The “Green between the Grey”
The green countryside, wildlife haven and leisure space between grey warehouses, houses, roads and the urban environment where we live and work. As our population expands we need additional space to live and work, that’s an inescapable fact. Inevitably this places pressure on green belt and our countryside and green space the balancing equation is one of the most difficult of our age.
What we once took for granted our children and grandchildren will only read and view on a plastic media device unless our generation plan and manage properly.
Newton Le Willows, Lowton, Burtonwood, Golborne, Culcheth, Croft and surrounds still just about live in a semi rural aspect although this is changing year by year as development and urbanisation encroach and the green spaces diminish further. The pace in recent years is quite disturbing and is likely to accelerate with a number of potential major capital projects in the area in addition to significant house building, in all directions.
We are reaching a critical stage over the next few years and one which will set the future environment for generations.
So what are the options?
1 – Total and absolute urban sprawl across the area we now live.
2 – Stop all development
3 – Controlled development alongside planning for counterbalancing areas of green infrastructure and enhancing the quality of environmental space for wildlife.
Clearly most people would opt for option three and such a strategy is nominally in the core strategy of each of our three authorities Wigan, Warrington and St Helens. There is a battery of UK and EU legislation and any new development of any size will show its green credentials when seeking planning permission. But how much of this is “going through process” by developers and local authorities? and how much really is going to counterbalance the encroachment of development?
Certainly there are some positive examples of ex industrial areas being developed into wildlife havens. On the other hand worryingly, other than designated managed areas, the remaining natural areas and associated corridors are under threat as never before in our history. It’s hard to see who has control over the aggregated impact and how our area will end up in 20 years, or indeed if anyone has?
However to stop all development in our area or severely restrict development is clearly not an option either this article looks enabling components at what can (or might be) be done to accommodate appropriate economic development and retain our green infrastructure alongside development.
Let’s look at these now
A wildlife corridor is just as it says green spaces where insects, animals and birds move around the region.
Evolution requires it for a significant number of species, without it, they would become extinct, it’s as simple as that.
The impact of urbanisation on loss of wildlife develops in an accumulating process as areas randomly get developed upon. If an area of habitat is lost its impact is not limited to that specific area developed it will have a direct impact on other habitats through the loss of corridors or stepping stones, as they are sometimes termed. The creatures impacted cannot re-colonise to feed and breed in nearby habitats because of existing territories of the same or related species or lack of protection from predation. So gradually ,unless we act, wildlife will become more scarce in our area and in some cases certain species will become extinct.
From October 2006 local authorities have had statutory duty to protect biodiversity as set out in section 40 of the natural environment and rural communities act. (NREC) . Defra have issued guidance here. Within this guidance is reference to corridor preservation however we see few references to effective corridor preservation within our local authorities core strategies. Inter authority co-operation on this matter is almost nonexistent. This is a point very relevant in the area served by “Our Local Voice” as we are at the outer edge of three separate authorities.
The area within the region served by Our Local Voice is home to a surprising variety of wildlife mammals including Roe and Muntjac deer, Badgers, Foxes, Brown Hare, some spectacular birds of prey Barn and Short Eared Owls, Hobby, Merlin, Peregrine, and occasional but increasing Red Kites.
And a variety of insect and plant life.
Many of the species such as the beautiful Barn Owl were in recent years locally almost extinct but thanks to management programmes by local enthusiasts, the Barn Owl Trust and the support of local farmers are now re-establishing.
This gives a lot of pleasure to thousands of local people and has done for generations.
For our wildlife to survive habitats have to be protected alongside management action plans, where necessary. Wildlife corridors have to be preserved. In addition to local authorities general duties to protect biodoversity individual endangered species have additional protection.
Not all green space is equal.
Farmland occupies large areas of the green belt but much of it is devoid of wildlife.
Dense cover, woodland, heathland, scrubland, plant life, water table are all features in a wildlife quality habitat for various species of animal, bird and insect. This quality habitat type is unfortunately rapidly disappearing but on a positive note it can be recreated, to an extent, by man but only over the long term.
One item brought into the debate between development and environment in recent years is the concept of offsetting and determining the economic value of biodiversity. Offsetting is the re-creation of new wildlife habitats by a developer from those destroyed by that developer, the value of the offsetting determined by the notional value of the habitat and wildlife destroyed. This is a new concept with a consultation paper issued September 2013 and is currently being piloted in 6 areas of the UK, see here
Another new concept gaining ground is “management areas” or “area action plans” these can be area specific, species specific or both. Habitats are developed and the terrain and plant life is developed to attract and home and protect new and existing wildlife.
