If I could have one wish…

May 22, 2021

…as we continue the countdown to Kunming, it would be for the UK governments to sign up to 30x30… AND REALLY MEAN IT

For the second essay in this series on the countdown to the Biodiversity Convention Conference of Parties in Kunming, China, I’m focussing on the basics. The most basic, in fact: protecting land for nature.

Environment Minister Zac Goldsmith’s tweet following a meeting of G7 Environment Ministers says most of the right things. But then that is what politicians do, so the time to celebrate will be when we’re allowed to look under the bonnet and see the government’s plans, milestones, policies and funding proposals to get us there. As I have pointed out several times since Boris Johnson announced that England (and possibly the rest of the UK) will see 30% of its land protected for nature by 2030 – the 30×30 pledge that so far sixty other governments have also signed – we have a very long way to go.

Time to get serious about protected areas

“To renew the living fabric of the land so that it also replenishes the spirits of its human inhabitants seems to me as close as one can come to a single expression of the aims of a total conservation policy.”

I first read those words, written by Richard Mabey, in the early 1980s. It is strange to re-read The Common Ground after more than forty years. It is simultaneously out-of-date as to the details, and utterly contemporary as to the underlying concerns. One of those concerns was, and remains, the lack of effective protection for the most important places for wildlife. Since then, the relevant legislation has been tweaked a few times, but the underlying philosophy hasn’t.

As Mabey described, the 1960s and 70s had seen some of the first set-piece conservation cases to arise under the post-war site-based conservation legislation, in which an earnest scientific community went into battle hopelessly outgunned by the industrial giants of the day. In 1966 the now-defunct firm ICI chose the botanically and geologically unique Upper Teesdale as the site for a reservoir serving industrial plant 54 miles away on Teesside. In what was at the time an unusual move, Parliament set up a Select Committee to hear evidence from both sides of the debate. ICI fielded barristers whose entire professional lives were spent in such a milieu. Facing them were scientists whose passion for the genetics of the Teesdale violet or the metamorphosis of dolerite rock into sugar limestone was made to seem exclusive and narrow-minded against future-facing rhetoric championing jobs and technology. They stood no chance, and were not helped by the legislation on which they believed their arguments were founded. For all the multiplicity of conservation designations available today, it was and remains the case that they are legally underpinned or undermined according to whether or not they are Sites of Special Scientific Interest.

SSSIs (or ASSIs – Areas of Special Scientific Interest – as they are called in Northern Ireland) were invented as part of the post second world war democratisation of the countryside. The Act of 1949 that created the National Parks also recognised that some smaller areas needed special attention because of what today we would call their conservation importance. ‘Scientific Interest’ meant more or less the same thing, expressed in the language of the day. The word ‘special’ in particular has to be understood in the context of 1940s Britain. A site had to be particularly noteworthy to be distinguishable from the surrounding countryside which, compared to the same countryside today, was pretty special everywhere.

A good illustration of how things have changed is the recent designation of 250 hectares on the Swanscombe Peninsula in Kent as an SSSI. On 11 March, Natural England, one of four country-level successors to the NCC of Mabey’s day, announced what they described as “great news for one of the richest known sites in England for invertebrates, ensuring essential refuge for many rare and threatened species that sadly are not able to thrive in the wider landscape.”

I grew up nine miles from Swanscombe, and as a teenage birdwatcher it would take me two bus rides and a long walk to get to the marshes where, in the early seventies, I ticked off my first twite and little ringed plovers. The peninsula projects north from the chalk, forcing the Thames to swerve left and then right on its eastward flow to the North Sea. On a map, it is one of the more distinctive stretches of the river, easily recognised if you can’t put a name to it. Swanscombe Man, the Neanderthal woman whose skull was found there in 1938, lived in its swamps alongside straight-tusked elephants. 400,000 years later, I remember it as an unprepossessing tract of industrial landscape, a strange combination of wet grassland in the gaps between cement works. A few lagoons were what remained of the Neanderthals’ swampy homeland, modified by an Age of ice and centuries of farming, chalk quarrying, quarry waste disposal and river defence works.

