Life on the Edge - Working for Nature and Well-being in Outer London
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One of the main and most varied roles for qualified ecologists in the UK is as a County, District or Borough Ecologist or Biodiversity Officer, usually within a council’s Planning, Leisure or Environmental departments. The role can involve a wide variety of responsibilities, generally varying with the rural and urban nature of the authority’s area.
Harrow, a diverse, outer London borough, encompasses heavily built-up areas, industrial sites, extensive and assorted residential areas, transport land, open spaces and, concentrated within the green belt in the north of the borough, a chain of our largest, most important wildlife sites.
Whilst the Council’s own operations have significance in relation to the natural environment and its own land-holdings, it is through its partnerships with key stakeholder groups, awareness-raising, working with and influencing others, and its decision making - particularly via the planning system - where it has greatest potential to make a positive difference. Certainly, the relationships which I inherited or have since built up, within and beyond the Council, are crucial to my work.
I sit within Harrow’s Community Directorate, part of a policy and technical advisory team including our Landscape Architect, Tree Preservation Officer and Conservation (built heritage) Officer. Planning matters take up a large slice of my time. Whilst the majority of applications here are for extensions to existing properties and infill development, sites may adjoin or even include designated local wildlife sites. With larger, older buildings within the vicinity of woodland and waterbodies the potential presence of bats can be of concern. Despite the years which protected species legislation has been in place, case law, (the admittedly few) prosecutions, positive initiatives, e.g. the Partnership for Biodiversity in Planning, and best practice guidance, applications frequently lack the necessary supporting information or are provided only with consultants’ preliminary reports – apparently unread by architects/agents – despite these highlighting the need for follow-up surveys.
Where the Wild Things are. GiGL’s open data biodiversity hotspots layer (the brown-shaded hexagons) provides an excellent summary of the relative importance of different areas both (A) within and (B) outside (blue-hatched) local wildlife sites, as well as highlighting (C) gaps in recording effort and the need to support the collection and use of adequate biodiversity data for decision making (Harrow Council)
Although larger schemes tend to be better supported in this regard, few applications incorporate definite, detailed mitigation/enhancement measures. Rather than informing proposals from the outset this leaves them to be bolted on via condition, generally far too late in the design process to make the most of the opportunities. Developers and their advisers rarely consider ecological networks beyond a site’s red line or how development would impact on or could enhance this. Additional urban/London issues are that species and fragments of habitat seen as commonplace elsewhere are locally scarce, with scant opportunity for ‘replacement’, yet few assessments consider local context.
That might all seem rather negative but it’s here where local authority responses to the Climate and Biodiversity crises, introduction of policies in support of new Local (development) Plans, their integration with Green Infrastructure Strategies, Biodiversity Action Plans etc., and, especially, the local implementation of new Environment Bill (and similar) obligations could/should make a difference across the UK.
Identifying and assessing key components of both existing and potential high value in what will be Harrow’s bits of the new Local Nature Recovery Strategy (LNRS) area for London will be essential to this. Onsite mitigation and Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG) provision isn’t always the most practicable or desirable option. Like many local authorities, Harrow Council owns and manages a significant amount of green space, although, competing priorities mean this can be perceived as a management burden rather than a positive asset. Being able to offset developer’s BNG obligations to where this will be in keeping with LNRS goals, and support natural capital stewardship on Council (and other) land, would represent considerable steps forward in furthering local aspirations for biodiversity conservation and climate change adaptation whilst strengthening ecosystem services and improving access to nature.
This should also open up new ways to working with colleagues across Environmental Services, Housing, Education and elsewhere, facilitating positive outcomes and the nature of support we are able to offer to develop and empower volunteers - whose contribution will continue to be vital. This applies to key individuals, Friends groups under the umbrella of the Harrow Parks Forum and the Harrow Nature Conservation Forum’s voluntary wardens. (New volunteers always welcome!)
Our response to the recent Defra-funded Association of Local Government Ecologists/ADEPT survey showed that considerable additional capacity will be required in relation to preparing for and implementing Biodiversity Net Gain etc. obligations. This will be mirrored around the country at LNRS and individual authority level. With Defra having previously committed to providing additional resources, this should help transform the situation and create new job opportunities where, despite statutory biodiversity duties, some two-thirds of local authorities presently lack in-house ecological expertise (based on ALGE and ENDS Report findings).
Whilst some Councils presently also operate without reference to biodiversity evidence, data about the natural environment, LNRSs, those individual BNG agreements, monitoring their outcomes and the means to harness these data will be critical (including in relation to suggested changes to the planning system). The ongoing evolution of our relationship with Greenspace Information for Greater London, our local environmental records centre, will underpin efforts in Harrow – ideally fostering a seamless, sustainable approach nationally.
So, whilst there are various issues with BNG and its local implementation needing to be resolved, my current day to day work includes preparation for new opportunities and obligations – and the chance to better support nature’s recovery for the benefit of people and wildlife, locally and nationally, building on the pioneering work of colleagues in London, and elsewhere across ALGE.
Each day is different, some decidedly more productive than others, but against the larger backdrop of global environmental pressures, with the changes ahead and all public bodies having a key role to play, there has never been a more important or interesting time to be working as an ecologist in local government.
Steve Whitbread MCIEEM, FLS - Harrow Biodiversity Officer
First published in CJS Focus on Careers in Ecology & Biodiversity in association with CIEEM on 20 September 2021. Read the full issue here
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