With climate change the range of species changes and sometimes new species can be helped to colonise for example there are number of initiatives in the region to help the Ringlet Butterfly re-colonise the north of England for the first time in a century. Red Kites are also rapidly extending their range northwards from their strongholds in mid Wales.
As green space becomes less we need to do more to improve the quality of what remains this will not happen without positive action and the public can play their part by being aware of and highlighting this factor to the authorities as and when incidents or opportunities arise.
Brown Field vs. Green Field
Green field is protected by planning law from development or encroachment. Brown field is sometimes termed previously developed land and is suitable for development. It is by law prohibited to develop on green belt land unless the developer can satisfy very exceptional circumstances and that the need cannot be met elsewhere. These are only granted in exceptional cases.
Green belt has politically come under pressure in recent years with government rhetoric increasingly putting pressure on local authorities to develop and this has naturally put pressure on local authorities to release green belt land for development.
The introduction of new planning legalisation the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) in 2012 was meant to provide further protection for green belt by abolishing the previous spatial strategy which imposed targets on local authorities.
However since the formation of the coalition government the number of homes built on green belt land has doubled.
Organisations such as the Campaign for Protection of Rural England have been lobbying government over these inconsistencies and CPRE currently have a campaign called “waste of space” which is to demonstrate to the government the unused brown field sites in the UK not being developed due (amongst other reasons) to developers holding land for speculative purposes forcing land on green belt to be utilised. The government has no data on the amount of brown field sites in the UK but is still assuming there are insufficient brown field sites in the UK to meet demand. The initiative by the CPRE is seeking to create the data to prove to the government the level of unused brown field in the UK. It is hoped this will relax the pressure on local authorities to release green belt land for development.
The CPRE “waste of space”campaign needs public support, to view it click, here
The CPRE message is starting to get through to central government and the Brandon Lewis the planning and housing minister announced in August 2014 £200m would be released to prepare Brownfield sites for housing development.
“We need to build more homes in this country, but it’s also vital that we protect the countryside that people rightly treasure. That’s why the Government is offering councils a share of £200million to prioritise development on Brownfield land.”
This is a small step in the right direction but this pressure must be maintained.
Green field sites are normally more profitable and convenient for the developer than brown field sites it is clearly nonsensical to develop green belt and leave nearby brown belt idle just because it’s convenient for developers or local planning authorities.
Our Local Voice and other organisations such as CPRE are of the view we need to be more aggressive in preserving green belt in accordance with the sprit and form of the planning legalisation and not let national or local politics dilute this legalisation which is there for very good reason.
We therefore need to try much harder, as a society, to utilise our large stock of brown field areas and also the huge stock of unoccupied housing and retail space to re-generate urban areas and not destroy what is left of the countryside.
Health & Pollution
Studies have shown nature and green space are not merely optional lifestyle options but completely crucial for Health and well being, particularly mental health, obesity and respiratory. You don’t even need to go into the countryside to feel the benefits its very proximity is uplifting.
Dangerous traffic and industrial pollution is also absorbed by plant life and trees removing poisonous CO2 from the atmosphere during photosynthesis to form carbohydrates that are used in the plant structure and by a natural process returning oxygen back into the atmosphere.
This is a very important point particularly as we become more and more urbanised, traffic congested, more densely packed together we naturally generate more pollution and without adequate green infrastructure have no means to disperse the pollution.
It’s a double hit!.
Given the emerging science on air pollution (in particular diesel) this is a very dangerous combination indeed. Early in 2014 was a dangerous smog where freak saharan sand combined with the normal air pollution we suffer every day. This highlighted the dangerous conditions we live in but are normally hidden. See typical of the many press articles here
This risk is being recognised increasingly by the government and local authorities with initiatives in sustainable transport cycling, public transport, congestion charging, car sharing etc. and the minimisation of heavy diesel traffic near to areas of high population.
This is not an optional matter unless in the future we are willing to accept severe health outcomes for the next generation we simply have to have adequate green infrastructure.