photo: Save Swanscombe Marshes

The official SSSI notification comes with a ‘citation’, listing the notable features for which the site is designated. This standard way of defining the importance of a site, and what you can and can’t do there hasn’t changed much in over seventy years. Some of the 1700 invertebrates recorded there, such as the quirkily-named distinguished jumping spider, may always have been rare. For many, though, Swanscombe has become an accidental stronghold as the number of places where they can still be found has dwindled across the country as a whole. This was not foreseen by the architects of the SSSI system, who appeared to have little inkling of the dramatic impoverishment in our natural environment to which later decades would bear witness. That the latest site to be recognised should be explicitly described in the citation as ‘post-industrial’ is telling. Natural beauty and anthropogenic decay seeming to belong together, like a foretaste of a post-apocalyptic paradise.

Looked at another way, it could be a reverse telling of the story of place-based conservation. The loss of vast acreages of wildlife rich habitat labelled by successive generations as ‘waste’, followed by an appreciation of abundant life in the cracks that form in truly wasted land: land that we’ve used and are done with.

The case for designating Swanscombe Peninsula SSSI had been set out with unassailable clarity and logic by NGOs, notably Buglife, the Kent Wildlife Trust and the RSPB. But Natural England’s move came as a surprise. There is a multi-billion pound development proposal already earmarked for the site. In recent years NE and the other statutory conservation agencies had slowed down the rate of designation of new SSSIs to little more than a standstill. They have been particularly reluctant to step in when a site is already threatened, for fear of pre-empting the outcome of a well-worn development planning process. Natural England’s press release acknowledges this, recognising that “there is interest and consideration of potential development opportunities in the Swanscombe area. Designation of this site for its nationally important wildlife features is an important step towards ensuring that its environmental value is recognised and taken due account of in any future planning decisions.” Which sums up the UK protected areas system in a nutshell.

Radical change – or simply doing the right thing?

In July last year, parroting the government’s own choice of language, several newspapers announced a ‘radical’ shake-up of the planning system. Clearly they hadn’t actually read Planning for the Future, which makes no attempt at reconfiguring the planning system towards solving some of the most complex and pressing social, economic, and environmental problems of our time. Most of the debunking of government claims of a radical planning agenda has come from within a mightily unimpressed planning sector itself. It turns out ‘radical’ translates as ‘lifting constraints on building, most of which don’t actually exist’.

At the delayed conference of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in October, countries will agree the next 10 years of targets for nature. One of the main ones will entail committing to protecting 30% of land by 2030. The RSPB says that reaching that figure globally will mean profoundly transforming how people farm, fish, generate electricity and build houses. Conversely, the UK government seems to think we are almost there, with another 4 percentage points to go in England. If that’s what they think, they’re wrong. Most of the existing 26% is not actually designated for wildlife, none of it has full, robust protection, and only about 3% of land is managed well for conservation.

If, in October, the UK’s representatives return from the CBD in China waving bits of paper and hailing their radical, world-leading 30%-with-4%-to-go commitment on protected land, don’t expect me to lead the dancing. It wouldn’t be radical or world-leading simply to do the right thing and give our so-called protected areas some actual protection; it would signal that we truly value biodiversity. Last summer’s planning reforms ignored this opportunity completely.

