ECOS 38 (3)
The Tyne and Wear Green Belt and the area’s green spaces continue to be threatened by confident developers. These important places for nature and public amenity are weakly protected by local councils in need of income and unable to prioritise wildlife.
Nature conservation’s political fortunes
Speculation is cheap and usually wrong. Landslide anyone? I used to talk to a UK adviser to the Brussels committee on bird protection in the 1980s. I saw little of this in Spain at the time (except in hunting estates kept up by Francoists) but following accession the situation in the south of that country looked better than it was 30 odd years earlier, very much so. No doubt the internationalisation of bird protection is working where there is a will. But Chris Packham’s arrest in Malta1 shows that the enforcement of legislation is the issue. Some EEC/EC/EU countries had robust protection policies before it began, if only because of unfortunate links to their totalitarian pasts.
This location in Tyne and Wear had become in a few years a ‘wild space’ with an impromptu skate board track and many adventitious plants and animals including roe deer. It was cleared in favour of corporate designed exclusive space. Photo: Barry Larking
Nature squeezed out
New Secretary Of State for the Environment Michael Gove is by some way more of an ideologue than many who served in Mrs Thatcher’s governments. According to recent press commentary: “Gove is an opponent of the EU's Habitats Directive, which forces construction companies to create new green space if certain types of terrain, such as heathland, are built upon or nearby. He previously said: ‘The Habitats Directive holds that if you build a home within 5km of a particular type of terrain, heathland, then you have to allocate, at the same time, something called suitable alternative natural green space to offset the environmental impact’. “As a result my constituents, and perhaps your children, find homes more expensive and mobility in this country impeded." 2
The Daily Mirror introduced his appointment with an empatic headline: “Six reasons Michael Gove is an absolutely terrible choice for Environment Secretary in Theresa May's cabinet reshuffle”.3
Michael Gove’s work now, however, seems likely to have been done for him by the previous Cameron-Clegg and, subsequently, Cameron governments. As a disreputable politician once said “It’s the economy stupid”. Austerity has slashed local government budgets here in the north east; all environmental and now arts jobs have gone and Newcastle’s many parks are being ‘freed up’. If locals cannot come in to rescue them then chunks will be have to be leased to private interests. A plan to create a charitable trust to manage what would be the inevitable decline of public assets is being discussed but the outlook is not cheering. Ten per cent (that was last week; the figure is rising fast) of the city’s Green Belt is under new estates now and thousands more dwellings have been approved. The buyers for these aspirational homes are not obvious at first blush; Newcastle’s population in recent years has grown almost entirely due to students and asylum seekers according to one well placed academic speaker at a public meeting I attended.
'Improving’ the environment on Tyneside. Much urban green space in the North East still suffers from the tidiness mania. It has been one consequence of the austerity policy that studied neglect has, if any thing, lessened the scope for ‘landscaping’ away ‘inconvenient' features. Photo: Barry Larking
Cash-light and dependency-burdened North Tyneside Council is almost more eager to build over its part of the Green Belt as the only route out of institutional poverty than even typically gnomic Newcastle City Council. Green Belt or special needs children and adults? Tricky choice.
Mr Gove might find his only task will be to dress this up as all his own work. He has had practice.
What place science in conservation tactics?
Much of the foregoing comment has been formed through my experience of meeting Save Newcastle Wildlife3, a group set up initially to fight a very large house building proposal on the Green Belt next door to Gosforth Nature Reserve. The location has seen some some stunning wildlife success stories, including otters and bitterns establishing just over a mile from Gosforth High Street. I have sat in rooms and halls (and one public inquiry) with women and men of the same ilk as Peter Shirley (i.e. entirely honourable, decent and well informed people). They too like Mr Shirley believe in the authority of science to win the argument for conservation: “It would perhaps not be amiss to return, at least partly, to the science-driven days of the 1950s and 60s”.4 This approach has not a hope in hell from where I am sitting. Up against developers with millions in the bank and metropolitan councils who are cash strapped by deliberate design, scientific nature conservation is as likely to be as triumphant as the Children’s Crusade’s appeal to ‘faith’. I can think of better ideas.
2. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/brexit-eu-regulations-michael-gove-environment-drugs-a7649041.html; Mirror (online) accessed 20.06.2017.
4. Shirley, P (2017) ECOS 38(2)