Category Archives: Environment

The Salty Puffin

Wexford, Ireland

No, it’s not the name of a new eaterie, but a rather weak pun.  At the age of sixty-something, I have finally seen puffins in the wild.  The location was Great Saltee, the larger of the two Saltee Islands off Ireland’s south Wexford coast.  The other island, unsurprisingly, is Little Saltee.

Anyone who immediately thinks of Compton Mackenzie’s fictional Great Todday and Little Todday [1] should put them out of mind.  The Saltees are very different indeed.

According to the island’s website [2], the privately owned Great Saltee is the most famous bird sanctuary in Ireland.  It is designated a Special Protection Area under the EU’s Birds Directive [3].  Weather permitting, a small fast ferry from Kilmore Quay takes visitors almost to the shore, but the shallow approach requires a transfer into a stout rubber dinghy for the final few yards.  Wear trousers and boots that you don’t mind dunking in sea water!

There is only one occupied building on the island, a house used at times by the owning family and surrounded by several derelict barns or cottages.  There are no other residents, no loos, no camping sites, no cafés, no shelters, no “visitor centre”, and no “interpretation boards”.  Just a few day-trippers, including twitchers, and an awesome number of birds.

Most of the birds congregate on and in the cliffs on the north side of the island.  Not being a bird-watcher, my recognition skills are limited.  But from pictures I know a puffin when I see one.  And a couple of dozen were on easy view, occasionally disappearing in pairs into holes burrowed into the cliff sides.  After all, it is the breeding season.

Puffins are stunning to watch in flight.  Their bright orange webbed feet, matching the colour of their bill, flap furiously and appear to help them change direction before landing, rather like aircraft ailerons.  They are also beautiful to look at when standing still.

A striking feature of the north coast of Great Saltee is the noise.  Birds are not quiet, and when gathered in large groups sound raucous.  What the island’s website describes the “muttered growls” of the guillemot resemble a revving diesel engine when they are growling collectively.

I think I spotted choughs (though they might have been oystercatchers) and various varieties of gull, none as unpleasant – visually or temperamentally – as the scavengers of England’s westcountry coasts.

For getting to know a bit about birds in an “away-from-it-all” setting, a visit to Great Saltee is hard to beat.  I’m really glad I went.  And seeing puffins at long last will be one of those lasting pleasures.

NOTES:

[1]  In his comic novel Whisky Galore, first published in 1947.

[2]  http://www.salteeislands.info/Index2.htm

[3]  A legal protection that would presumably disappear in the UK if we leave the EU.

Is it really #GreenerIn ?

The EU is seen as a defender of the environment, but is this still true today?

Caroline Lucas MP and others have argued that the UK’s membership of the EU has led to significant environmental protection measures that UK governments would have been unlikely to take themselves [1].  Lucas cites pollution control and wildlife protection as important EU measures.  As she says, “Pollution and environmental degradation don’t respect national borders.”

Few people would argue with this.  But it’s a big step from there to say that our environment will always be safe in the EU of the future.  The current European Commission, which took office at the end of 2014, has a less sympathetic view of environmental protection than its predecessors.  For the clearest available evidence of this, it is worth reading in full Chairman Juncker’s letter of appointment to the Environment Commissioner, Karmenu Vella [2].  It’s worth remembering that of all the EU institutions, only the Commission can propose legislation.

In the past, Environment Commissioners have been able, by and large, to plough their own furrow.  Not any more.  The Juncker Commission has several Vice-Presidents, whose job is to coordinate the work of the single portfolio Commissioners.

Juncker’s letter to Vella’s clearly limits his room for manoeuvre:

“You will, in particular, contribute to projects steered and coordinated by the Vice-President for Jobs, Growth, Investment and Competitiveness and the Vice-President for Energy Union. For other initiatives requiring a decision from the Commission, you will, as a rule, liaise closely with the Vice-President for Jobs, Growth, Investment and Competitiveness.”

