Steve Whitbread, Harrow Council’s Biodiversity Officer, has responded to the concerns expressed by Emma Wallace (Green Party GLA candidate for Brent and Harrow) over destruction at the Ridgeway development site LINK. It appears that slow worms (often called ‘legless lizards) a protected species may come to the aid of the struggle against environmental vandalism. Protection of slow worms has delayed development elsewhere. LINK
The destruction carried out by the Plymouth Brethren
Whilst I can't comment on whatever reason the
owners of the site might have had for the clearance of the trees and shrubs on
their land, they were within their rights to carry out such work since these
had no direct impact on protected species or their shelters. I have
advised the local Wildlife Crime Officer accordingly.
There was nothing that the Council could have done to prevent the clearance. However, I can assure you that the consideration of any planning application for the site will still take the vegetation into account as if it had never been carried out.
This has already been emphasised to the applicant and their agent and they have confirmed that there will be no disturbance of the felled area where protected slow-worms are likely to be hibernating.
The Council is due to hold a meeting with local residents and councillors to address resulting concerns next week. For your information, I have appended the comments I provided to interested parties last month, attempting to ensure that everyone understood the both the situation and the constraints within which the Council is working:
Dear Residents, Councillors and Colleagues,
Beverley Kuchar, the Chief Planning Officer, will be seeking to organise a virtual meeting, early in the new year, to discuss the situation in relation to the Ridgeway development proposals and the weekend clearance of the trees and shrubs along the boundary with the allotment site.
Ahead of that meeting, I thought it might be helpful to address points raised in relation to biodiversity matters. That is mainly to separate out what legal protection measures might be relevant to the species found on or adjacent to the site from what will be of 'material consideration' in relation to any planning application.
What I should emphasise is that the belt of woodland and its role within the green corridor and local ecological network will continue to be of material consideration regardless of the recent clearance. The recent actions will make no difference to how the scheme will be appraised and, where evidence is lacking, the approach will be to assess what has been lost at the highest reasonable value, taking account of other information as needed.
Considering protection for biodiversity relevant to the site, the ecological consultancy Ecosa was appointed by the applicant to undertake required surveys and prepare an Ecological Impact Assessment in the wake of the comments I provided on the original Preliminary Ecological Assessment (produced by Ecology By Design in 2018).
The Ecosa consultant discussed the survey proposals and inquired about potential offsite compensation opportunities. He also contacted Simon Braidman for his views based on the investigations that he and others had already undertaken. I had the opportunity to view the draft EcIA and provided my comments on this. I have no definite knowledge of whether a final version has yet been provided to their client, but I would assume that this was done some time ago.
Taking different species groups in turn, whilst all birds and their nests, eggs and young are protected from destruction during the breeding season, this does not extend to protecting habitat in which they might nest. Whilst there are exceptions and additional protection for certain vulnerable species, these don't apply in this case.
Similarly, whilst bat roosts and hibernacula are protected, whether bats are in occupation or not, habitat areas which bats use for commuting or foraging purposes aren't protected, unless the sites of which they are part are appropriately designated, e.g. as a Site of Special Scientific Interest.
It should be stressed that under current legislation, this would not extend to the SINC area. Whilst such wildlife sites identify important areas for wildlife locally, and their protection is of material consideration within the planning system, such designation does not preclude the landowner from damaging or removing the features of interest unless this would otherwise conflict with the law or statutory obligations, such as harm to protected species.
Simon Braidman, Huma Pearce and others have done an excellent job of recording wildlife in the environs of the proposed development site, and there is every likelihood that West Harrow Allotments now has a longer recorded species list than any other Harrow allotment site.
Protection for badgers also relates mainly to the animals themselves and their setts. The report of a sett entrance having been filled is necessarily of concern, but this appears to have been carried out at some time in the past. The information provided via surveys of the development site indicate that whilst it provides some suitable habitat for setts and foraging there was no evidence of any onsite activity that could be attributed to badger.
It is likely that common newt and potentially
common frog and common toad occur within the development site, at least at its
margins as part of meta-populations centred on the allotment site. However,
protection for these species only extends to sale or barter. Nothing protects
habitat on the basis that these species are present.
