MCFly #02: The Biodiversity Action Plan 2012-16

MCMonthly’s Everything you wanted to know about ‘The Biodiversity Action Plan 2012-16‘ but were afraid to ask. 

The Manchester Biodiversity Action Plan 2012 – 2016 has just been finalised by Manchester City Council. This plan replaces the Manchester Biodiversity Action Plan 2005 – 2011. The plan begins with three pre-ambles which are related to:

Objectives achieved as a result of the previous plan.

A section which puts the plan into International, European, UK and Greater Manchester contexts.

Some descriptions of the updated objectives of the new plan.

The detailed action plan itself is presented as a series of tables at the end of the document. There are six different headings:

Climate Change

It’s very striking that 8 out of the 9 action points under this heading are new. It’s not unlikely that the authors of the plan are aware that at the Nagoya Conference on Biodiversity in 2010, Ahmed Djoghlaf, the Secretary General of the UN Convention of Biological Diversity, criticised countries for separating action on climate change from protecting biodiversity:

“The loss of biodiversity exacerbates climate change … Climate change cannot be solved without action on biodiversity and vice versa.” One objective, under this heading is: “To investigate extent, availability and possible uses of biomass.” This is an interesting and timely concept. Habitat management yields huge amounts of biomass and to be able to find a sustainable and non-polluting use for it would be a big step forward.

Land Management

There are 31 actions listed under this heading, of which 13 are new. The aspiration, which is a very noble one, is to introduce wildlife friendly management methods into all public and private green spaces. Unfortunately, history suggests that it may be difficult to persuade various contractors to conform to such methods.

Data Mapping

There are 19 actions under this heading, of which 9 are new. The document recognises that the relatively recent establishment of the Greater Manchester Local Records Centre (GM LRC) is a big step forward. This will allow the current distribution of species to be accurately mapped, important sites which require protection to be identified and future changes in the distributions of species monitored.

Planning, Policy and Legislation

There are 16 actions under this heading, of which 2 are new. One of these new objectives is: “To achieve [the] Natural England Target of one hectare of LNR (Local Nature Reserve) per 1,000 [of] population.” This is a fine objective but so much open land has been concreted over in recent years one wonders where these LNRs are to be established?

Community Engagement, Partnership Working

There are 33 actions under this heading, of which 8 are new. An interesting objective is: “To develop new partnerships to encourage the use of nature for improving health, quality of life and community cohesion.” A recent experience of mine suggests that there may be an opportunity to unite the diverse communities that make up modern Manchester as a result of the fascination that many people’s children tend to have for nature.

Conserving and Enhancing Biodiversity

There are 13 actions under this heading, one of which is new: “To create new ponds and better management of water for wildlife across the city.” A small number of case studies are included in the plan – one of which caught my eye:

“Leveshulme High School’s thriving wildlife area was blessed with a wide variety of flora and fauna and was well used by pupils and staff for recreational and educational purposes. However, the future of the site was threatened by new construction work that was planned as part of the Building Schools for the Future programme. Thanks to the commitment and passion of one teacher, the wildlife area was relocated to another part of the school grounds.”

I find this story to be somewhat disturbing, and rather than a cause for celebration I strongly suspect that it reveals a deep, underlying malaise in the Council’s attitude towards biodiversity. First, why was it the responsibility of the teacher to highlight the problem?

The educational authorities, the planners and the developers should all have been aware of legislation and regulations, such as the NERC Act 2006 and PPS9, which gave them a statutory duty to take wildlife into account; I can only infer that they chose not to take that duty seriously(?). Second, there is now a generation of children in Levenshulme who have been taught that if wildlife is in an inconvenient place it can just be moved; an approach which is not only ecologically unsound but positively obtuse and insensitive.

I suspect that there are several powerful and influential people in the Town Hall who, in their heart of hearts, don’t really believe that biodiversity is important. I also suspect that they think that all they have to do to fulfil the new duties that they are faced with is to write a glossy strategy document, plant a few trees, install a few green roofs, encourage a bit of wildlife gardening and ensure that kids have ‘nature study’ lessons. Then they can ‘tick the box’ and move on to concreting everything over.

It has to be said that those of us who love Manchester’s wildlife are very depressed and demoralised at the moment and I think that we have very good reasons for being so. When attempting to assess how significant this plan is, it’s important to realise that, in spite of the Plan’s rather self-congratulatory rhetoric, in 2012 Manchester’s wildlife has never been at such low ebb or so depleted.