The problem is that what we call protected areas, on land or at sea, are perpetually threatened areas so long as such protection as exists is circumstantial, discretionary, partial and temporary. ‘Non-existent’ would not be too far from a fair summary of that. There are three reasons:

Firstly, it is self-evident from the everyday experience of life in the conservation profession. You may not be one of the dozens – maybe hundreds – of people whose full-time job it is to battle against damaging proposals, but you are likely to find yourself involved at some point, along with thousands of unpaid activists across the country. This is a huge, mostly charitable, resource to have to deploy simply to prop up a system of protection that would fail without it. There is simply nothing – nothing whatsoever – in the system that prevents someone coming forward with proposals to build on so-called protected land. Anyone can do it any time, and it automatically triggers a process that is embedded not in the country’s environmental regime, but in its development planning system. This, of course, exists primarily to aid development, as Boris Johnson’s so-called reforms proved. If all the layers of legislation, planning guidance and procedure around protected areas were amassed into a single compendium, overwhelmingly it would say more about development than about protection or good management.

The government’s big idea to remedy the artificial conflict between nature and development is to hitch biodiversity performance to the development wagon, through its Net Gain concept. NGOs admit to getting the theory, that future development should leave behind more biodiversity than it removes. But they fear that the so-called mitigation hierarchy will be quietly forgotten, and Net Gain will become a licence to develop anywhere, the final nail in the protected areas coffin. London Resort, the company looking to develop the new Swanscombe SSSI, have wasted no time invoking the concept. They claim their development would “deliver a net gain in biodiversity” by enhancing land beyond the site and retaining two undeveloped areas of marshland along with the local wildlife site at Botany Marsh.

Protection is not there, to be lifted in special and overwhelming circumstances; it is something to be granted, only if and when circumstances dictate

Secondly, it is wrong to think of an area having protection outside the context of a specific threat. A site may have been designated as SSSI sixty years ago, say. For the whole of that time it has never had a shred of protection against development. This only happens if and when a damaging proposal is tabled, and ultimately rejected. In other words, protection is not there, to be lifted in special and overwhelming circumstances; it is something to be granted, only if and when circumstances dictate. And the protection is only against the specific proposal on the table, in the specific form in which it was presented. Which is why, for example, that other notorious Kent case, Lodge Hill, has rumbled on for more than a dozen years. This, the country’s top site for the beloved and seriously declining nightingale, has been subject to serial applications for house-building, each one for a different number of houses, every few years.

Thirdly, even when a site is granted provisional relief in the form of a rejected planning proposal, it is not actually the site itself that is safeguarded. Here the idea of site protection is unequivocally a falsehood. The protection relates to the features for which it is notified. In some cases, especially sites designated long ago when the wider countryside was so much richer than now, this may be for a single rare species, no matter that the site has become important for very much more besides in the meantime.

Sites are places, too

This exposes a fundamental flaw in the SSSI concept. None of the words that make up this clumsy acronym are fit for purpose. Having earlier dealt with Scientific Interest and Special, with their connotations of exclusivity and highbrow intellectualism, I would point out that ‘site’ carries just the same impersonal flavour. A site – a building site say – is all about criteria, parameters, boundaries, permissions, prohibitions. These have little to do with how real people engage with places (let’s capitalise that: Places) that are so much more than the sum of their features.

It is time for the UK to get serious about protecting, expanding, enhancing, joining up and properly managing the Places where wildlife is still doing relatively well; and creating, restoring and cherishing new and renewed Places for people and the rest of nature. Places to ensure the survival of rare spiders and inspire poetry; Places to support unique plant communities and heal the soul; Places to restore abundant birdlife and make memories.

Fundamental to living in harmony with nature is recognising that land is the core natural asset of the nation and of the planet. Instead, our approach to protected areas gives primacy to any private benefit that may accrue to those who choose to exploit it. National Parks failed nature for one reason only: the lingering possibility that notwithstanding their designations, there might always be something better you could do with the land. Designated protected areas fail individually and as a network for the same reason. They are identified as the best places for nature, and protected subject to someone having a better idea for using the land. And someone always thinks they have a better idea.

In the third decade of the 21st century, in the 29th most nature-depleted country in the world, on the 8% of land designated for nature (and indeed the other 22% to which the government is committed), what possible higher priority can there be?


Laurence Rose’s book Framing Nature – conservation and culture is out now.

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