On this supposed “Brexit Day” I’m not going to dwell on the Bongs, or the Flags, or the Farage’s. But one of the consequences of Brexit is that we have a new Environment Bill in Parliament. This is as a direct result of the UK leaving the EU and having to disentangle itself from all the very substantial EU law which has developed to protect the environment over the past 40 years or more.
The Government would have us believe that the environment will be better protected once we have left the EU. I’d like to spend today just focussing in on one particular aspect – Local Sites.
“Local Sites” is a bland piece of Defra-ese, which fails to capture the magic and the incredible value of over 40,000 places across England, which have been recognised for the astonishing variety of wildlife, as well as history, and other kinds of value, to communities – as well as to the wildlife itself. These have identified, at county or other Local Authority level, over the past 4 decades. Much of the original work was done by volunteers or lowly paid Wildlife Trust and local authority staff, often going out on weekends to search countryside and towns for places with valuable wildlife habitats, uncommon or rare species – at a time – in the 70s and 80s – when these things were rapidly disappearing as a result of agricultural intensification & abandonment; housing development, new roads, and so on. Each county came up with their own system for identifying these sites and this diversity continues today – but they are all broadly the same. They have different names reflecting their diverse origins – in Dorset they are Sites of Nature Conservation Interest SNCIs) which is clearly a riff on Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs). Many are of the same quality as SSSIs, and all have significant value for wildlife.
According to recent Wildlife Trusts data there are 44,000 Local Wildlife Sites scattered across England, covering “at least 5% of England.” That’s at least 652,000ha.
Legally protected Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) cover about 7% of England (not including marine), though the SSSI series is skewed towards the uplands, where very large sites cover many thousands of hectares.
So for lowland England, the Local Wildlife Sites network covers a larger area than SSSI protection does.
A great deal of effort was put into campaigning to better protect (and monitor) SSSIs through the 1980s and 90s, and current Natural England chair Tony Juniper played a huge role in this campaign when he was at Friends of the Earth. This culminated in the landmark Countryside and Rights of Way Act (2000) with further protections in the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act (2006). Meanwhile a smaller group continued to plug away at trying to get the Government to even recognise that Local Willdife Sites were important and needed their own protection, beyond occasional lip service given to their status in local plan documents (which of course only applied to planned development not anything else, like agriculture.)
Still, in those heady early days of the Blair/Brown Government when the environment was something they thought sufficiently important to do something about, some headway was made. By 2005 the Office for the Deputy Prime Minister, which led on these things at the time, had produced guidance on what Local Sites were and how planning authorities should recognise their existence and perhaps even do something about preventing them from being destroyed by eg new housing developments. I think it’s fair to say that the Labour Government’s interest in terrestrial conservation was waning by 2006 as its focus shifted towards the Marine environment. The hope amongst the conservation and environmental planning world, to establish a statutory Local Sites system, was fading.
By 2008 the Government reluctantly agreed to take action – and introduce a requirement on all Local Authorities to err report on whether Local Wildlife Sites in their area were being managed – or “in positive management” in the civil service parlance. I remember at the time there was a general sense of disappointment that no further protection was being considered, and the Government were really only interested in a new metric. Plus ca change.
There were 149 Local Authorities in England in 2008 and all of them duly reported back on the management status of their Local Wildlife Sites. Many Local Wildlife Sites systems are maintained by Local Record Centres, working in partnership with Local Wildlife Trusts, Local Authorities and other partners.
Then came the financial crash. And the Coalition Government. And what’s euphemistically called Austerity. Austerity meant savage cuts to Local Authority staff and Local Record Centres. Many LA’s lost all of their ecological expertise during the years that followed.
Fast forward 10 years.
Last week the Government released the latest data on Local Sites in Conservation Management, and a little 2 page report summarising the data. Or obscuring it depending on your point of view.
An indication of how “austerity” has affected Local Authorities environmental work, including this a statutory obligation to report on the state of their local wildlife, is in the number of LA’s who even provided a response. 66 LAs failed to respond or only provided a partial response which didn’t include the crucial information – which means only 56% of all England’s LA’s provided information on the management status of their Local Wildlife Sites.
In 2008/09 Local Authorities provided appropriate data on 42098 Local Wildlife Sites. By 2018/19 this had dropped to 20606. So last year data was provided on the management status of only 49% of all the wildlife sites that existed in 2008. But actually it will be lower than 49% because new Local Wildlife Sites are being found and confirmed all the time.