I first moved to Chorlton 40 years ago. I soon discovered the Mersey Valley and its plant life. I was then developing an interest in wild plants and spent many happy Sunday afternoons on Chorlton Meadows developing my identification skills. I soon realised that the area was far richer in wildlife than I had at first imagined. As well as an impressive variety of plant life there were butterflies, moths and other invertebrates, frogs and toads, a rich variety of bird species, and mammals such as Brown Hares and Water Voles (both now UK Biodiversity Action Plan Priority Species). Granted, lots of land had been extensively tipped on in previous decades, and motorway construction had caused a huge amount of damage, even so, I considered the Mersey Valley to be my “open air University” in which I learned much of what I now know about the natural world.

In the late 1970s the establishment of the Mersey Valley under the Mersey Valley Joint Committee (MVJC) was, at first, a big step forward, but important opportunities were missed and big mistakes made, for example, many key habitats were not recognised for their importance and too many trees were planted in inappropriate places. Nevertheless, active management of many sites was better than nothing.

In 1987 the Greater Manchester Council was abolished by the Tory government of the time; this event marked a sort of watershed and the biodiversity of the Mersey Valley has been in decline ever since. Stockport Council broke away from the MVJC soon after abolition of the GMC and Trafford Council eventually reduced its funding contribution in 2006. But, more importantly, I noticed that attitudes towards wildlife changed drastically. From then on wildlife went to the bottom of the list of priorities and the focus was almost completely on access and ‘informal recreation’.

Unlimited access has caused many serious problems for local wildlife. For example more and more people began exercising their dogs in the Mersey Valley and in a very short time we lost all of our Brown Hares – which could not co-exist with dogs. Additionally important unimproved grassland at Chorlton Ees was once regularly mowed and the hay sold to local livestock owners. With increased use, the site became contaminated with dog faeces, the livestock owners refused to take the hay and the site became overgrown. In recent years a vandal has been observed setting fire to the site with a blowlamp; it is now utterly ruined.

The Warden Service has been progressively cut back over the past 20 years or so. There were around 20 Mersey Valley Wardens in 1990; now there are just six. An important casualty of these cuts has been ecologically sound habitat management; many sites are now overgrown and choked with scrub.

Before the abolition of the GMC there was some consistency, in terms of biodiversity policy, across local authority boundaries but it is not clear if there is much communication at all at the present time; the existence of the Greater Manchester Biodiversity Action Plan suggests that there should be, but I don’t see much evidence of it on the ground. It’s important to realise that wildlife does not recognise arbitrary human boundaries!

Through the 1990s the situation went from bad to worse. Local entomologist Peter Hardy best summed up the situation in his book ‘The Butterflies of Greater Manchester’ (1998):

“The pattern of events in the Mersey Valley is typical of many parts of Greater Manchester … more and more schemes for building new roads and widening existing ones, and development of new industrial sites and shopping precincts, sometimes in what had appeared to be sacrosanct “green belt” locations …

Cutbacks in local authority expenditure on warden services and environmental education, along with the ever-increasing trend towards “market testing” and privatisation, result in every available scrap of land being looked at with calculation of how much profit it could generate if put to commercial use. There is also too much of a tendency to regard patches of naturally regenerating land as “eyesores” needing “tidying up”, a reluctance to let Nature carry out the restoration and an obsession with artificially “restoring” disturbed ground by planting, often with totally inappropriate vegetation; land which escapes being built over risks being converted into manicured grass or planted with non-native trees or shrubs.”

The publication of the Manchester Biodiversity Strategy in 2005 gave those of us who value local wildlife hope that the situation might improve. Alas, our confidence was totally misplaced because in the years since 2005 our biodiversity has experienced its greatest blow for decades: Metrolink.

The old abandoned railway lines between Chorlton and Old Trafford and Chorlton and East Didsbury had developed a rich biodiversity over nearly five decades. Unfortunately, these were chosen for Metrolink routes and the wildlife has been lost. If that weren’t bad enough the airport line is currently being built and will cross the Mersey near Jackson’s Boat. It will run down Hardy Lane and straight through the Lower Hardy Farm Site of Biological Importance (SBI) which has now been bull-dozed. This particular SBI had a very unusual flora for the Mersey Valley and, in my opinion, should have been the Valley’s most important SBI. Apparently, while all of this wildlife was being destroyed, the authors of the new strategy were blithely writing lines like this:

“Manchester produced its Biodiversity Strategy and its first five-year action plan in 2005 with the key aim to protect and enhance biodiversity in the city for current and future generations. Since then we have made great strides towards this ambitious aim.”

