Undervalued Landscape

I am getting increasingly concerned that during the push towards ‘natural capital’ existing, very real, financial values are being ignored. Whilst I am all in favour of valuing the biodiversity in a landscape or habitat and the ecosystems contained, this is not where the buck stops – far from it. And any attempts so far towards such valuations placed on nature are falling well short of the true economic benefits of nature within that landscape let alone attributing the mass of other values concerned.

This is heading towards a crash. A crash that will severely undermine those earning from any landscape and any potential earnings, which we are still far from realising.

And the increasing use of ‘landscape approach’ as laid out in so much policy spiel at present is not only completely at odds with much landscape research – but more dangerously is taking any values used from somewhat tenuous calculations.

Surely nature capital values are only of any worth if added to all other values attributable in a particular landscape – thus helping in closing the circle of what a sustainable multi functional landscape actually is.

Biodiversity offsetting has already undermined such values and the resulting value of the land used is considerably less than it’s real worth. The huge shortfall in the values used can only have a negative effect on those working with or indeed benefitting in anyway from that land – including the landowner themselves both public and private. It was good that UK MP’s recognised the ‘simplicity’ of the biodiversity offsetting system on offer as being a major flaw – but the economic consequences of ignoring the complexity and diversity of landscapes were not considered enough. A shame insofar that the economics are the most likely to be listened to by policy makers.

There is an axiom that has been dangerously overlooked, that many practitioners and others involved in the maintenance and care of our landscapes have done so fully understanding but unable to communicate the values of the complex issues in any particular landscape. This very diminished, ignored group have been aided slightly by a new and again often overlooked demographic of ‘hobby farmers’ – a term which is arguably wrong as so many of these new landowners and farmers are actually making good money from their small holdings through terroir products – high quality, landscape based produce. I would argue that ‘terroir’ is a recognition, a valuation of all things in a landscape that contribute to a taste and thus an income. This closed circle is far too whimsical though for policy makers – sometimes even in France, unfortunately. And so long as central government holds a purse of subsidy those who choose to follow this well proven system of making money from a landscape into perpetuity do so alone.

A flood of ‘buzzwords’ is proferred almost daily. Quangos and NGOs busily booking conference halls to discuss and then endless streams of reports reinventing the wheel time and time again. Every so often there are glimpses of sunlight but on the whole it is all far too costly and worthless. There is no ‘value’ that can be taken back to the landscapes in question – because everything is now designed to be centralised.

And the only positive is in fact a negative. The investigation by people of their landscape is protest driven. Paying attention only when their landscape is threatened. This costs money, this is manipulated by NGOs and other organisations and government both local and central love it – ‘divide and conquer’. But the landscapes in reality maybe divided but they are far from conquered because of the complexities involved.

What would be absolutely fantastic and of real worth is to have values attributable to both natural and man made elements within the landscape. We already have tree valuation systems from the UK and US – what if we can have values per metre of hedgerow or dry stone retaining walls.

All values can be of use to any land based practitioner and of course easily digested by the public. Values should be an easy sell, a good conversation starter in the pub or the meeting halls in every community, leading to progressive local planning and site specifics, but not if they are simplified, boxed up and publicised without explanation. And definitely not if they are far too cheap.


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England’s Urban Green Space’s on Death Row

UK policy with regards all land management and landscape issues is readily digested abroad. For many years the UK has the led the way with progressive research combined with historic policy allowing for ‘on the ground’ case studies of good practice.

This has of course changed rapidly under the current coalition government and most now look to the UK and England in particular for bad case study and the results of poor policy making led by poor media and lobbying by vested interests with far too much power.

The larger NGOs have successfully established themselves as the voice of the public in the minds of the policy and law makers. This in turn has meant that any progression in ensuring ‘All Landscapes Matter’ is non existent – it is only their landscapes that matter.

There are key elements in our landscapes, historic and culturally rich, which provide a benchmark for the landscape to continue. These elements do not or rather should not halt development or the evolution of a landscape – but help towards good design. Hedgerows, ancient trees, neolithic sites, dry stone walls etc., and in the urban landscape Allotments.

Allotments are now under massive threat after this ‘landmark allotment court defeat’

Together with urban tree deaths usually the result of human activity and a lack of attention to the complex technosols of our cities, a rise in felling to pre-empt planning permission, policies such as biodiversity offsetting which allow for a relaxation of sustainable development measures during construction – it is clear that when the importance of urban green space is mentioned by policy makers it is nothing more than spurious rhetoric.

Those who care, of whom there are many, are not enough, not loud enough or rich enough to compete with the larger NGOs or fight against the huge development companies. Their one tenuous hope being a celebrity to speak up for them.

