Harrow Nature Conservation Forum

Report to Harrow Heritage Trust, September 2006

Having lost count of the number of years since the setting up of Harrow Nature Conservation Forum, [it must be nearly twenty], I felt that this, my last report as chairman, should attempt to review the whole period of its activities.

It remains the case that we came into being because of the perceived neglect of our open spaces by a previous Council who, as ever, pleaded poverty. They were happy enough to let us loose on the hinterland habitat; after all, they reasoned, we could not do much damage and it had zero priority on Harrow's agenda anyway. If a few people felt better for being engaged in this sort of work, it could be argued that the volunteers were supporting the Council, and that would constitute a credit. Environment was a buzz-word, the use of which conveyed topicality but meant nothing to the vast majority.

Against this background, we simply got on with it!

Small groups were organised around a site warden. In the very early stages a loose programme allowed everyone to turn out to assist the warden of one particular site for one particular job. As chairman, I insisted that we could only recognise a site if a volunteer would act as warden. Further, it was to be a case of maximum work and minimum administration. But that did not last.

They were good days, in the pouring rain or the blazing sun, as we hacked our way through the years of neglect and overgrowth to create suitable habitat for the colonisation of new species. And this has happened. The biodiversity of all of the sites has increased appreciably during our tenure.

Against a dearth of local volunteers, we resorted to the engagement of the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers whose minuscule staff will deliver a group of workers to a specific site for a consideration. On the whole this has worked well, although the lack of local volunteers remains a disappointment. One councillor who did turn out on one occasion has remained very appreciative of the work we do.

We have tried to hold course against a variable background of pressures. These arose partly out of our relative success, which meant that gradually people began to take notice, and partly because we felt compelled to resist the ideas that would harm the natural environment we were striving to maintain.

This latter should not be mis-interpreted. Our sole reason for being, is entirely altruistic. Although we may well enjoy the work and it makes us feel good, we never lose sight of the fact that it is for the long-term benefit of the whole of society that we exist.

Administration, as I said, was not our priority but it forced itself upon us. It was with considerable relief that assistance emerged in the shape of Tracey McAlister, a tireless worker from the Law and Administration Department of the Local Authority. She was a tower of strength during those years before she retired to a country retreat near the Wash. It was largely due to her efforts that the Forum came to be as widely recognised as it is. Disturbed by the trend of Council and government decisions, we ran a conference called, 'Harrow, Green or Grey?' It attracted a good deal of interest and appeared to be fairly well received, although the Harrow bureaucrats absorbed it all with their customary lack of enthusiasm.

Part of the conference resolution was that the Borough should create an Ecology Education Facility that would take advantage of the natural riches in the northern part of the Green Belt. If this generation refused to understand the importance of the issues, then perhaps it was up to the next one? Subsequent lobbying raised some interest but at this time the dead hand of bureaucratic inertia still holds sway. There is a file gathering dust somewhere in the civic centre. Correctly set up and managed such a thing would be a financial asset to the council and become an important education facility for much of north London, but until the political will is found, it will not come to fruition.

Not unnaturally, new prominence attracted the attention of tiresome things like insurance, health and safety and, yes, 'Please report on the ethnic diversity of volunteers.' Needless to say, we invited the recording officer to come and count for himself!

However, much worse was to follow, as a housing onslaught on the green belt gathered momentum.

Wood Farm, presentes a dilemma and an opportunity. The lease was assigned to a housing developer who believed the odds were in his favour and, more recently, has submitted a number of planning applications. The Council's duty is clear. It should determine the lease and take the site into the country park for the people of north London as was originally intended by the Middlesex County Council.

Developers' impatience with the council led to a Planning Appeal and a Public Inquiry over the use of the former BAE site in the midst of Stanmore Common. This farcical exercise turned out to be little more than an accelerated settlement of the conditions of permission for a very ordinary housing estate. Our objections, based on the ecology and the Green Belt legislation, were well received by the inspector whose report then appeared to perform a volte face in its conclusion and recommended the appeal be allowed. Brighter planners might have forced a more innovative and eco-friendly solution, but bureaucracy has bred mediocrity and the next generations will be faced with trying to mitigate the damage that will surely arise. The use of the money set aside for the Common in a Section 106 agreement should be put towards an Ecology Education Facility.