The Economic Case
The traditional position is one of development in direct completion with the natural environment. This was very much a one way debate in the industrial revolution of 200 years ago where waterways and natural environments were laid waste for industry often heavy industry as we changed from an agricultural economy to an industrial one. However things have changed since those days for one thing our population is four times the size it was at the peak of the industrial revolution. And our modern day throw away polluting consumer society is something our ancestors could never have imagined. The nature of industry has changed also with an increased emphasis on service and knowledge based industries.
The debate is no longer as it was in the 1700.s and 1800,s but has shifted to a sustainable economy but what does his mean ?. That is a pollution minimised environment allied with (not in competition with) economic development.
This is not some obscure academic study but the position of hard headed business minds. Where are the major sites you suppose for Bank of America, Barclays Bank, Astra Zeneca, RBS and many other large organisations? They are in clean semi rural locations in environments that attract talent to raise their families and that talent grows the regional economy. There are few examples in modern times of developments in areas of gross pollution, congestion or concentrated local environmental destruction.
The “in word” is “sustainable development” what this means however is open to interpretation what a developer thinks it is and what member of the community thinks may be two different things. This phrase was coined in the coalition governments 2012 National Policy Planning Framework and its early days without many test cases. However there have been some victories for communities most notably a wind farm case in Norfolk in 2012, see here.
Nature at Work
There is a plan in the Liverpool City Region and Warrington it is called “Nature at Work” and underpinned by the Mersey Forest project which we will see in the next section.
See link here
Two quotes from its report
” Liverpool city region and Warrington green infrastructure is by no means an afterthought its wider economic value has been estimated at over £100 billion per annum its clear green infrastructure is pivotal to a successful and sustainable future”
“This framework can help us sharpen up our strategies, proof check our policies and ensure smarter green decision-making in the future”
The big six strands of the plan are, growth and investment, health and wellbeing, recreation, rural economy, ecological and climate change. In terms of the economic aspects within the big six there is much emphasis on high tech and knowledge based service industries. These lend themselves well to sustainable development.
In terms of the delivery of these six objectives these are the indentified activities
1 – Plan and deliver green infrastructure around “pinch points” that undermine investment
2 – The Mersey to be the most ecologically rich urban river in Europe.
3 – Using green infrastructure to shape European and other development funds
4 – Green infrastructure for recreation and tourism
The Mersey Forest
Underpinning the “Nature at Work” programme is the Mersey Forest Project. Formed in 1991 by the government of one of 12 regional areas its planted over 9 million trees in the region since formation The Mersey Forest programme is supported by 10 partners, 7 of which are Local Authorities
Chester West and Chester, Halton, Knowsley, Liverpool City, Sefton, St Helens and Warrington.
Forestry Commission, Natural England, Environment Agency.
The programme has delivered a new plan 2014 to 2019 and has called this plan “Delivering more from Trees” and the vision of this plan is
“To help make Merseyside and North Cheshire one of the best places in the country to live”
The programme has introduced a twenty policy framework to deliver this vision within the who, what, how, why and where matrix.
In plain language
Who - is partnership working, advising and working with communities etc.
What – Management and design etc.
How - Strategies, funding, monitoring, research and communications etc.
Why – economy, wildlife, health, education, heritage etc.
Where – The seven partnership local authorities as above.
The garden city is a loose concept but essentially an urban area that is green and connected to and is integrated with surrounding green apace.
“Generous green space linked to the wider natural environment including a surrounding belt of countryside to prevent sprawl, well connected and biodiversity rich public parks, and a mix of public and private networks of well managed, high quality gardens, tree lined streets and open spaces”
Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA)
The concept of a garden city is nothing new and was first proposed by Ebenezer Howard in 1898 against the worst excesses of the industrial revolution. The challenges of excessive urbanisation, traffic pollution and congestion are leading to a revival of the Garden City concept and the coalition government has announced the building of three new Garden Cities.
However the concept and principles of the Garden City can be applied more generally in terms of pleasant green urban environments linked to green space. Things such as planting of selected species of wild plants and the provision of wildlife friendly areas through urban space and the maintenance of corridors along with the other features described above.
Campaign for Protection of Rural England (CPRE)
Our Local Voice is a member of the CPRE and we work very closely with the Cheshire Branch see link here, many of the local values of the CPRE are similar to ourselves. Formed in 1926 the CPRE campaigns on national issues that influence the protection of our countryside and local green belt.
