How Councils And Developers Are Destroying Nature On Our Doorsteps – A Case Study. – G. J. Gamble

How Councils And Developers Are Destroying Nature On Our Doorsteps – A Case Study. – G. J. Gamble

In October 2020, following the beginnings of construction work on a new housing development along the western boundary of a rather sensitive Local Wildlife Site (and one of ‘my patches’) known as Barn Pool Meadow (pictured), I made contact with the local Council and housing Developer and presented a detailed written proposal for an almost cost-free management plan to bring the site back into favorable condition and place it at the heart of the community, under the guise of the ‘Barn Pool Meadow Restoration Project’. I have recently started a petition to fight the inaction and further destruction of this site that you can sign HERE.

Barn Pool Meadow is an eight acre area of rare calcareous grassland, mature hedgerows and scrub situated to the south of the town of Wigston in South Leicestershire. The meadow is a designated Local Wildlife Site and forms part of the wider Kilby-Foxton Canal and Lime Delves Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) thanks to a high biodiversity in water plants and animal life. Adjoined to Barn Pool Meadow is a former limestone quarry now flooded at the bottom; the steep sides of the pit contain an exposure of Blue Lias limestone which is of regional value because of its accessibility. This feature and underlying aquifers make the wider area a site of significant regional geological importance. Barn Pool Meadow is currently assessed by Natural England as being in ‘unfavorable condition’ owing to an absence of management and sadly much of the site has now reverted to rank vegetation and has undergone a prolonged period of biodiversity loss. The site is however, still notable for the Nationally scarce Tree Sparrow Passer montanus and thanks to my discovery last year, the only known colony of the rare Nationally Notable ‘B’ listed species of ant Myrmica schencki in Leicestershire (and most of the Midlands).

The 2012 Oadby and Wigston Water Cycle Strategy Background Report for the Core Strategy Development Plan highlights the poor state of Barn Pool Meadow and the wider Lime Delves SSSI. It also makes reference to recommendations from The Phase 1 Habitat Survey and Biodiversity Audit undertaken in 2005 on behalf of the Council that should development take place in the area, that biodiversity gain is achieved through ensuring the calcareous grassland is brought back into appropriate management. A larger boundary to the site would mitigate any loss of habitat elsewhere and would allow for strategic management of grassland, scrub, and trees and would assist with conserving farmland birds. Public access could also be achieved balancing recreational needs and ecological requirements so that further damage is not carried out on the site.

As of November 2021, Barratt Developments PLC, via David Wilson Homes have completed construction of the new housing development on the western boundary of the meadow. Thus far, the meadow remains abandoned and no such restoration work has taken place. The council’s own Green Infrastructure Plan, written in 2012, states that Kilby Bridge Quarry, Wigston is the one and only Regionally Important Geological and Geomorphological Sites within the Borough and this is situated immediately to the north of the railway line at Kilby Bridge and sits within the wider Local Wildlife Site designation known as Barn Pool Meadow. This site could be argued to be the most ecologically interesting within a wider agricultural landscape, but the quality of the habitat has deteriorated since its original designation as a Local Wildlife Site. Despite this, there has been no further management of the site. In fact, there has been no management of this site since it was designated a Local Wildlife Site back in 2006. Neither the Council or the Developer are currently fulfilling their promises or undertaking any of the agreed recommendations.

A map of Barn Pool Meadow prior to the new housing development which now sits to the left of the highlighted area.

What is interesting is that on my innitial approach to the Council and Developers, the Council were very positive about my proposal, the concerns I had raised and the reference to their commitments to the site. They immediately referred it to the Developer for discussion. I was included in email correspondence between the Council and Developers and my details were passed on to all parties – I was also given a direct contacts for the Developer. My proposal solved the problem of how to best manage the meadow and fulfill their commitments whilst also taking the onus (or burden) away from both the Council and the Developer – they would, in effect, not have to contribute anything (including extra finance). The Developers however, failed to acknowledge my correspondence, let alone respond to any of it – and we will see exactly why that is in a moment.

The importance of calcareous grassland cannot be overstated. A BAP listed habitat in almost terminal decline and extremely rare in Leicestershire and Rutland.

