Thursday, July 21, 2011

Can "strategic visions" be of any use?


This 14 page document aims to promote Natural England's vision for an upland environment in just under 50 years time! It expresses ambitions for change, which contain a series of preferences all of us would find laudable. Doubtless it will be criticized by some who miss the point of its strategic emphasis and its deliberate omission of detailed policies on key matters affecting the uplands like raptor persecution, planning issues and land management. As a summary document it does its stuff, but can we accept any of it other than being the sincere expression of a "wish list scenario"?

My worries surround the almost naive assumptions which are made, as opposed to the nature of the objectives themselves. Fifty years ahead, really! Perhaps we ought to turn the clock back 50 years and take heed of the changes which have occurred in that period and whether any of us can afford the luxury of crystal ball gazing. In very general terms the 1960's followed on the heels of the 1954 Protection of Birds Act, the creation of the Nature Conservancy and the National Parks legislation, but little else of a similar nature. Set this against the plethora of changes since then , much of which has been beneficial , but all in some way has had an effect on our environment. Designations, regulation guidelines, European influence and other strategic outpourings which now appear to be the norm. The next fifty years will be no different and doubtless many measures will emerge that serve to frustrate the optimum visions of the present.

Consider some of the negatives of the last fifty years! First amongst equals must be the actions of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Policies, urged on by subsidies, which saw immense and irrevocable change to our landscapes, particularly from the retention of our natural heritage. Think also of afforestation, supported by Government and doubtless proceeding in the face of opposition from the Nature Conservancy Council....but it happened! I'm sure there are many other examples but, simply put, a period of 50 years can embrace such far reaching changes emanating from political initiatives that a vision extending that far ahead can carry little credibility in my opinion. Such thinking has its value though, as I point out later. In this instance I hesitate to cast Natural England in the role of a fortune teller crouched over a crystal ball, but the image keeps springing to mind!

Having made that somewhat flippant remark there is, nonetheless, a serious aspect to trying to perceive what is the optimum situation which might be achieved through the positive application of sustainable management practices and planned approaches. In my view the element that frustrates this process, utterly, is the absence of stability. All such visions can only be created based on "an all things being equal" basis and, therefore, one must question their potential usefulness in the face of undoubted change. Life no longer appears to have the stability and tranquillity of yesteryear. Global events and change, political will and, even , "electorate whimsy" can all play a part in altering , even reversing, well intended goals, besides apparent major physical influences like climate change.

However there is a place for such "blue sky thinking" in our culture. It represents what might be termed "the best" for everyone and , in that context, should not be diminished nor rejected. What we really need to pursue is the element of stability within our national framework when it comes to environmental matters, as opposed to a never ending changing of goal posts, reduction of budgets, and a generally held view that anything " environmental" is second best and first to go!! This is not a suggestion for our fossilising our environment, but one to award the subject area the respectability and recognition it deserves. With an ever increasing town-based population that particular public needs to better understand the needs and challenges of the environment, not feel confident it knows already ( the Countryside Alliance would have a view on this I suspect! ). But similarly, political parties need to robustly embrace such principles such that they form a basis of action be they in Government or Opposition. When will there be a general acceptance that the quality of our environment is key to most other elements affecting our lives? When will we afford it the investment it deserves, as opposed to treating it as a never to be depleted bank account from which we can draw reserves. Of course there are positive things happening, and such will continue to happen via an increasing raft of sustainable practices. But is it enough? In many respects it's "wing and a prayer management" despite the positive initiatives. Exercises, such as outlined in the above document do, therefore, have value, not in the specifics , but in being a salutary reminder we need "joined up thinking" , a holistic approach for everything, along the lines advocated for the uplands.

A title to the document simply expressing the hope, " A Vision For Our Future Uplands" would probably have been more easily understood. But whatever the shortcomings, the vision acts as a reminder that, if we continue to inflict upon our environment a status of low priority this is the wonderful diversity and quality we will lose and it will be our children who will be the biggest losers of all.

However, even with all this well researched advice, is our natural heritage any more secure than it was previously? Given the many recent improvements it might seem churlish and pessimistic , even defeatist, to suggest otherwise. Sadly environmental quality is the one subject area upon which I have diminished optimism. Parallel to any positives, the seemingly endless reports on "loss of this", "reduced that" , "need for protection" and so on suggest it appears it might be little more than an indulgence we award ourselves when visualising the future. Currently , in the absence of any real allegiance to our natural environment by successive Governments, the matter is in our hands and we need to act accordingly to ensure environment and wildlife matters are endlessly to the fore.

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