Hidden in these figures are some very worrying trends. Whole counties like Bucks, Beds, Cheshire (684) Cornwall (615), Cumbria (728), Devon (1987), Essex (1440), Hampshire (3757), Somerset (2312), Wiltshire (>1500 sites), Suffolk (921) and Lancashire (1180) failed to report on the status of their Local Wildlife Sites last year.
Defra tried to fudge the figures by extrapolating current management status from previous year’s data, to create the appearance that things aren’t quite as good as they were but there’s no cause for alarm.
But this doesn’t work. Local Wildlife Sites were previously benefiting from being in positive management (at least in the eyes of Defra) as a result of the previous Agri-Environment Programme of Entry Level and Higher Level Schemes – ELS and HLS. This had its own significant drawbacks – the Entry Level EK2 option, which many grassland local wildlife sites were entered into (and therefore met the criteria for positive management) allowed farmers to spread artificial nitrogen fertiliser at levels which damage grassland wildlife. Nevertheless these old AE schemes were providing some level of protection for Local Wildlife Sites in agricultural management (which, let’s face it, is most of them.)
As these old schemes expire, many local wildlife sites are not being entered into the new Countryside Stewardship scheme, for various reasons, not least the complexity of the scheme and the high bar set for entry into the higher tier of CS. So as these sites drop out of the old scheme and are not being entered into the new scheme, they will also lose their “positive conservation management” status. But as the local authorities are no longer reporting on them, we don’t know which ones are dropping out and which ones are staying in (though Natural England does.) Anecdotal reports suggest lots of important Local Wildlife Sites are dropping out of the old AE schemes and not entering the new ones, which leaves them very vulnerable to damage or destruction.
Where are we now? We have the makings of decent Local Wildlife System, but resources for monitoring them have been starved to the point where we don’t actually know what state they are in, and access to the main resource for helping landowners look after them (agri-environment schemes) has been made much more difficult.
Combine this with the once in a generation upheavals about to arrive for agriculture and you can see a perfect storm brewing.
The Environment Bill
Against all this context, Defra has included in its new Environment Bill (s.95) something called Local Nature Recovery Strategies. These Strategies will be prepared by Local Authorities – yes the same LAs that don’t have any resources to report on their Local Wildife Sites. The Strategies will identify what’s important in each LA area and how to protect it and put all these things on a Local Habitat Map. The Local Habitat Map will show all the SSSIs and international sites, plus
other areas in the strategy area which in the opinion of the responsible authority—
(i) are, or could become, of particular importance for biodiversity,or
(ii) are areas where the recovery or enhancement of biodiversity could make a particular contribution to other environmental benefits
One might have assumed that, given Defra recognises Local Wildlife Sites as a thing which LAs need to report on, they might have specifically mentioned them in this clause. It’s very odd that they didn’t. You could almost read it that they don’t want to continue down the Local Wildlife Sites route any more.
One possible reason for this relates to the way the Local Wildlife Sites were identified. There is no statutory basis for their protection, so they rely on landowner goodwill, especially for private landowners. They are not obliged to let Local Wildlife Sites surveyors on their land and may well not want their land to be recognised as an LWS. They may have other plans which could be stymied by an LWS designation. Those who have allowed their land to be designated LWS may not wish this information to be placed in the public domain, for whatever reason. So are they likely to be enthusiastic about their LWS’s appearing on a Local Habitat Map? Or are they more likely to decide to plough up that bit of old grassland, or cut down that patch of scrub?
Or even perhaps, take government grants to plant a new plantation woodland on their grassland LWS. The Government, after all, has set itself a huge challenge to plant all these millions of trees – and the landowners are not going to be planting up their best agricultural land.
Now the Government may be pinning its hopes on the Agriculture Bill providing funds to support “public money for public goods” which could in theory direct public support to landowners managing their Local Wildlife Sites sympathetically. But that’s still a long way away, after a long seven year transition period. How many of these sites will still be around by then?
The Government appears to be serious about these Local Nature Recovery Strategies and Local Habitat Maps; and on the surface they seem like a really good idea. But the same Government has neglected the existing resource of places rich in nature for years, and could actually severely threaten them with these proposals.
Some joined up thinking would be welcome at this point.