A difficult year for the government as their forests sell-off plan was abandoned – but difficult for Natural England too. The Guardian reports | http://twitter.com/#!/LearnFromNature
2011 was a torrid year for what remains of natural Britain. There was a cold winter, a glorious but very dry spring, an Autumnal heatwave and a late drought, but the government which promised to be the greenest ever, was pilloried for its proposed actions on planning, forests, air quality, climate change, solar energy, sustainable development, biodiversity, nuclear power, badgers, geo-engineering, rivers, shale gas, energy conservation, roads, public transport and a lot more besides. Only a few nuclear industry fans and some optimistic marine conservationists had much to celebrate.
It started terribly for the politicians. By mid-January protesters in the Forest of Dean and the Lake District had made it clear that plans to sell off 250,000ha of the English forestry estate were barmy. In the next few weeks, more than 500,000 people signed a petition to stop it, and environment secretary Caroline Spelman unified left and right, crusty and county, young and old, the National Trust and the Countryside Alliance against her plan. Remarkably, the only people standing up for it appeared to be some of the big wildlife conservation groups who, close to government, possibly stood to benefit, along with rich landowners.
Cameron had to step in and Spelman was forced to withdraw the plans and apologise profusely in the Commons for “having got it wrong”. A panel of the great and the good was set up to reconsider the future of English forests and and will report back in the spring of 2012.
But an even more embarrassing confrontation with the public came in July with government’s draft plans to dismantle the entire planning system. Nobody objected to rationalisation, but the proposed presumption in favour of development over all social and environmental considerations led to apoplexy among organisations as disparate asFriends of the Earth and the CPRE, Campaign for Better Transport, local authorities and the Theatres Trust. Most feared a return to sprawl, the demise of favourite places, and damaging free for all development in suitable places.
The National Trust, its gander up after leading the fight against the forest sell-off, went head to head with the government, and got 200,000 signatures to try to force a climbdown. But while opposition simmered through the year as a long consultation took place, the tipping point may have been reached in December when a powerful committee of MPsdemanded that the “default yes” to development be removed from the text. The planning minister, Grant Shapps must decide soon.
However, the government did please that half of the population which felt that the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan should not delay the building of 10 reactors in Britain. The UK’s chief inspector of nuclear installations, Mike Weightman, reported in May that the Japanese disaster was no reason to abandon nuclear power, but it later emerged that extra safety checks mean the first station cannot now be delivered before 2019, and could cost vastly more than expected. Meanwhile, ministers revealed that the government wanted to build a plant for processing nuclear waste, just four months after a similar plant costing the taxpayer £1.4bn was closed.
A combination of the recession and a mild winter had seen UK carbon emissions fall in 2009, but in March 2011 the latest figures showed them up by nearly 3%. The better news, said Decc, was that the UK had now cut greenhouse gas emissions by 24.8% since 1990 and now generates nearly 25% of its electricity from low carbon, nuclear and renewable sources.
Undeterred by its unpopularity in the countryside, the government gave in to pressure by farmers to slaughter over eight years, as many as 105,000 badgers, which, it is alleged, cost the nation as much as £100m a year by spreading TB. The cull, to be carried out in Wales and the west country, will be carried out by farmers with rifles and is likely to be strongly opposed by animal lovers.
Hopes that shale gas, locked in rocks deep below Lancashire and elsewhere, could compensate for dwindling north sea oil and gas reserves were raised in September when Australian fracking companyCuadrilla announced that it had “gas in-place” in its licence area in Lancashire of 200 trillion cubic feet – more than the entire previous UK proven gas reserves, and many times what the British Geological Survey had estimated. But reality struck when scientists concluded that the test drilling earlier in the year had “highly probably” set off two mild earthquakes and protesters invaded the company rigs. Deutsche Bank calmed nerves when its analysis suggested it was extremely unlikely that there would be a bonanza or that it would reduce gas prices.
Finally, conservation had a bad year. Powerful groups like the RSPB, the Wildlife Trusts, the Woodland trust, Plantlife, Buglife and Butterfly Conservation could all point to individual successes, but Natural England, the official body responsible for advising and defending the natural world at the highest levels of government, effectively lost its voice. Its budget was cut to the bone, many of its best people left, and in the words of ecologist Peter Marren, author of Nature Conservation, “our wildlife watchdog has morphed into a pathetic delivery boy, charged with attending to “customer focus”.
The longterm consequences on wildlife may not be seen for years, but the government gave notice of what it is planning, asking the public through its “red tape challenge” to identify regulations and laws that could be lifted to allow business to perform better. Under the environment topic, the 159 regulations on biodiversity, wildlife management, landscape, countryside and recreation are specifically mentioned, as well as the regulations on air quality, energy labelling and sustainable products. The potential for rolling back 60 years of environmental protection is now greater than ever.
The possibility of deep embarrassment for Britain at the London Olympics as well as swingeing EU fines helped to shoot air pollution way up the national agenda in 2011. Government figures released in Juneshowed that 17 regions and cities, including London, Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow and Cardiff, were well above the legal limit for N02 emission, and were not expected to get below it for another five years. Meanwhile, particulate pollution – the minute sooty particles mainly from traffic that get deep into the lungs – was shown to be linked to thousands of deaths every year.
The London Assembly urged mayor Boris Johnstone to take action and the environment audit committee thundered that air pollution now costs £8.5-20bn per year and is leading to 4000 premature deaths a year. But the government avoided being sued by activist lawyers ClientEarth working with Clean Air London. Sadly, Environmental Protection UK, one of the world’s oldest environment groups, folded as a national organisation in November after 114 years fighting air pollution.
The bravest man of the year was surely comedian David Walliams whospent eight days swimming the Thames for charity in September. Within hours of starting he was violently ill, having caught a dose of water pollution. Happily it wasn’t as bad as that which struck down and killeddouble Olympic gold medal winner Andy Holmes, who died only months before after catching a bacterial infection in a river.
The irony, not lost on conservationists trying to protect river habitats, is that government can say that British rivers have never been cleaner in 100 years because they only measure some pollutants. In fact 75% fail new EU standards, nitrate levels are higher than they were 140 years ago and raw sewage regularly floods into the Thames and other rivers whenever there is a storm because the drains cannot cope.
- Japan’s nuclear disaster response was riddled with problems, says report (thehindu.com)
- Japan Probe Finds Nuclear Disaster Response Failed (theromangate.wordpress.com)
- Wildlife Update : Let’s blame the badger, shall we… ? (environmentaleducationuk.wordpress.com)
- National Trust switches off solar power plans as ministers cut returns (telegraph.co.uk)
- The fallout from the Fukushima disaster (guardian.co.uk)
- Japan Recommends Temporary State Control for Tokyo Electric – New York Times (nytimes.com)
- ‘Lack of preparation and poor communication’: Damning assessment of Japan’s response to nuclear crisis following deadly tsunami (dailymail.co.uk)
- Report condemns Japan’s response to nuclear accident (mysanantonio.com)