Taken from the Forest Research best practice guidance for land regeneration:

Current estimates suggest that up to 30,000 ha of lowland calcareous grassland remain in the UK, following significant decreases of about 13 000 ha in the area of this habitat between 1990 and 2007 (Natural Environment Research Council, 2009). Major concentrations are found on the chalk downs of Wiltshire, Dorset, Kent and Sussex, with other significant areas in the Chilterns, Mendips and Cotswolds, and along the limestone outcrops and coastal cliffs of north and south Wales. Only small areas are found in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Losses are mostly due to agricultural improvement and reductions in traditional grazing management practices. While natural calcareous grasslands typically develop on dry valley slopes, semi-natural calcareous grasslands can develop in areas disturbed by human activities, including on exposed rock in disused chalk and limestone workings, along road verges and railway cuttings, and on post-industrial land. The establishment of calcareous grassland on reclaimed land is contributing to UK national conservation targets for this priority habitat. Calcareous grasslands favour chalk and limestone soils, which are rich in calcium carbonate. They can have high species diversity; 1 m 2 can support up to 40 species of flowering plants. This diversity arises through a combination of mineral nutrient stress and grazing/cutting management, which prevents domination of the grassland by a few rank species.

These grasslands can also support nationally rare or scarce species such as Hoary Rock-rose (Helianthemum oelandicum) and Pasqueflower (Pulsatilla vulgaris), Monkey Orchid (Orchis simia) and Late Spider-orchid (Ophrys fuciflora). These grasslands can also support nationally rare or scarce species such as Hoary Rock-rose (Helianthemum oelandicum) and Pasqueflower (Pulsatilla vulgaris), Monkey Orchid (Orchis simia) and Late Spider-orchid (Ophrys fuciflora). Calcareous grasslands are associated with a diverse fauna, including some amphibian, bat and bird species of principal importance in England (Natural England, 2010). These include the Pool Frog (Pelophylax lessonae), the Common Pipistrelle bat (Pipistrellus pipistrellus) and the Corn Bunting (Miliaria calandra). Invertebrate species of principal importance in England associated with this habitat include varieties of ground and leaf beetles, butterflies (particularly members of the Hesperiidae (Skipper, see Figure 2) and Lycaenidae (Hairsteak, Copper and Blue families) and moths such as the Chalk Carpet (Scotopteryx bipunctaria).

Fast forward to this week and into my inbox falls an email, out of the blue, from the Planning Officer:

I’m in deep shock. I didn’t even know there was a new planning application?! 650 new homes?! It appears to have been slipped into the Council during February this year whilst the public’s main focus was of course the Covid-19 Pandemic. It is fair to say that this one has flown under the radar. I’m livid and suffice to say my response wasn’t particularly polite. The latest planning application (which, by the email above, seems all but approved) can be found HERE.

Let’s take a closer look. Below is a section of the Illustrative Masterplan (click the link to see the full size version with key) which shows Barn Pool Meadow post development (circled red). Note all of the yellow is intended housing.

I think we can finally see from this image exactly why the Developers chose not to engage with me – there was never any intention to ensure the calcareous grassland is brought back into appropriate management. Instead, they intend to build a main entry road right through the middle, dividing the site in two. I don’t think any amount of mitigation or any management regime will negate the horrendous damage the site will suffer being split in two by a road and with housing to be built on all sides this effectively makes Barn Pool Meadow an ecological island with no real means of safe dispersal or colonisation of wildlife thereafter. It is simply devastating.

More eye-opening still is the Ecological Appraisal that accompanies the planning application – it certainly makes for interesting, if a little contradictory reading. The report opens with the following, ominous phrase: This report contains sensitive information regarding protected species and should not be placed directly within the public domain.

And goes on:

Several grassland fields are designated non-statutory sites and surveys determined they do not meet the criteria for County Value sites. Sections of grassland habitat will be lost under proposals to facilitate access and provide attenuation. Recommendations have been made for protection and management of the retained habitat areas.1.5A number of badger setts have been recorded within the Site. The majority have been retained within the proposals together with connectivity and suitable foraging.

It is interesting to note the word ‘majority’ here, remembering this is a protected species. I am very familiar with the main sett on site and a few of the outlier setts further away. I’m also aware that the developer would require a licence from Natural England to destroy any sett. It’s not a very palatable idea – what is the point of a ‘protected species’ designation if in reality it means very little and can be routinely navigated. The Developers know it’s not very palatable either, because they go on to warn:

To ensure confidentially, the badger records provided are shown separately on Figure 2a – for animal welfare reasons this should be kept out of the public domain. Well. It’s out there now I guess. The report finally concludes:

the proposed layout will require the loss of a single outlier sett (S6) under licence from Natural England and such licences, including for temporary closure of S5, would normally only be granted between 1st July and 30th November. Shocking.

Lets have a look at the bird records for this survey from in and around this apparent ‘poor value site’. These are just the ‘Notable birds’ – those Red or Amber listed species:

That’s a pretty good list of scarce birds by my eye. Certainly a list worth preserving habitat for, no?

