July 1, 2014 by combehavendefenders
Six months ago, government advisory body Natural England was asked by lawyers for an ‘urgent response’ over a ‘potentially serious breach’ of the great crested newt licence relating to construction work on the Link Road. To date, there has been no response.
Concerns over mitigation strategy
Combe Haven Defenders have been have been concerned for some time that the newt mitigation strategy was not being followed by East Sussex County Council and its contractors, leading to potentially very serious consequences for wildlife.
‘Potentially serious breach of newt licence’
In December 2013, we raised our concerns with solicitors specialising in environmental law. They sent a letter to Natural England detailing the issues. Natural England (NE) is the government body responsible for protecting the natural environment, including issuing – and monitoring – licences for work which might impact on protected species.
Natural England ignored the letter. Another letter was sent in January 2014, suggesting that there ‘may’ be a ‘potentially serious breach of the [great crested newt] licence.’
Urgent response requested: no response forthcoming
The letter said that the lawyers were seeking ‘an urgent review of the position’, and asked NE to make a ‘licensing monitoring visit urgently next week’. Almost six months later, Natural England has still to respond to the original letter. So much for urgency.
Damaged fencing and backwards badger gates
The letter to NE set out various issues of concern. These included:
1. The reptile exclusion fences [the green plastic fencing along the route] were in a bad state of repair at many locations, allowing newts (including great crested newts) to access the construction area;
2. Several of the one-way gates to prevent badgers from re-entering the development had been attached the wrong way round so that badgers could be trapped inside the construction area.
A year earlier…
Various issues of concern relating to great crested newts (GCN) were brought to the attention of Natural England by Combe Haven Defenders as long ago as October 2012. In particular, we were concerned that the contractors in charge of newt mitigation measures had not started trapping in time before clearance and construction of the road started.
30 nights in suitable weather
Under NE guidelines, newts are supposed to be trapped over a period of at least 30 suitable nights between March and October – that means, nights when the weather conditions are suitable. Air temperature has to be over 5°C, and there has to be rain, or if no rain, there should have been some rain in the last few days, such that the ground is damp.
Hence, a requirement to trap for 30 mights might mean that the actual trapping period could extend over several months as many nights will not be suitable for trapping. We did not believe that the contractors had been able to trap for 30 suitable nights between March and October, and therefore construction should not have been started.
Natural England: right hand…
We wrote to NE in October 2012 detailing our worries. We got a response from Kazz Lewis, who told us that:
‘I can confirm that the site in question does have a licence, EPSM2012-4719. Natural England are confident that the Method Statement and licence conditions are being met.’
…and left hand
We asked to see a copy of the licence, and got this reply from a different NE staff member, Karen Roberts:
‘I apologise but contrary to the information you were given by my colleague (Kazz Lewis) on 10 October 2012 the EPS Great Crested Newt Mitigation Licence for this site EPSM2012-4719, has to date not been issued by Natural England. As a consequence no licensable works should be taking place on site at present and if they are this would be a Police matter.’
It transpired that East Sussex County Council had, through its contractor, applied for a GCN licence in both August and September 2012, but both applications had been rejected. Undeterred, ESCC carried on with some very questionable work.
Work carries on without a licence
In the period before being granted a licence, ESCC permitted its contractors to put up reptile fencing and to do archaeological ‘scraping’ close to a pond which was known to contain GCNs. When the latter was brought to the attention of NE, their response was that ecologists were on site during the archaeological work to ensure no offences were committed, and that they had also had a site meeting with the police, who were happy that everything was being done properly.
It does rather beg the question: if contractors can get away with doing licensable work without a licence, simply by having ecologists on hand, what’s the point of the licence?
500 newts: where are they now?
In January 2013, we had contacted PC Nick Marriott, the local police wildlife crime officer, about palmate newts. The newt mitigation strategy stated that there was a large population of palmate newts in a pond (pond 46) in the railway cutting underneath the Ninfield Road bridge in Sidley, with over 500 newts having been found in one visit.
