Last Child in the Public Forest? (c) Miles King
Save our Woods has done it again, with the help of 38 degrees. Yesterday evening, in the Lords, the Government agreed to reconsider whether the Public Forest Estate should be exempt from clause 90a 0f the Infrastructure Bill, which would exclude it from land which could be handed from Government Arms Length Bodies (or Quangos) to the Homes and Communities Agency, for house-building. Save our Forests led the previous campaign to prevent Forestry Commission land from being sold off in 2011.
Last night, I caught up with a Doctor Who from a couple of weeks ago – trees saved the world from a solar flare, and tree spirits talked through a little girl dressed as little Red Riding Hood. The plot cleverly subverted our primal fears of forests as bad places, by making the trees the heroes. It’s another example of the fascination, the power, of trees, woods and forests, to the public and explains their willingness to support campaigns to save them.
I wish that somehow that power could be harnessed for other land which is equally valuable, but doesn’t have the magic tree dust sprinkled over it. Because while Forest land has been saved (or reprieved) other land equally important for wildlife, for history and for other values, including community use, can still be sold off for development.
Back in the days of when there was a Biodiversity Process still operating in England, someone came up with the idea of placing a Biodiversity Duty on all public bodies. This was watered horribly by the time it became law, but it existed. Section 40 of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 states that:
(1)Every public authority must, in exercising its functions, have regard, so far as is consistent with the proper exercise of those functions, to the purpose of conserving biodiversity.
Now this is a weak and feeble requirement and it has often been completely ignored. Nevertheless Defra produced guidance for Local Authorities on how to implement the Duty, back in March 2011. It is quite long, but here is the link.
Just recently guidance on the Duty has been replaced with this. It says nothing beyond the obvious. For instance,
Public Authorities should consider how wildlife may be affected when making planning decisions about development.
That’s it! I kid you not.
Or: Public land might include Nature Reserves. Public Authorities can support Biodiversity when managing this land by creating maintaining and improving habitats for wildlife. I summarise but that is just what is being said. A council might own a nature reserve, so to support biodiversity it should manage it – as a nature reserve.
My old colleague Dave Dunlop summed it up by sending me this poem by Lewis Carroll:
“The Walrus and the Carpenter
Were walking close at hand;
They wept like anything to see
Such quantities of sand:
‘If this were only cleared away,’
They said, ‘it would be grand!'”
“’If seven maids with seven mops
Swept it for half a year,
Do you suppose,’ the Walrus said,
That they could get it clear?’
‘I doubt it,’ said the Carpenter,
And shed a bitter tear.”
That’s about the level of advice from Defra on the Biodiversity Duty.
With the Biodiversity Duty now demoted to the status of a Walrus on the Beach, and the Infrastructure Bill giving carte blanche to sell off any public land (except FC) for housing, this is a massive threat to nature and culture. Take military land. The Defence Estate owns 600,000 acres of land in the UK, much of it in England. Other Defence organisations own a considerable amount more. These areas have mostly escaped the toll extracted by decades of modern agriculture on their nature and history. Some are protected as SSSIs and European Sites. Many are not, because they have generally been inaccessible to wildlife surveyors.
Lodge Hill is a classic example of such a site. Although Defence Estates had a survey done in 2003, which indicated just how valuable the site was, the survey wasn’t brought to anyone’s attention. Even after the Biodiversity Duty came into being in 2006, Lodge Hill’s value was kept quiet. It was only after the process to plan for developing the site had begun, that its value came to light. How many other Lodge Hill’s are out there, now vulnerable to being destroyed, possibly before anyone has a chance to find out their value for nature and culture?
I would suggest that not only does the Infrastructure Bill need to exempt Public Forest Estate, but also any sites which are identified, before being allocated for disposal, as having significant public interests, in terms of value for nature, history and local communities.