When Barn Pool Meadow was designated a Local Wildlife Site (LWS) in 2006, it had to fill certain criteria. The Wildlife Trust defines Local Wildlife Sites as follows:

Local Wildlife Sites are areas of land that are especially important for their wildlife. They are some of our most valuable wildlife areas. Local Wildlife Sites are identified and selected locally using scientifically-determined criteria and surveys. They are corridors for wildlife, forming key components of ecological networks. The Wildlife Trusts have worked with local authorities, statutory agencies, landowners and other local partners to establish effective systems for identifying, managing and monitoring Local Wildlife Sites.

Local Wildlife Sites are identified and selected locally using robust, scientifically-determined criteria and detailed ecological surveys. As a result, these special and often secret spaces have a huge part to play in the natural green fabric of our towns and countryside.

Just 15 years on from receiving that designation the Ecological Appraisal says, specifically of Barn Pool Meadow:

Detailed botanical survey and assessment against local site selection criteria (LCC, 2011)
concluded that neither Barn Pool Meadow LWS or Cooks Lane Pasture CLWS fulfilled the criteria. Both failing on the frequency and total number of mesotrophic grassland indicator species as detailed in the guidelines and one calcareous grassland indicators (fairy flax) was recorded in these grasslands. The grassland of Barn Pool Meadow LWS (F10) was noted to be in poor condition owing to the cover of scrub (around 10%) and dominance of an established tussock grassland. The sward of Cook’s Lane Pasture showed signs of over grazing with over 10% bare ground recorded on the initial survey.

Well yes, because since the designation was bestowed upon Barn Pool Meadow in 2006 there has been NO management, zilch, nothing. The site has simply been left to rot – a dereliction of duty, surely? A cynic might conclude that perhaps this was always a means to an end; make the site worthless enough that it can be built on without having to mitigate for biodiversity loss.

Talking of biodiversity – all modern developments should now not only mitigate against biodiversity loss but should in fact provide biodiversity net gains as part of a green infrastructure plan. Well, here are the ultimate findings of the Ecological Appraisal for Barn Pool Meadow:

The results of the assessment are based on the Illustrative Masterplan (ref. P20_0239 001 Rev C) demonstrate that the scheme will lead to a net loss in biodiversity for habitats and linear features. The onsite resources are valued at 115.72 units for habitats and 21.09 units for hedgerows. Taking into account habitat retention and following onsite habitat creation the proposed development will provide 91.95 units, a change of -23.77 units (20.54% decrease) for habitats. The development will provide 21.37 units for hedgerows, a change of +0.28 units (1.33% increase) for linear features. With a view to delivering this allocated site and also mitigating any shortfalls in biodiversity losses, if deemed necessary the developer, Barratt David Wilson could make a financial contribution.

So, the whole development will result in a biodiversity net loss and as such, the developer may offset those losses by chucking an extra bit of cash at the Council. I’m sure the wildlife will be grateful.

I am mindful as I type this that this isn’t a one off. Development schemes such as this are infecting villages, towns and cities the length and breadth of the UK. Slowly they are chipping away at and stripping our doorsteps of valuable wildlife and biodiversity, relatively unseen, unchallenged. Councils appear either ill-equipped to deal with the ecological aspects of such developments or are simply willing to turn a blind eye to fulfill their Government-set house building targets or make a bit of cash, having been underfunded and dealing with slashed budgets for over a decade. It’s tricky to lay the blame at any particular door and accountability is hard to find, but just in this single case study, one in which I have a deep interest, its clear to see where the failings are and what the effects of those failings will be. To be frank, this isn’t a local issue – this is a national issue.

We are all aware of those large scale infrastructure projects like HS2, ripping the heart out of acres after acre of valuable habitat. We are often outraged by them, but unless you live on the doorstep, they can often seem remote, far away and as such, unchangeable. But these local developments, they are on our doorsteps, they are attacking our first view of nature and our first line of defense against climate change. Combined they are unimaginable in scale and cause untold damage. Soon we will all be consigned to living in sterilised surroundings, just when access to nature from our own front door is more important than ever.

When I became an ‘environmentalist’ and ‘conservationist’ I had delusions of grand interventions in the fight to save wildlife and avert an ecological disaster, not just locally, but nationally, internationally. When I look at COP26 how can I blame any of those delegates for not getting anything done, for not achieving any real success, when as a committed environmentalist I can’t even protect, conserve and ultimately save my own ‘local patch’, let alone improve it?

If you want to lend me a helping hand, please sign the petition HERE

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