And then, just to rub it in:

“The EU has a well-developed environment policy with a rather complete and mature legal framework.”   

In other words, no more legislation, please.  Unless, of course, it is to simplify and render more business-friendly existing legislation.  Vella is told that his first specific task is:

“Continuing to overhaul the existing environmental legislative framework to make it fit for purpose. In the first part of the mandate, I would ask you to carry out an in-depth evaluation of the Birds and Habitats directives and assess the potential for merging them into a more modern piece of legislation.”

No prizes for guessing what “modern” means.

None of this is to argue for or against Brexit.  It’s simply to remind ourselves that in public policy, as with investments, past performance is no guide to the future.

NOTES:

[1]  See for example https://www.opendemocracy.net/uk/caroline-lucas/its-time-to-make-progressive-case-for-staying-in-eu .

[2]  http://ec.europa.eu/commission/sites/cwt/files/vella_en.pdf

Reopening Devon’s second main railway line: impacts in pictures

Burn Valley and Brent TorThis is the valley of the River Burn between North Brentor and Mary Tavy in west Devon. The Campaign to Protect Rural England wants to build a main line railway through it.

My blog The wrong kind of evidence on the line challenged the CPRE’s claim that its recent report made a case for reopening the dismantled railway line between the Devon towns of Okehampton and Tavistock. The trackbed runs along the north and west edges of Dartmoor. The scheme would form part of a larger project, supported by the Plymouth business lobby, for a second main line between Plymouth and Exeter. Further background in my other blog – please read it.

This new blog attempts to show pictorially the changes and damage that rebuilding the dismantled line would cause. It’s worth remembering that the line would need to be rebuilt to modern engineering and safety standards: it wouldn’t be a case of just chopping away some trees and bushes and then laying the track.

Click on the pictures for a bigger view!

Impact on cyclists and walkers

The stretch of trackbed between Okehampton and Lydford forms part of national cycle route 27, as well as a generally flat path for walkers.

Sourton Down cycleway

Trackbed as cycleway at Sourton Down

Meldon Viaduct, Okehampton end

Meldon Viaduct, Okehampton end

Though some parts of the path have trees and bushes on either side (which form a useful windbreak), there are stunning views too.

Looking north-east from Meldon Viaduct

Looking north-east from Meldon Viaduct

The Tavistock viaduct is a very attractive footpath with fine views of the town. It seems unlikely there would be room for pedestrians and cyclists if the railway were put back in place.

View from Tavistock viaduct

View from Tavistock viaduct

Rail safety regulations would specify a minimum distance, as well as barriers, between the railway line and a cycle path or footpath, so not only would peace and quiet go out of the window but also the landtake would be significant.

Impact on homes and farms

Most, perhaps all, of the old trackbed south of Lydford is in private ownership. Some is now in farm use, and elsewhere stations buildlings have been converted into private homes with the trackbed itself forming part of the garden.

Brentor stn view twds Tav

Brentor station is now a private house and garden

At Tavistock, offices and private houses surround the old North station and block the viaduct.

Housing at Tavistock North station

Housing at Tavistock North station

House at east end of Tavistock viaduct

House at east end of Tavistock viaduct

Impact on structures

Meldon Viaduct is a structure of historic interest. Whether it could be strengthened to take trains again seems doubtful since Network Rail have in the past said a new structure would be needed if the line were to reopen.

Meldon Viaduct

Meldon Viaduct

Elsewhere, stone overbridges have disappeared and would have to be replaced. Network Rail bridge architecture is not renowned for its sensitivity to the natural environment.

Missing bridge over a road at Prewley Moor

Missing bridge over a road at Prewley Moor

 Impact on wildlife

I’m no wildlife expert but it’s reasonable to assume that those parts of the trackbed now covered in vegetation are home to all manner of beesties.

Trackbed at North Brentor bridge

Trackbed at North Brentor bridge

Impact on landscape and tranquillity

Although the rumble of the A30 traffic is audible around Meldon, the area around Brentor and Mary Tavy is silent save for the occasional bleating of sheep. It is unspoilt and nature has reabsorbed the dismantled railway back into the landscape.

