriously talking about a Referendum to take us out of the EU. And who was thinking about pandemics? Well, quite a lot of people were, but that’s another story.

On a personal level, aside from being 7 years closer to being an old git, since I started writing I’ve lost my brother to cancer, and had a brush with death. But I also set up People Need Nature, which is coming up to five years old next week.

As a result of my blogging, I’ve had a foray into “professional” writing ie being paid to do it. As well as occasional articles for eg British Wildlife magazine,  I spent a couple of years writing for Lush Times. I guess that started in Summer 2016 and finished last Summer. For a couple of years I was writing a weekly column, which was quite a challenge. Lush then decided to walk away from Social Media which meant that it was impossible for anyone to find what I’d written. So that was the end of that. It was fun while it lasted.

As regular readers might have spotted I have strong opinions (at least on some things) and I enjoy writing so this is a good outlet for all that pent up energy.  I intend to carry on for the time being – after all, it’s not as though there’s nothing left to write about.

I am always happy to post guest blogs – indeed some of the most read blogs on here have been guest ones, so please feel free to get in touch (leave me a message in the comment box) if you would like to post one.

So thanks to everyone who reads these blogs and especially those that leave comments, either here or on social media (except the alt right trolls).


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | 15 Comments

Reflections on VE Day 75

Lightnings and Vulcans

Avro Vulcan

Growing up under the only occasionally used flightpath to Buckingham Palace, every Queen’s Birthday, we would go up to The Green, just in time to see the flypast. I remember going with my dad, who had done his National Service in the RAF. He loved planes. I think my mum stayed at home, but she might have come a couple of times. My brother came too.

In the early days it would be Lightnings and Vulcans, perhaps even other v-bombers, I don’t remember. I remember the Vulcans and Lightnings because of the noise. A brutal sound of the air tearing apart. The rip of the Lightning and the roar of the Vulcan, a sound so loud it would make your lungs vibrate inside your ribcage. These were awesome machines. Sometimes it would be Concorde and the Red Arrows (flying Folland Gnats back then). Making a beautiful V in the sky. By the time I’d left home in the early 80s, the gnats had long gone as had the Vulcan and Lightnings. The Battle of Britain memorial flight first flew in 1973 apparently, which would fit pretty well with my memories of Spitfire Hurricane and Lancaster joining in with these flypasts, which in my memory seemed to grow with the years.

As well as the annual flypasts, we’d go to air shows, lots of air shows. the Shuttleworth collection was always a favourite, and once they got going, the International Air Tattoo, which moved around, but included Alconbury, one of the big US cold war airbases in East Anglia. I think it’s fair to say I was obsessed with military machines from a young age. My dad was really good at making and painting airfix models of aeroplanes, which he would hang from my bedroom ceiling with cotton thread. There were loads of them. I think there must have been between 10 and 20 including some large Bombers (including the infamous B29, which carried the atom bombs to Hiroshima and Nagasaki). It was unfortunate that they were a fantastic place for dust to gather which did my allergies no good, but I loved them.

Fully Immersive Second World War Experience

I also made kits of tanks and other armoured vehicles, many, many kits. I used to set them up on the floor and have mock battles. My childhood was steeped in images of war. War films were always on the TV, showing heroic actions of the British forces, dramatisations of true events, or pure fiction. Looking back, it seems like I grew up in fully immersive second world war experience, but I think it was just part of the culture, the making of a myth, how “we” won the war. Slowly, as I learnt more history, I realised that it wasn’t just “us”, well us and those latecomers the Yankees.. but the critical, actually dominant, role played by the Soviet Union. Being half Australian I also knew a bit about what had happened in the Pacific, including that I’d lost an uncle in the Pacific war.

I knew a fair bit about the Blitz as my dad had lived through the entire war in East London (aside from a very brief period of evacuation). I can just remember bomb sites from my early childhood (lots of corrugated iron fencing and Rosebay Willowherb), and driving around the docks (as my grandad had been a docker), or rather the large expanse of wasteland and crumbling ruins that was left. I kind of knew something momentous had happened, but I couldn’t really grasp what it was.

Much was left unspoken, or turned into a bit of a joke, like when my grandad went into the house to rescue their cat during a raid, and when a bomb landed nearby the shock wave knocked a wardrobe over onto him. He was trapped but was rescued unharmed, with the cat, the next morning. How we laughed. Later my dad would recount coming out of the shelter to find next door’s had received a direct hit, leaving body parts scattered across their garden and in trees. Looking at the bomb damage map for their part of east London, it’s a small miracle they survived. A parachute mine was lodged in a tree and didn’t go off. An oil bomb landed about 4 houses away. V1’s landed all over the place. And their street is now two streets with a little park between them, the site of a V2 impact crater.