Will the above judgement, which defers back to enclosure legislation, prove to be the edge of the cliff needed to kick start a change, a huge new campaign that fights for 21st Century legislation to protet and enhance all green spaces in all of England’s rapidly growing urban landscape?

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Biodiversity Offsetting Will Destroy Much More Than Nature

I have just returned from what I thought would be a quick jolly to Brussels to attend a Biodiversity Offsetting workshop, run by FERN & RE COMMON. 

It was no jolly, it was heartbreaking. Many stories from across Europe and further, including the UK, were unbelievable – yet unfortunately true. From the ignoring of a referendum, with more than a 95% ‘NO’ to an open cast mine in Poland, through to military occupation of an area where locals are campaigning against a high speed rail link in Italy, it is obvious that any ‘bottom up’ policy with regards landscape issues is simply non existent. Local campaigners are simply regarded at best as NIMBY’s but frequently as terrorists and one can only assume that such labelling is an easy way to avoid having to explain the huge costs involved in countering local protest – particularly when governments are so closely aligned with multi national developers that they increasingly, indeed it is now the norm, to take it upon themselves to simply attack protest preemptively.

There is an incredible amount of social issues raised with regards the effects that Biodiversity Offsetting as a ‘new’ tool for policy makers would have but all these issues, the complexities of society, not least its connection with its landscapes are generally ignored by policy makers. Thus one cannot help but believe that Biodiversity Offsetting is being used to deliberately ensure that people are once and for all permanently removed from having any say about their place, landscape or further – making the enclosure acts look positively progressive. The clear assumption is that the NGOs are the sole voice for people in their place – something many NGOs assume themselves, quite wrongly.

The sheer volume of academic and scientific text, as well as some fantastic case studies on the ground, which highlight the essential need for public participation in planning and land management have been ripped up or ripped out. Make no mistake – biodiversity offsetting wherever it has occurred, including in England, completely and utterly ignores the complexity and diversity of local society as much as it ignores the complexity and diversity of the nature in our landscapes.

It is easy for me, and I have done so, to completely dismiss BO as pure nonsense as it ignores basic science – how can you offset what we don’t understand fully, what we don’t know even exists? But this has turned my attention away from the very clever political manoeuvring that has gone on with the policy being kept well hidden deliberately – and it is shameful that the NGOs who are apparently the voice of civil society have been more secret than the government.  Owen Paterson has stated BO is a ‘win-win’ situation, the developers win, some nature conservation NGOs win – but there is one clear loser, society.

Practitioners, many of whom both in the private and public sector, will be usurped, have been usurped by the progression of BO, (bearing in mind it is now in play), in particular by the crass valuation method used. Any and all site specific work is now at risk. Owen Paterson has bowed to some pressure by insisting that offsetting should be local, but given that the one clear example we have of the BO system operating in England is an offset 11miles from the development then the definition of local is clearly at odds with that of most practitioners (11 miles away is often the responsibility or working patch of someone else), most people (11miles is a long walk) and of course the biodiversity (a very long migration for soil fauna).

Although BO is already in use there is a consultation out on it now. There is a lot of money at stake for those involved in BO, (I wonder how much funding as come from the public purse?), and it will be difficult to campaign against BO as it is so brazenly corrupt – one only has to read the biography of the chairman of the principal brokers for BO, the Environment Bank, for example.

However I do have some optimism with regards BO. It has been brought in at a time of immense polarisation between various sectors of those involved in all aspects of land management and planning. BO is looking likely to be the catalyst that bridges the chasms between so many from very different backgrounds – as demonstrated by those attending the workshop in Brussels, most importantly including those that add to the economy working with and in landscapes. It also provides a platform for showing people that their landscapes do belong to them, a welcome opportunity for landscapists and localists. Owen Paterson wishes to dismiss the PFE forestry disposal furore as done and dusted – I believe that protest against BO has the potential to make the PFE disposal protest look like a lone protestor at the gates of Wells Town Hall.

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Time to Move on for Forestry Commentary

A wee debate played out on tweeter following this article: Urgent incentives needed for forests in Scotland.

There was for me, as an ex private sector forester working in Scotland, much sense to the article, which was apparently paid by Confor to be in the Scotsman newspaper. We have to be planting to ensure the longevity of the forest industry itself. It is a shame that such a valuable opinion  piece by a leading forest academic needed a financial incentive for a newspaper, (a newspaper in a country with such strong links to forestry), to publish. During the PFE disposal furore it seemed any celebrity or political commentator could see their opinion published no matter how much at odds with reality their comments were.