The situation is somewhat different in relation to slow-worms, however. Whilst these do not enjoy the same level of protection as rarer reptiles, it is not only an offence to sell but also to kill slow-worms. Whilst the felling of the belt of trees would be unlikely to have caused any direct harm to slow-worms, any efforts to excavate ground in which slow-worms are presently hibernating would be likable to result in mortality. This would constitute a criminal offence under the Wildlife and Countryside Act. The developer's agents have been advised accordingly.
In recognition of its alarming decline, the common hedgehog will be added to Schedule 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act under the provisions of the Environment Bill, and it is presently protected from being killed or captured. It is highly likely that hedgehogs would move between the allotment and the development site and, whilst the latter does not contain a significant area of foraging habitat, there is certainly potential for hedgehog to be hibernating within the felling area.
Whilst not subject to legal protection, the other species mentioned in correspondence and reports, taken as a whole and, in some cases, individually would be of material consideration in relation to the determination of the planning application. It is useful to have knowledge of what is found in the vicinity in this regard.
Lastly, queries were raised about the making of a Tree Preservation Order (TPO) to cover the trees in the identified area. TPOs are made a local planning authority in accordance with the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 (as amended), for amenity and landscape purposes, where these would be impacted adversely were the tree(s) or group of trees to be removed. Usually this depends on how visible the trees are from highways and publicly accessible space, but trees that have landscape value, contribute to the character of a conservation area or have historical importance may be TPO-worthy.
Given the nature of the trees and the fact that, other than from the development site, they could only be viewed from allotments to which access is restricted, they did not satisfy the necessary criteria. I should add that whilst biodiversity, as well as climate change considerations, might be taken into account in the making of an order, a TPO could not be applied on such grounds alone.
I hope that helps to explain the Council's viewpoint as to why the actions over the weekend did not constitute a wildlife crime and why a TPO would not have been appropriate in this instance. As stated, however, any planning application will be assessed as if the trees and shrubs were all still there, in accordance with the code of practice provided by the British Standard BS 42020:13.
Responding today Emma Wallace, Green Party GLA candidate for Brent and Harrow said:
I am pleased to hear from Harrow’s biodiversity officer Steve Whitbread that the Council will act as if the removal of the tree belt by the Brethren just before Christmas had not occurred when considering the 265 The Ridgeway planning application. This unfortunately does not negate the fact that this act of eco-vandalism has been carried out and that this green space is now much depleted because of it, removing habitat for wildlife and breaking up a green corridor.
It is disappointing to hear that Mr Whitbread does not believe the Brethren should be held to account for their actions, due to not having "direct impact on protected species or their shelters." Of the protected species, there is no clear evidence that slow-worms do not directly inhabit the area or indeed hedgehogs, who may have been hibernating there, and consequently, have now been impacted by this destruction. In regards to the many other species listed as having been found in the area, these would have travelled, foraged and made their home, which has now been eradicated. How can this be ok?
I understand Steve Steve Whitbread listing in his response the individual legal protections of the animals recorded in the area and how, bats, badgers, birds and the common newt, frog and toads do not fall under the relevant laws of protection in these circumstances, or at this time of year etc. This dispassionate response does not reflect the fact that the sum of these species together, forms a rich eco-system that depend on each other to survive and flourish. As has been diligently recorded by Simon Braidman and others, this whole area is a haven for a diverse range of wildlife and no one species should be considered of lesser importance – they form a whole that needs protecting.
The Council has declared a Climate emergency, has created and published a Climate Change Strategy and also, has a Biodiversity Action Plan, committing to “conserve, enhance, and promote biodiversity in Harrow” https://www.harrow.gov.uk/downloads/file/23181/harrow-biodiversity-action-plan I hope Harrow Council stand by these words and recognise the essential role they play in protecting this rich, biodiverse space and the species that inhabit it.
In an email to Emma, Cllr Adam Swersky said:
Thanks very much for getting in touch. I read your blog with interest - thanks for the sincere and factual account of what took place.
I am really appalled by [the Brethrens'] actions. I've told their representative in no uncertain terms that I fully oppose their application and find their behaviour deplorable. I will be throwing my support in full behind the thousands of local residents who oppose the proposal.