Knepp’s planning dilemma reflects the national battle for nature

This post is by Isabella Tree: conservationist, co-Founder of Knepp Rewilding Project and author of the bestseller Wilding.

Last month the world’s first ever Rewilding Day was celebrated. But, instead of celebration at our rewilding project at Knepp in West Sussex, it was an exhausting day of activity as we launched our campaign against a proposed new development of 3,500 houses at Buck Barn. These would sever a wildlife corridor linking Knepp with St Leonard’s Forest and beyond.

For several years at Knepp we’ve been working on ways of generating greater nature connectivity in the area, a goal also enshrined in the government’s 25 year environment plan. In fact, we were cited in that plan as an outstanding example of nature regeneration. Recently, we signed a Memorandum of Understanding with a number of landowners in our region to create the wildlife corridor; this will link the Help the Kelp project off the south coast, via the Climping Gap to Knepp and northwards to St Leonard’s Forest and Ashdown Forest. But inconsiderate planning and an unwitting council now threaten to stop this plan in its tracks.

Areas of high nature value need protection from development
What started as a local campaign has now expanded to attract national attention. This month, 34 leading environmentalists, including the chief executives of WWF, RSPB and Flora and Fauna International, wrote to Minister for Housing Communities and Local Government Robert Jenrick, imploring immediate action to prevent this development going ahead, and to protect all areas of high nature value from the same fate. Local residents have sent thousands of letters to local councillors and over 18,000 people across the country have signed a petition against the development.

The Knepp project embodies the very principles of the forthcoming Environment Bill which aims to create a nationwide Nature Recovery Network supported by Local Nature Recovery Strategies and protect 30 per cent of the country’s land by the end of the decade. The bill will set strong, legally binding targets, which will be a commendable and timely response to the climate and biodiversity crisis. The government has pledged that: “New development will happen in the right places, delivering maximum economic benefit while taking into account the need to avoid environmental damage.”

Yet, on Rewilding Day, we found ourselves furiously fighting a Conservative council’s Local Development Plan that flies in the face of this national commitment. With Knepp under consideration to become a National Nature Reserve and, potentially, the beating heart of one of Natural England’s new large scale areas for nature recovery across the wider region, the government commitment rings hollow. The UK expects to be seen as a leader on climate action ahead of hosting the Glasgow climate summit in November this year, and decisive climate action requires nature protection. A lack of corrective action in this case would signal to the rest of the world that the government just isn’t that serious about nature after all.   

Local and national government are pulling in two directions
The situation has not been made easy for Horsham District Council. Local and central government are pulling in opposite directions. According to the Local Plan, Horsham District is expected to meet the massively high target of 1,200 new houses every year from 2019 to 2036, an allocation based on a controversial algorithm imposed by central government. Horsham District Council itself is torn in two directions. Its own Wilder Horsham District initiative, partnered by Sussex Wildlife Trust, identified the Buck Barn site, next to Knepp, as a vital part of its own Natural Recovery Network plan, with Knepp as the biodiversity hotspot at its core. As ever, though, it seems, nature plays second fiddle when development raises its head, even as the government trumpets its own targets to tackle the environmental and climate crisis.

The decision by Horsham District Council to proceed with the development at Buck Barn will be irreversible. Once the bricks are in and the concrete laid, the tarmac driveways and access roads slice through the site, any meaningful connectivity for wildlife will be lost forever. Wildlife currently thriving there, such as endangered nightingales, skylarks and small mammals, will lose their habitat altogether; bats, impacted by noise, air and light pollution, will lose their flyway; and migrating salmon trout will slide away from streams polluted by runoff.

The Covid-19 pandemic has strengthened people’s connection with nature. But, with it, comes a deepening concern. Nature is in crisis and the government needs to urgently reform the planning system so it does not inflict additional damage just at the point when, as a nation, we are mobilising to address the climate and nature emergency.

For more details about the campaign visit http://savewestgrinstead.eaction.org.uk/action/

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