Mary Tavy

Mary Tavy

As a lobbying group, the CPRE ought to take seriously the government’s stated policy that the natural environment can be valued as part of any investment appraisal process. Sadly, there’s no evidence that this figures in CPRE’s current thinking about reopening rural railways.

The wrong kind of evidence on the line

The Campaign to Protect Rural England – CPRE – used to pride itself on evidence-based (or at least evidence-backed) lobbying. The publication last month of a report on the rebuilding and reopening of the old railway route across Devon between Okehampton and Tavistock [1] raises questions as to whether spin has now got the upper hand at CPRE HQ.

For those unfamiliar with Devon and its railways, the key facts are these. Before the Beeching closures in the 1960s there were two main line routes between Exeter and Plymouth: one south of Dartmoor via Dawlish and Totnes, and one to the north of Dartmoor via Okehampton and Tavistock. Following Beeching the latter line was closed to passenger traffic and the track between Meldon Quarry (just west of Okehampton) and Bere Alston (south of Tavistock) removed. Within this 15-mile “gap”, much of the trackbed is now part of the national cycling network and the rest in private hands. Following the two-month long closure of the remaining main line when the sea wall at Dawlish was breached in the winter of 2014, there has been considerable debate about the value of reopening the line via Okehampton.

Now back to CPRE.

In his foreword to the report CPRE’s Chief Executive states: “this report makes a compelling case as to the economic, social and environmental benefits of restoring sections of rail lines that were axed in the 1960s, turning them from dead ends into through routes again.”

The CPRE press release is similarly bullish: “a new report from the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) has today found that the case for reopening rural railways in England is becoming irresistible.” [2]

Having long argued for a Plymouth-Exeter route that avoided the Dawlish sea wall, the local business lobby lapped this up. The head of the Local Enterprise Partnership was quoted as saying in relation to the idea of reopening: “Improved connectivity will increase productivity and growth by enabling economic sites across rural areas to be opened up for increased business.” [3]

Now to be fair to the authors of the report, they are a bit more cautious about what can be claimed. They point out that they are not making an investment case itself, but rather that the findings “offer a basis for developing an updated business case” (p8).

However, the authors state the focus of the report is the “local social and economic impacts” of a new line (p6). The evidence for these “impacts” are drawn from interviews, a literature review (primarily the West Devon Borough Council Local Plan and some business surveys), and a workshop at which “experts….validated the findings” (p6).

Having defined its focus, the report wanders off into unrelated territory. For example, it states that one of the factors to be considered in an investment appraisal is “Meeting the strategic needs of the naval dockyard in Plymouth” (p7). However much one may admire the Royal Navy, this objective is at some distance from CPRE’s own charitable goals.

There are vague and unsubstantiated statements. For example, the Dartmoor National Park Authority is held to appreciate “the obvious benefits that improved connectivity will bring to Dartmoor” without giving an inkling as to what these benefits are (p17)

The section on the local economy and its development (pp19-22) regurgitates a load of information from the Local Plan and the LEP’s Strategic Plan, but doesn’t link any of this to the rail investment case. There is one reference to a separate survey of businesses which found that 53% of the 300-plus businesses questioned reported that poor public transport links were seen as contributing to difficulties in recruiting staff. The CPRE report does not point out that this survey covered two other district council areas in addition to West Devon, nor does it record that only 20% of the businesses in West Devon identified public transport as inhibiting recruitment [4].

Many statements simply do not support the contention that there are economic and social benefits from reopening. Take four examples.

First, an investment appraisal factor is “The enlargement of the Exeter catchment both in terms of travel to work/education and more widely for day out/shopping” (p7). It’s not clear why encouraging people to spend in Exeter is an economic benefit to the rural areas, nor indeed why anyone is going to travel from Tavistock round the northern edge of Dartmoor to Exeter when Plymouth is bigger and nearer.