Although palmate newts are not a protected species, as GCN are, the exceptional population had been considered worthy of being conserved. To that end, the mitigation strategy required that the newts (including some GCN) were to be trapped, and removed to new ponds which were to be built in a field not far away, to the west of the railway cutting near Glover’s Farm – ponds a,b and c on this map:
New ponds not built
Despite visiting the area frequently that winter, we had never seen any evidence of newt trapping. Further, the new ponds to which the newts were supposed to be translocated had never been built, even though by this point the original pond was under several feet of hardcore. Today, some 18 months later, the ponds have still not been built, although someone has stuck some wooden posts in the field which may suggest an intention to build them. Not much help though to the newts which were supposed to be relocated into them. Whether the newts were ever relocated, and where to, remains a mystery.
Nothing to see here
We raised these issues with PC Marriott. He consulted with the site ecologist, who told him that the newts had been moved prior to the work starting, and relocated in other ponds – although clearly not the ones they were supposed to be relocated in. We asked for evidence of this, but simply got the brush off from PC Marriott:
I note your comments. He has given me a suitable explanation and I have no reason not to believe him. The guide lines I have are clear, and they are to investigate ''wildlife crime'
PC Marriott said that he was happy with the explanation, did not consider it a crime, and would not be pursuing the issue any further. So that was that.
Newt fencing not maintained
By the summer of 2013, newt fencing was up across the valley. This fencing is designed to prevent newts and reptiles from accessing the construction area. However, in June that year we noticed that the fencing was in a very poor state of repair, and could not have prevented newts accessing the site. We sent the following email to NE:
There is extensive reptile and newt fencing across the Combe Valley, which we believe is required to be kept in place and in good condition until the end of construction. When we walked the route of the road last weekend, we saw that in several places the fencing was damaged – photos attached.
We would be grateful if you could let us know whether this is a breach of the terms of the licence, and if so, whether Natural England would be in a position to take action to enforce the licensing requirements.
We attached several photos of the damaged fencing, including this one:
Our email was ignored, as were two follow-up emails. It would appear that Natural England finds that the best way of dealing with members of the public who raise concerns is just to ignore them in the hope that sooner or later, they’ll go away.
Natural England: safeguarding our natural wealth
On its website, NE says:
‘We provide practical advice, grounded in science, on how best to safeguard England’s natural wealth for the benefit of everyone…. Put simply, our aim is to create a better natural environment that covers all of our urban, country and coastal landscapes, along with all of the animals, plants and other organisms that live with us.’
To stress the point, NE goes on to say that ‘Our remit is to ensure sustainable stewardship of the land and sea so that people and nature can thrive’. Sounds good, doesn’t it?
Natural England chair wanted: investment banker preferred
However, NE’s environmental credentials start to appear slightly less impressive when you discover that in January 2014, Andrew Sells was appointed as chair. As environmental writer and activist George Monbiot puts it:
‘You want to appoint a new chairman for Natural England, the government body responsible for protecting nature.
Do you look for:
a. someone with a background in ecology and a track record of interest in the natural world?
b. A Tory donor with a background in accountancy, investment banking and house building?
Doh! b. of course. What were you thinking?
Venture capital and housebuilding….
According to NE, ‘in his early career Andrew qualified as a Chartered Accountant prior to spending some 10 years with Schroders plc and then almost 20 years managing venture capital funds’. He also founded a large housebuilding company, and is treasurer of the Conservative thinktank Policy Exchange.
…and donations to the Conservative party
There would appear to be very few reasons why Andrew Sells should be put in charge of a major environmental organisation. George Monbiot suggests that it could have something to do with his £110,000 donation to the Conservative party, which is surely a little cynical. Perhaps he really is an environmentalist: after all, he has planted some trees on his farm, and which of us can say we’ve done that?
More roadbuilding = more wildlife deaths
It may not be long before we see a huge increase in roadbuilding in East and West Sussex. Recently, local MPs, county councils and businesses came together to launch A27 Action, calling for the A27 to be expanded in places and bypassed in others. Much of the roadbuilding would take place in the fragile and precious South Downs. No matter how good your mitigation strategy (and even if you are made to stick to it, as Link Road contractors have not been), you cannot build a road without causing very serious harm to wildlife, and anyone who says you can is deluding themselves.
Environment manager: no animals harmed in the making of this road
However: when we spoke to Mark White, environment manager for the road, at the recent construction exhibition in Sidley, he assured us that not a single animal of a protected species had been harmed during construction. So we can sleep easy in our beds: our wildlife is safe with East Sussex County Council and Natural England.