Suzanne's Riding Stables were the next to go, closely followed by RNOH whose re-development plan included the sale of thirty five acres of green belt for housing. There can be no justification, for these housing plans run contrary to the Council's adopted green belt policy and to the recorded statements of politicians of all parties.

And now the sale of the Bentley Priory seems to have been agreed at central government level. There can be little doubt that the price includes an anticipated housing development value from the site that will more than compensate for the conservation ofthe Battle of Britain heritage. That price is bound to influence the planning application at the expense of the local ecology. Scepticism suggests we cannot expect the Local Authority to face down central government, and back biodiversity; or can we?

I have felt bound to include this review of the green belt planning applications that the forum was forced to face and, in the event was bound to resist, albeit with limited success thus far.

History will show what a bad time this has been for domestic development; poor quality badly sited housing. It seems entirely wrong that major decisions affecting the lives of generations should be made by those having but short-term interests.

Apart from the continuing support of the Trust itself, it has to be noted that we received no significant backing from any other organisation, local or national. Indeed to mount a meaningful objection to a major planning application requires a great deal of time and effort, and cannot be the result of some hastily penned letter to the press. Nevertheless we have felt let down by RSPB, CPRE and the Mayor of London in particular.

We have railed against the hypocrisy of politicians wherever we have found it and we have spoken out when we believed they were wrong. The fact that we have been able to do this, may be regarded as a tribute to democracy, despite the fact that we are living through a dangerous period of the decline of civil freedom.

Looking back to the 80's, it becomes clear that we have been part of a movement for change. Although I have personally been involved in environment for the whole of my working life, it was not then commonplace. The force has developed from natural history through ecology into today's hot topics of biodiversity and climate change, now prominent throughout the media. And, mark this: biodiversity is not just something which it would be nice to have. Its continuity and wellbeing are threatened by rising sea levels and carbon-dioxide emissions.

Planners have the legislative tools to do the job properly in the form of Environmental Assessment, but they turn their backs on this method on the pretext that it is too expensive. The truth is twofold. There is no one in L.A. Planning that is capable of it, and those who have the skills will be commissioned by the developers to produce biased results. An independent panel of assessors is an absolute necessity. Continuing ignorance is not an option! The subject is not local; it is global. It is not in the interest of the few; it is of vital importance to the whole. The whole is not out there somewhere; it is right here. I believe that what we have done will ultimately be seen as a contribution to the whole of society. The local effort is significant.

Harrow, as the trustee of a major part of London's green belt, has been slow to recognise its responsibilities, but there is some progress to report. A Green Belt Management strategy has been adopted by the council, and finally, we have achieved the appointment of a Biodiversity Officer. But these are the easy options; the question remains, whether they will have teeth. Harrow's recent history suggests otherwise. Maybe the new Council will find the will to reverse this. Maybe central government will come to find a more sensitive approach to planning that will curb the developers' greed. At this point in time we can but hope and continue to apply pressure.

Perhaps I should apologise for this outburst, but you will know that I feel strongly about it in the long-term interests of the human race. The question is whether a change of mind will come soon enough, or shall we wait for disaster to strike?

As to the forum itself, against this mixture of failure and success, my gratitude must go to those stalwarts who have toiled on the sites and cared for their well-being. It is to them that the final thanks should be given. It is entirely to their credit that the Borough's biodiversity has been enriched. The job of chairman is of little significance by comparison.

However, I am relieved and delighted to tell you that a new chairman has been found. He is Professor Stephen Bolsover who has been a warden of Bentley Old Vicarage Nature Reserve for many years. I commend his appointment to you. I am confident he will receive the same level of support from the other members of the Forum as I have, and I am sure that together they will go forward to greater success than we have achieved so far.

I wish, also, to thank Martin Verden and all the other members of the Executive for the backing that the Forum and I have received throughout. Although it was not always the case, that tacit support with little interference is a rare commodity!

I wish you all well in the future, hoping to maintain an interest for a good few more years yet, despite a lack of mobility.

Maurice Pickering - Chairman

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