Second, the report notes that there are high levels of commuting from West Devon to Plymouth and Exeter, contrary to the Council’s policy aim of residents finding employment within West Devon. So it’s a bit surprising that anyone should be enthusiastic about making it even easier to commute out of West Devon (p16).

Third, presumably as evidence of the need for the rebuilt railway, the report cites a business based in Holsworthy complaining how difficult it is to find transport services to send employees away for training (p18). OK, but Holsworthy is 20 miles from Okehampton and 23 miles from Tavistock.

Fourth, health. The report notes that people needing acute hospital services travel to Plymouth if they’re in the Tavistock area and to Exeter if they’re in the Okehampton area. It also notes that the “main hospital sites are poorly located for future access by train” (p19) so no help there for the investment case.

Perhaps the biggest weakness of the report is that it fails to make any coherent case for joining up the gap between Okehampton and Tavistock. The attitudinal survey reports that Okehampton residents are interested in a train service to Exeter (where the track remains in place) but not to Plymouth (p26). There are complaints about the bus service, which could be resolved far more cheaply than rail reopening by local authority subsidy. Similarly, Tavistock residents favoured a rail link to Plymouth, but said nothing about getting to Exeter (p31).

The report is more convincing when it reviews the practicalities involved in rebuilding the line. Not least the challenge of what to do with the Victorian iron-built Meldon Viaduct, now a much loved cycle route and public footpath, and the need to demolish houses in Tavistock that have been constructed on the trackbed (pp37-39). Retaining the amenity of the 6-mile cycle route is also recognised as a challenge, though one suggestion is to reroute it well to the north, thus ruling out any realistic possibility of its use by cycling commuters between Okehampton and Tavistock, a policy that CPRE campaigns for nationally.

What on earth is the CPRE doing promoting all this? The organisation that has demonstrated how tranquillity in the English countryside is being lost now supports a scheme that would lead to noisy diesel trains (we don’t get new trains down here in the southwest) belching fumes into the atmosphere, shoving walkers and cyclists aside, and destroying peoples’ homes. See my related blog for pictures of the impacts. The scheme would also, on the report’s own admission, lead to increased car traffic to the new railhead stations which – particularly at Okehampton – would involve the development of park and ride facilities, necessarily on greenfield.

There may indeed be a case for rebuilding a railway between Tavistock and Okehampton. The CPRE’s report does not make it, and nor do the report’s authors claim that it does. But the spin given to the report, not least the unsubstantiated claim in the CEO’s foreword quoted above, means that a document with an ambivalent evidence base will continue to be held up as a “compelling case” for destroying a much-valued and accessible area of tranquillity in West Devon.

NOTES:

[1] Rural Reconnections – the social benefits of rail reopening, written by Greengauge 21 for CPRE, June 2015, available at http://www.cpre.org.uk/resources/transport/rail/item/3986-rural-reconnections

[2] http://www.cpre.org.uk/media-centre/latest-news-releases/item/3987-persuasive-case-for-un-beeching-south-west-railway-has-national-implications

[3] Western Morning News, 17 June 2015, Inland rail link ‘vital’ to unlocking the South West’s potential at http://www.westernmorningnews.co.uk/Inland-rail-link-8216-vital-8217-unlocking-South/story-26707587-detail/story.html

[4] DR Business Survey: South Hams, Teignbridge and West Devon, March 2015, at http://drcompany.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/DR-Business-Survey-Final-Report-Mar-2015.doc.pdf See the chart on p22.

Local austerity – how the environment and the people lose out

Like other local authorities across England, Devon County Council is having to make cuts to services in the name of the god Austerity. The Council’s Tough Choices consultation invites the public to comment on where the cuts should fall. Does it really?