I think it’s fair to say my dad was quite anti-German, and my grandparents certainly were. Playground games inevitably revolved around “we won the war” and the Germans getting their comeuppance. I did have a German friend at primary school whose mum had come over from East Germany (there must be a story there). I don’t remember him being bullied for being German, but perhaps he was. Then again it was a very multicultural primary school, so we all got along without a second thought.

We never went to Germany on holiday and it wasn’t until I went to Hamburg on a school exchange when I was 15 that I discovered that Germans were just like us. The family could not have been kinder or friendlier – and the 15 year olds in Hamburg seemed an awful lot more grown-up than in Britain. I remember my exchange friend (Arno)’s dad taking me to the factory where he worked (injection moulding since you ask) and while there was no explicit discussion of the war, or Germany’s partition, I came away knowing that the beautiful mediaeval town of Lubeck had been painstakingly rebuilt after its destruction. And we did take a peek at the border fence. No mention though of the Hamburg bombing in Operation Gomorrah, which killed perhaps 40,000 inhabitants.

I knew what VE day meant, but there was no celebration in any year I can recall. It was the day before my dad’s birthday. He was 12 the day after the war in Europe ended. That day he went with his mum up to the West End, with the crowds. I think they stood in The Mall with the hundreds of thousands of others, failing to hear what the King or Churchill were saying. But they were there. My grandad was working in the Bristol Docks after the London Docks had been bombed to dust. He wasn’t around. He wasn’t really around as a father to my father, for five years.

VE day just wasn’t a thing back then in the 70s and early 80s. There must have been quiet commemorations, church services and the like – and formal occasions when the allied country leaders came together to commemorate the dead. Veterans must have got together and talked about the old times, the close shaves, the comic incidents, and their lost comrades. What could be more natural? It wasn’t really until 1995 that a big do was put on. 50 years is a big anniversary for anything and I think it was felt that this would be the big one, after which veterans in particular would start to find it more difficult to take part. There was a public holiday for the 1995 VE day, shifting May day to the 8th. It’s interesting that there had previously been moves to get rid of the May day bank holiday by Tory Governments, because of its association with the Socialist International Workers Day. May Day only became a Bank Holiday in 1978.

I was always a bit uneasy about flag waving, and patriotic events. I think it’s probably come from my dad who was a republican. We used to go the proms but never the last night. We didn’t get involved in the Silver Jubilee street parties – then again our road was a major East London rat run – if anyone had tried to have a street party they would have been run over by a juggernaut within the first minute. Come university days I was generally anti-establishment, especially with Thatcher in power.

In 2010 my dad died after a long battle against cancer. It was a type of leukaemia which is associated with exposure to things like radiation or Benzene. I sometimes wonder whether his time in the Air Force, with all those big dirty jets, gave him a dose which later killed him. Nothing provable of course, but the rest of his life he worked in an office. The ten year anniversary approaches, and on Saturday we would have been celebrating his 87th birthday, which is a strange thought.

VE Day 75

Now VE day 75 is upon is. Back in the distant past of last June, on the very same day that Theresa May announced her resignation, the Govt announced that there would be a 3 day long weekend of commemoration and celebration for the 75th anniversary. It seems that the forces charity SSAFA was closely involved in organising the event – and SSAFA do get funding from the MoD and DHSC, though they are an independent charity, but I think it’s fair to say they are close to Government. As well as the formal commemoration events, the plan was to get everyone to take part, a national toast, picnics, street parties, bunting, singing along with Vera Lynn.

All of that has been scuppered by Covid-19, but people are now being encouraged to celebrate at home, or over the fence with their neighbours. All quite innocent really.

But there’s another story. All of the planned VE Day 75 celebrations focus on Britain the part Britain played, the Victory that Britain won in Europe. It’s all about the sacrifice that Britain made, as if no-one else was involved. This may be an entirely innocent oversight. Then again if it’s been organised by a British Services charity, perhaps it’s no surprise that the focus is solely on British veterans and their lost comrades.

I was pointed to a fascinating photo which shows flags being printed for the actual VE day. As well as Churchill’s face, the flags also included ones with American President FD Roosevelt, without whose support Britain would have foundered in 1940. Even more tellingly, were the flags showing Joseph Stalin’s face. In 1945 people celebrated VE day by waving flags with Stalin’s face on, in London.