It’s worth mentioning, at this point, that Transport for Greater Manchester has, through, its ‘Wildlife Habitat and Tree Replacement Policy’ promised that:

“In carrying out its development programme TfGM recognises an obligation to conserve, protect, and where possible, enhance the natural environment and to mitigate the impact on biodiversity and therefore to protect important wildlife habitats and to take full accounts of new developments on wildlife itself. In addition management and after-care arrangements should be put in place for new habitats to ensure they remain safe, attractive and good for wildlife in the longer term …”

Unfortunately, it looks as if, in reality, TfGM and their contractors are adopting the usual brutal ‘rape-and-pillage’ approach to the “natural environment” with a few facile, tokenistic, cosmetic touches pasted on.

Conclusion

On balance, this is a good plan which says all the right things, but the big, big question is: will it be implemented? Does it map out a way forward, or is it just a box ticking exercise? In my opinion it’s essential that we environmentalists put pressure on both Manchester City Council and TfGM to ensure that they keep to their written promises.

Dave Bishop
Friends of Chorlton Meadows

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About arwafreelance

Freelance journalist based in the UK with an interest in the Middle East, environmental issues, Islam-related topics and social issues such as regeneration.
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6 Responses to MCFly #02: The Biodiversity Action Plan 2012-16

  1. Biomass, is not the answer in urban environments due to the particulates that are released into the atmosphere. They will only exasperate, the already poor air quality in the Manchester area. It, like incineration is the one option politicians go for, because it is the cheapest option and not Best Available Technology (BAT). There is not enough biomass from habitat management to enable a constant and consistent supply to operate a biomass plant. The way this council has been concreting over green space, there will be very little habitat to manage.

  2. As for engaging with local communities to protect green spaces. They have consistently ignored the voices of the local community in Hulme, with regards to Birley Fields. Local residents have put to the council, alternatives to the council own, ‘pie-in-the-sky’ ideas for Birley Fields, to be ignored as usual. Birley Fields, is classed under the Habitats classifications as, Urban, Semi-Wild Habitat, and it should be nurtured as such. But the MMU, is going to build on and hardcore most of the area. Leaving some very idealised landscaping, which will not support the local biodiversity, that exists there now.

  3. Dave Bishop says:

    Patrick,
    Perhaps there is some confusion in my use of the term ‘biomass’? What I meant is that when we do habitat management, on Chorlton Ees for example we produce large amounts of waste material and, at present, there is no way of disposing of it. Contractors and council employees have been in the habit, in the recent past, of shredding it and spraying the shreddings on to the local ground flora – thus smothering it. In addition there’s no species-rich grassland management at the moment because there’s nowhere to dispose of the hay. I certainly wasn’t referring to the industialised growing of biomass for energy generation!
    I agree with you about the council’s penchant for concreting everything over – including Birley Fields. But Sir Richard Leese tells me that developers haven’t concreted everything over – so you and I must be mistaken! Could it be that Sir Richard lives in a different city?

    • Hi Dave, instead of burning the biomass, which produces particulates, we should be employing bio-digesters. It provides a clean fuel for a CHP plant and the waste is used as a manure. I have mentioned this to our councillor for the environment, Nigel Murphy and the MMU, using the waste heat from the data centres on Birley Fields. I am told that Viridor are already doing this, so it is not worth the MMU doing it. Those of us in the waste trade (or was), Viridor use the green waste as a cover over the landfill sites. I did pass information onto Nigel, regarding a scheme in Glasgow, using the tenant’s food waste to fuel a bio-digester for heat and power.

  4. Thanks for the article it was a lot to read and was somewhat over my head! I think we just need to have less concrete and replace it with grass and other plants wherever possible!

    • Hello!
      Glad you liked the article! We most certainly need less concrete and more greenery. If you want to get involved in making that happen, there are a bunch of people I can put you in touch with (it depends where you live). They’re interested in people who want to do a bit of planting and growing, not in people who understand council policies. Our email is mcmonthly@gmail.com Best wishes, Marc Hudson

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