One consultation in progress is the public transport budget, where Devon says it needs to make savings of £1.76m out of a budget of £5.77m, or nearly one-third of the total [1]. To achieve this, bus services across the county will be reduced, following a withdrawal of subsidies to the bus operators. Councillors decided to go out to consultation on the proposal, even though they recognised the environmental and social downsides set out in the officer report [2]. These are:

  • reducing the scope of bus services as an alternative mode of travel to the car
  • a consequent likely increase in traffic
  • increased vehicle emissions
  • increased greenhouse gas and other emissions
  • reduced public transport network resilient to future effects of climate change
  • reduced sustainability of communities served by council funded bus routes that will have a reduced level of service in the future
  • reducing the ability of people without a car to travel to work
  • a negative impact on knowledge and skills, employment levels, and local businesses

It gives more than pause for thought that any public body is prepared to implement policies with these results.

Meanwhile, the Devon highways budget is also under scrutiny. The budget for maintenance alone is currently a hefty £63.8m [3]. The saving the County Council intends to make here is £3.4m, or 5%. The goal is to “find different, more cost-effective ways of doing things and that non-essential work is stopped so that we can maintain a safe and effective highway network while helping to support economic growth”[4]. The proposed reductions put forward for consultation, and which look likely to be implemented are:

  1. Reduction of gritting and snow-clearing flee
  2. Change of criteria for gritting and snow-clearing routes
  3. Stop maintaining grit bins
  4. Closure of picnic sites
  5. Stopping grass cutting (except for visibility areas)
  6. Stopping weed treatment
  7. Remodelling of the parish lengthsmen service
  8. Reduction in Neighbourhood Highway Team staffing

The impact assessment of these cuts acknowledges they are expected to make life worse for some people, particularly in rural areas [5]. However they do not have the long-term environmental impacts envisaged for the public transport cuts.

The extent of Devon County Council’s commitment to social and environmental improvement is revealed in other savings measures. A cheap cut is the proposed £0.1m saving from reducing school crossing patrols, which will lead to increased car use as parents drive their children to school and, in the words of the officer report, “Increases in motorised travel will have the double effect of reducing daily activity levels and increasing collision risks for those children who continue to travel on foot.” [6].   UPDATE 14 February:  Devon County Council’s Cabinet decided yesterday not to proceed with the school crossing patrol savings.

Apart from the social and environmental vandalism, what is striking about all these measures is that they are easy to implement.  By contrast, the main highways budget is spent through a long-running contract with a private company, South West Highways, recently extended to 2017.  As is so often the case, the relationship between the commissioner and the contractor gets very close. In this case, the Council and SWH have set up a “Virtual Joint Venture” [7].  Council and SWH staff are co-located at County Hall and in the local delivery units, which gives SWH easy access to the driving seat. Under the current contract, SWH receives a fee of 2% of turnover.

Dismantling any of this would be considerably more difficult than cutting a subsidy or sacking a few lollipop ladies. And of course reducing highways spending in a roads-dependent county like Devon would have the economic growth lobby up in arms. So should we be surprised that the axe is falling on the easy targets rather than on the substantial contracted highways budget, irrespective of the social and environmental consequences?

It’s unlikely that Devon County Council is the only local authority making the same judgement calls.  But that doesn’t mean they are good ones.  The real villain, of course, is Austerity.

Notes:

[1] http://www.devon.gov.uk/index/councildemocracy/decision_making/cma/cma_report.htm?cmadoc=report_sc152.html

[2] http://www.devon.gov.uk/index/councildemocracy/decision_making/cma/cma_document.htm?cmadoc=minutes_exc_20150114.html, minute 280

[3] https://new.devon.gov.uk/roadsandtransport/maintaining-roads/

[4] https://new.devon.gov.uk/highwaysbudget/background/background-information

[5] https://new.devon.gov.uk/highwaysbudget/files/2014/10/Highways-budget-impact-assessment-2015-to-16.pdf

[6] http://www.devon.gov.uk/cma_report.htm?cmadoc=report_pte152.html

[7] http://www.devon.gov.uk/index/councildemocracy/decision_making/cma/cma_report.htm?cmadoc=report_hcw141.html