Perhaps it’s not so surprising when you remember that just 2 months later, the British electorate overwhelming voted in the first, and only, socialist Government this country has ever had.

Will people this VE day remember that Britain was supplied with troops and materiel from the largest Empire the world has ever known. The supply of materiel and the military ban on fishing in the Bay of Bengal led to a famine which killed between 2 and 3 million people.  Troops came and fought, and died, for the Empire, from the Dominions and the colonies, just as they had in the First World War.

Will people celebrating this weekend recall the 26 million in the Soviet Union who perished in the war, or the 6 million Poles. Will they recall how resistance armies fought against Nazi and Fascist tyranny in Yugoslavia, Hungary, Greece, France, Norway and elsewhere. Even within Nazi Germany, people continued to resist in many small ways right through the war, like the White Rose students. Exiled Poles, Czechs, French and other Europeans fought alongside British troops throughout the war.

Maybe they will, perhaps they won’t.

The other thing that over the years has become increasingly stark to me is the very different experience people in Britain had during the war. Aside from the Channel Islands there was no occupation and all of the horrors that created – the food shortages, the deportations, the forced labour. Bombing by the allies was far worse than anything experienced in the Blitz, horrendous though that was for those who lived through it. And at the end of the war the upheavals, the displaced people, the retribution against collaborators, the starvation. And of course the new oppression in countries caught behind the Iron Curtain. It’s estimated that 60 million refugees were created by World War Two – and a million were still refugees in 1951. This is the background behind the creation of what would become the EU.

Things have changed

Things have changed over the last 10 years. Back in the 70s and 80s the far-right were a fringe. They extended into the Conservative Party via the Monday Club and the Federation of Conservative Students, but they were only ever a small minority, albeit influential. Now, with the rise of populism across the world (Trump and Modi, alongside Salvini, Le Pen, Farage) the far right is in ascendant again, in a way we have not seen since the 1930s. The far right loves the flag, loves the military victory, the hero, the strong man vanquishing foes. It’s a very black and white world. The Victors get to celebrate (forever), the losers die or are subjugated. There’s a danger with pageants, anniversaries, celebrations of military victories, that the far right slips in under cover. This is particularly true since Brexit, which was also so much about flag waving British (or English) exceptionalism, as the writer Otto English described here.

As we have dissociated ourselves from the project which was created to ensure war didn’t break out again in Europe (yes the EU and its antecedents) I worry that as a society we are drifting to the right, and that gives the far right more room for manoeuvre. Coronavirus and its aftermath – potentially an economic crash at least as bad as the 1929 crash (which ushered in the far-right in the 1930s) may be just the catalyst those in the far right need to gain influence. This needs watching closely.

Couple that with our Prime Minister who idolises Churchill. Johnson would love to have his own VE day moment. Perhaps he’ll announce VC day – Victory over Coronavirus, and after a celebratory weekend we can also put the horror behind us and get back to normal life. Although of course that didn’t happen in 1945, with rationing continuing until 1953; and post-war austerity for longer. Still, the National Health Service, mass housing for the homeless, and the welfare state were created.

The Military celebrate their Victories

I can understand why some, especially those in the forces or ex-forces, see that it is the right thing to do to celebrate military victories. Victory in Europe is the biggest one of them all. The military celebrates its victories and honours its dead, this is right and proper; it’s what helps create the identity of military units.

That does not apply to the rest of the population though, in my view; and it sets an uncomfortable, jarring, tone when so many are dying  – as a result of Government failings – of Coronavirus. Jingoistic expressions of national military might (even if they are past glories that have been mythologised) seem especially inappropriate, almost offensively so, when so many have died so needlessly.

As of today (5/5) Chris Giles of the FT estimates (a cautious estimate) that nearly 54,000 have died in the UK. This exceeds all UK wartime civilian casualties (almost all from air raids) in 1940, 1941, 1942 and 1943. The current monthly death toll exceeds the average monthly British death toll in the Second World war, from both civilian and military deaths. This is a vast loss of life by any measure.

So I won’t be celebrating VE day on Friday. I will remember my dad (who I still miss hugely) on his birthday; and see my mum (socially distanced) and be with the rest of my family. I will pay my own respects to the war dead and reflect on what is to come.

Vulcan photo  wikimedia attribution

Posted in coronavirus, far right, Fascism, VE day | Tagged , , , | 25 Comments