As for the debate, opinion solely based from a ‘conservation’ angle, whilst independently correct and with wonderful objectives is not just unrealistic in the present economic climate but ignores an industry who largely agree – but do need timber also to make it happen. We now have a firmly established system of multipurpose and sustainable forest management installed in the methods of all private sector foresters and now virtually all private forest owners also – why ignore this?

And sadly it is still evident that a widely proferred opinion during the PFE disposal furore is still very much in play – despite considerable efforts to redress. Far too many people are at least 20 years behind in what they believe to be modern forestry and particularly the main goals of the FC.

The dinosaurs of the industry have all almost gone, thank goodness. And I remember all too clearly how bad the situation was, being told once by an ‘old school’ forester whilst stood in an ASNW remnant in Cornwall that the only way forward was to under plant with Sitka Spruce.

I am firm believer, with many others, that we need to keep discussing forestry to progress, and will never exhaust ourselves. but to do so we can do without dismissal of valuable opinion, indeed further suggesting it is wrong to publish, simply because it may not fit with their own opinion. When the public forestry sector is silenced it is fundamentally wrong to ignore the private forestry sector also who have not fallen into the sickening PR driven ‘tea partyesque’ commentary that actually attracts press attention as their land management counterparts the CLA and NFU have done so.

Forestry and Arboriculture can lead the way for land management both in practice and policy – let it do so.


Multi purpose forestry stretching beyond the horizon. Drôme, France

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Twisting Landscape

As real landscapes and definitions of landscape progress to the front line of policy making it is not surprising to see terms and the landscapes themselves being abused.

The talk of radical broad spectrum changes – a new idealism, in order to protect the environment is nothing new, but recent commentary from deep inside the conservation lobby points towards the fact that virtually everyone now is pointing to the same road, to landscape – albeit often inventing their own ‘buzzwords’ which deliberately ignore the existence of the wealth of research and study which has led to landscape being defined in legal status by Council of Europe member states, (including the UK), who have ratified the European Landscape Convention.

The UK, and in particular England provide an invaluable case study to the forthcoming problems this abuse of landscape will cause.

Bear in mind it is well proven that landscape is something the public are all too aware of, it is to many a very emotional ‘thing’ – their thing and relates to their surroundings in which they are comfortable. Thus any further confusion is unwelcome and damaging. To use landscape a policy maker must be aware of the full connotations involved or what they say makes no sense to the public.

”Landscapes are not only beautiful and historic parts of our countryside. They are integral to tourism, to the economy, to well being and to health. That’s why, as Defra Secretary, it’s a privilege to be responsible for England’s Protected Landscapes.”
Owen Paterson speech to National Parks conference

The above speech went on to push biodiversity offsetting, and understandably led to serious concern that ‘protected landscapes’ would be at threat from this nonsensical, weak and frankly corrupt method to bypass all sustainable development (and of course landscape) goals. But also showed a clear misunderstanding of landscape and therefore was abuse of landscape itself, despite the coalition’s reaffirmation of their commitment to the ELC from Paterson’s DEFRA colleague; Richard Benyon MP.

Also unveiled at the conference was the Landscape Declaration

It is a well written and difficult to criticise measure to further landscape as defined by the ELC into the public consciousness in terms of ensuring protected landscapes remain protected. However, probably the most significant part of the ELC is ignored, thatall landscapes are matter. This ‘protected landscapes declaration’ is potentially much more digestible to policy makers than the ELC itself, from which the declaration quotes from, simply because it rides on the back of existing legislation and thus tackling the issues of urban, peri urban and indeed any and all land with the misfortune not to be contained within a ‘designated land’ boundary can be ignored. This seriously risks further fragmentation of the wider English rural and urban landscape. Is it very clever PR? A method to ensure that any and all new funding towards landscapes has to be paid into those that in reality least need it?

Given that indirect and direct funding towards European land management based on the text of the ELC for both the private and public sectors is increasing dramatically then it is all to easy to believe that those stuck in the boundaries for the sake of boundaries system will in desperation try and fit landscape into their mapped areas. And as with the all too hasty post imperial and wartime demarcations such as the Radcliffe line the results could be catastrophic and accelerate the people’s disenfranchisement with their own landscape – ultimately destroying landscape itself.

Policymaking can and should only give the verticals, it is the From Garden To Globe-1(1) who provide the essential horizontal which will provide the final answers needed.


Image: Public consultation on the future of the Var alluvial landscape in Nice, using a satellite image and the simple question ‘What is important to you here?’


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A New EU Strategy for Europe’s Forests – Raise your glass of flat lemonade.

Today the EU Strategy for Europe’s Forests was published.