Extracts from the CPRE website
“We believe a beautiful, thriving countryside is important for everyone, no matter where they live. Millions of town and city dwellers recharge their batteries with a walk or a bike ride in the local Green Belt, spend weekends and holidays in our National Parks, or enjoy fresh local produce. People who live in rural areas keep our countryside beautiful and productive. The countryside is unique, essential, precious and finite – and it’s in danger. Every year, a little more is lost forever to urban sprawl, new roads, housing and other developments”
Housing is the biggest devourer of green belt, however we need new housing.
But building new houses on a general basis will lead to sporadic building where green belt is encroached upon where it’s the cheapest and easiest option for developers. The current governments approach is by generally increasing demand and supply to artificially stimulate increased volume of house building but what is missing is an outcome based approach.
The government is providing financial incentives for both individuals and local authorities to accelerate house building but without thought to what the overall societal and landscape & environment(urban & rural) will be. Demand for housing is not generally for large houses but smaller affordable dwellings, but many councils are continuing with sporadic estates of 4 bed detached houses, mainly for short term financial gain for local authorities as these properties generate the greatest tax yield. They also distort the housing market by creating an oversupply of this type of property and an undersupply of the type of property needed.
We also believe thought needs to be given to community outcomes many of the detached housing springing up on green belt are remote and lacking in community cohesion which will have future have societal implications, lack of community loneliness, particularly in the elderly and so forth.
The CPRE believe the supply of unused brown field is not been utilised and the unused brown field will be able to supply most of Britain’s housing needs. In addition to unused industrial land there has been a revolution in retail shopping over the past two decades and many town centres previously established as retail environments are unused with many boarded up premises. Essentially because they do not provide the format the modern consumer wants, some would say their time has come and gone with Amazon, EBay etc, supermarkets and retail malls.
Other than late night revellers town centres of Warrington, Wigan, Leigh and St Helens are deserted of people with almost no community.
There is an opportunity to rethink and reposition the diversity of future housing stock and regenerate urban areas (including town centres) with affordable housing supported by a café and local service culture of the type there is a public demand for as opposed to trying to prop up a local economy format that has insufficient demand.
This will not only be better for society but prevent sporadic and unnecessary loss of green belt which will in turn will be good for society.
As we have seen the pressure of development and our diminishing green space are one of the biggest challenges of our age. We have locally a rich and beautiful environment allied with culture and heritage. We have a lot to lose and once it’s gone we won’t be getting it back. The good news is this problem is recognised and all our local authorities (including those outside of the Mersey Region) are committed to shaping the best possible outcome and balance.
The difficulty will be in local interpretation of strategic plans and it’s easy to use strategic plans to suit your case whichever side of the coin you are on. Our Local Voice is a group that does not stand in the way of sustainable development but we make it very clear we want our natural and beautiful environment to remain for future generations. Both for the benefit of people and wildlife for they have as much right to this planet as we do, more some would say, they were here first.
The area served by Our Local Voice in terms of its local remaining green environment and its potential destruction is quite possibly the most extreme in the Mersey Region. From Bents Garden Centre to almost the outskirts of Rainhill a distance of 17 miles potentially is subject to a continuous urban sprawl in the future. From the Rainhill side is housing and the huge site at Omega (on brown field) potentially Parkside (Green Belt) and possible Liverpool spur HS2 (green belt) then HS2 Lowton / Culcheth (green belt). Allied to this we have a major house building programme in all areas, some of which inevitably will be on green belt land.
Overall there will be less green space in the future. This makes it all the more important what is left we make the best use of it and raise the quality. We also at all costs must preserve our wildlife corridors without which there will be nothing but sterile islands of green areas.
What can I do ?
Perhaps the first and best thing to do is take an interest. If you and others care then the community has more voice to influence the local authorities and other bodies. There will of course be decisions to be made and at times development will be the most sensible option at other times it won’t. But the overarching vision must be retention of an adequate green infrastructure and healthy environment.
There are many community groups such as “Our Local Voice” who have this interest at heart and joining or following these is an option you have. The CPRE is a useful organisation too you can join but this is not necessary to receive information on campaigns you can register for free and receive an update email on CPRE campaigns
To receive the CPRE updates register here
Planet St Helens – St Helens MBC
Warrington Nature Conservation Forum – Warrington MBC
Greenheart – Wigan MBC
Greater Manchester, Lancashire and North Merseyside – Brown Hare Project
The Barn Owl Trust – North West Region