The Nuttery

What do you think of when you think of the Reading Festival? Rock and roll? Loud music? Mud and debauchery? A haven for biodiversity? Perhaps not. But the Festival site, known the rest of the year as Little Johns Farm, a working cattle farm, has some hidden secrets. One of which is an old nuttery, a nut orchard, which Reading Borough Council, The Conservation Volunteers and Reading Tree Wardens are restoring.

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As part of the Biodiversity Management Plan for the site, Reading Borough Council proposes to plant nearly 300 hazel trees in the nuttery. However, before the new trees can be planted, existing trees and shrubs – such as blackthorn – need clearing and coppicing to open up the site enough to accommodate the new trees. It is hoped that the nuttery will increase biodiversity on the farm, which is largely grazed pasture in the floodplain of the River Thames. Habitats, such as badger setts and log piles for invertebrates are also being created. Little John’s Farm is a private site (apparently the Council work closely with the site owners due to the community interest in the Festival). It is a shame this nuttery won’t be accessible for public use.

However, nuttery creation can be an effective way to increase biodiversity on public sites. Like fruit orchards, nutteries can also be used to create community orchards, which can complement and create diversity in community resources. Some examples of community nutteries can be found in Bath and in Clare, Suffolk. Advice on how to start a Community Orchard can be found here and if you are in the Reading area and would like to learn more about planting fruiting trees, you could join in the restoration of an orchard in Prospect Park with Transition Town Reading on 2nd February. Details can be found here.

Frack off?

Originally posted on 17th April 2012

The United Kingdom is facing a potential shortfall in energy provision. New methods of energy provision are required. Today the UK Government’s Department for Energy and Climate Change published an independent expert report, recommending measures to mitigate the risks of seismic tremors from hydraulic fracturing. Whilst the report is inviting public comment on its recommendations, it has largely been seen as giving a ‘green light’ to hydraulic fracturing. The report looks at its safety and recommends that it should continue, under regulation.

Hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, is the extraction of natural gas reserves from shale, a densely packed rock. The technique uses water, pumped at high pressure, into the rock to create narrow fractures to allow the gas to flow into the well bore to be captured (source DECC).

The exploitation of any British shale gas reserves does have its benefits. It will provide a British-born source of gas that will provide energy and could, potentially, lower rising gas prices, in an environment where other natural gas supplies are diminishing. Not just a source of gas as we receive it in our homes, but also it would be able to generate electricity in gas-powered power stations. A much-needed resource in a country where the oil and gas reserves are diminishing, companies are dropping out of providing new nuclear power stations and there is continued opposition to the exploitation of renewable sources of energy. There are also employment opportunities too, much needed in times of recession.

But fracking is hugely controversial. The procedure caused two earthquakes and several other seismic events in the Blackpool area in 2011. In the aftermath of Fukushima, there is huge concern over seismic safety. Fracking has also been linked to the contamination of drinking water aquifers in the US, the chemicals used in the fracking process have been linked with health problems for nearby communities and it has been reported that levels of methane get high enough in some domestic water supplies to catch fire. And that is before considering the environmental impacts of any gas power stations.

So where is the balance to be found? Decades of short termism and outsourcing of provision to foreign companies have left the UK energy poor. The renewable energy assets of the nation have not been anywhere near exploited to their potential. The UK lags far behind other European nations, such as Germany, in terms of renewable energy infrastructure and in terms of developing skills, employment opportunites and innovation. New nuclear is falling to the whims of the markets and fossil fuel resources are diminishing. The country needs energy. Fracking is potential dangerous and undesirable, but has the United Kingdom left itself with few alternatives?

What do today’s planning reforms mean for local communities?

Originally posted on 27th March 2012

The new National Planning Policy Framework, or NPPF, was released today, accompanied with a great deal of fanfare about the removal of red tape and the empowerment of communities in the planning process. Promising unrestricted (and newly defined) sustainable development, relieving England from the bureaucratic forces holding it back from economic prosperity. The new NPPF supersedes all the previous topic specific national statements and guidance notes – replacing over 1300 pages of national planning guidance with a mere 50. The Government claim that this takes planning out of the hands of experts, simplifies it and makes it accessible to all

But what does this really mean for local communities? Firstly the framework is completely directed at interpretation at the local level. And, by local level, this means interpretation by the Local Planning Authority through the production of a Local Plan. If this sounds familiar, that’s because Local Authorities produced Local Plans – until they were replaced the Local Development Framework system in 2004.

The NPPF does not place any additional requirement for Local Authorities to engage with communities in the development of their Local Plans. It just states,

“early and meaningful engagement and collaboration with neighbourhoods, local organisations and businesses is essential. A wide section of the community should be proactively engaged, so that Local Plans, as far as possible, reflect a collective vision and a set of agreed priorities for the sustainable development of the area.”

What constitutes meaningful engagement or being proactively engaged is unclear and, presumably, also up to interpretation by each Local Authority.

The framework also introduces the option for Neighbourhood Plans. The Neighbourhood Plan has been introduced to allow communities to devise planning policies for their area and determine a certain scale of planning application. So does this give local communities carte blanche to direct development that meets their needs and, indeed, to refuse development in their local areas? Unfortunately not. The framework states,

“the ambition of the neighbourhood should be aligned with the strategic needs and priorities of the wider local area”.

Crucially it states that,

neighbourhood plans must be in general conformity with the strategic policies of the Local Plan”.

And even more significantly, any planning decision made by these new neighbourhood powers has to be subject to a local referendum. Huge onus is placed on Local Authorities to facilitate empowering all neighbourhoods and all members of the community to make these Neighbourhood Plans anything more than a lip service exercise, or a bastion of the privileged and vocal minority.

But what must be of primary concern, in terms of community involvement in the planning process, is the ambiguity that is left in the planning system in the immediate future. The NPPF is certainly brief compared to its predecessors, but it could also be criticised for being unclear. The instantaneous replacement of all the reams of national guidance with this short document, combined with only 12 months of local policies (adopted since 2004) continuing to be given their full weight when considering applications could result in a policy gulf. A gulf that may only be filled with applications being determined through appeal and possibly through the courts. Until there is clarity, the much maligned bureaucracy has been replaced with a void that can only be filled by legal processes. Whoever has the best planning lawyer will undoubtedly win. And that’s not a scenario that will empower many communities.

The National Planning Policy Framework was published today by the Department of Communities and Local Government and is available to read on the DCLG’s website