The text of the strategy is not ambiguous and the statistics are worth noting. Much of it is a ‘wikipedia’ style of introducing Europe’s forests and European forestry. Is there is anything to celebrate however, beyond the work of those who have managed to get this finally published?

It is disappointing and a sad result of modern politics and PR that so many new publications, including even scientific ones have replaced all ‘must’ and ‘will’s’ with ‘encouraged to’ and ‘should’s’. Voluntary action is the supposed new path to progression and the lengthy negotiations needed even to get to first edit mean it is well out of date before it is published.

And the EU forest strategy, what should have been a rallying cry for firm action towards the protection of forests in Europe and a platform towards real legal powers, is therefore nothing more than an out of date statement. I could be and hope to be wrong but I fear this strategy which has involved so many and cost so much is actually little more than a useful ‘link to’ for some in the periphery (particularly in ‘offsets’) of the forest industry.

It is quite clear that when talking about forests and forestry in Europe, one must consider or even lead with discussion on protecting non woodland trees. It is also essential to consider the amenity value of these behemoths of all European landscapes. Any policy based on trees and wood products needs to integrate the society surrounding the trees in the present and in the future.

The nod towards the past and the recognition of cultural values of trees and forests is great, but isn’t it a little embarrassing to ourselves when we read Hans Carl von Carlowitz or John Evelyn to discover we haven’t progressed at all in policy terms. But I know forestry and arboriculture have advanced in terms of knowledge and practice.

In fact if the industry and professionals within it had not advanced it would be doubtful that there would be any decent forests left at all in Europe.

The EU Forest Strategy will be ignored by many because it has ignored them as it had to in order to ever get published. I think we should work towards a Strategy for Europe’s Trees which will help toughen up this Forest Strategy.


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On Biodiversity Offsetting & Soil

Asides from the fact that anything the current Defra minister says about the environment should be treated with extreme caution, an easy fix to the ongoing polarisation between conservationists and developers should be dismissed for the dangers it bestows on the rest of us – the practitioners and the public. You know – the social element of the triple bottom line for sustainable development.

Biodiversity Offsetting is absurd. The ecological pyramid we all learnt at school displays this nonsense well; look at the bottom layer – how can you offset what we don’t know about? I speak as one who works with soil, one who almost daily is intrigued by interactions and the potential existence of new species found in one of the most easily accessible yet unexplored habitats in the world.  

I would argue that true sustainable development is much more advanced than many policy makers believe or have been led to believe and in terms of soil management, particularly in the urban and peri urban landscape, it was advanced enough to enable development with green space in the most contaminated sites in England. Soils had been pigeonholed, quite wrongly, solely in ‘Agriculture’ and the agro lobbyists campaigning hard against a soil directive and indeed any other measures to tackle the massive threats to soil had inadvertently halted potential funding for increased and much necessary research.    

Biodiversity offsetting diverts the eyes yet further from progress in sustainable development towards the ongoing fight between conservation and development, a fight umpired by Planning. Planning in turn is attacked by those advocating Biodiversity Offsetting. Is this all simply to make green fields available to the development industry, an industry which contains many who had started to embrace sustainable development and would be able to measure its success through values by way of ecosystem services.

As BO (surely one of the worst acronyms to come out of environmental policy making) begins, after a couple of years, to finally get the attention it doesn’t deserve, it is apparent that few actually understand what it really will entail. This does not matter because all the proposals on offer are uniformly nonsense – asides one; the local one, an environmental type of planning gain within the immediate vicinity of necessary development where a local community can get involved in the design and implementation of a habitat for wildlife on their doorstep, next door to the new supermarket. Unfortunately the existence of biodiversity banks, murmurs of trading and bypassing of usual planning routes suggests this is far from what is contained within the policy makers’ briefcases.

The deafening silence surrounding BO betrays the fact that those involved know it is highly controversial. It is good to see the NGOs finally starting to become seriously concerned and thus the forthcoming green or white paper will be scrutinised properly.

Eminent landscape professionals have been voicing their concerns, with quotes ranging from describing BO as ‘weak sustainability’ to ‘in the words of Edmund Blackadder: ‘the only slight problem with this plan is that it’s bollocks’. Certainly BO is going to prove highly unpopular with landscapists and as little consideration has been given to either the Aarhus convention or European Landscape Convention some clashes are ascertained if BO allows for a bypassing of traditional planning routes, which seems a certainty in order make it as attractive as possible to developers.

Put all the above criticism of BO aside and the many, many other flaws aside and simply consider this:

We are supposed to place our trust in bankers with regards the biodiversity in our landscape?

That’s a hard sell indeed.

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