80% of Sites of Importance for Nature Conservation wholly or partly owned by Bexley Council have no management plan (i.e. only 1 in 5 does), and 3 of the 6 plans that do exist expired more than 7 years ago. Half the SINCs in Bexley are entirely in private ownership, but management advice has only been given at the point the owner submitted a planning application for the site.
A Freedom of Information request to Bexley Council from Bexley Natural Environment Forum regarding the management plans for SINCs (after a straightforward written request went unanswered for 13 weeks) has revealed a worrying state of affairs.
This matters because followers of ‘BW’ will be aware that there have been a number of controversies over the management of SINCs, the Borough’s key wildlife sites, in recent years. Moreover both the previous SINC review document published in 2004, and the draft 2013 review publication, revealed that some sites – both Council and privately owned – were being degraded by inappropriate activity, that a number of species appeared to have been lost from sites and that others were in danger of vanishing without particular action being taken.
The Council, meanwhile, claims it is committed not just to protecting existing biodiversity, but improving it. The Council’s Core Strategy policy CS09 includes ‘protecting, enhancing and promoting green infrastructure, including making the borough’s parks, open spaces, waterways and recreational facilities an integral part of encouraging healthy lifestyles;’. CS17 has policies ‘d) protecting and enhancing the biodiversity, heritage and archaeological values of open spaces …..’ and ‘e) protecting significant green corridors, and seeking opportunities to increase connectivity between the network of green spaces and habitats; ….’
To give the Council its due it did forget to mention the River Shuttle restoration plan, which has a significant biodiversity component, but this is currently on hold due to lack of funding. It also has a policy of improving the conservation value of AT LEAST 15 parks and open spaces, and it does have specific Biodiversity Action Plan tasks for around 18 of them, which it may or may not be counting towards this target, but it still remains the case that there appears to be no overall management plan for almost all of these, with the risk that one arm of the Council inadvertently undermines what the other is trying to do.
Of the few sites that do have plans, half of these are 7 or 8 years out of date. Habitats can change quite quickly, and thanks to assiduous recording work by various local conservationists, we now know a lot more about what is on some of these sites than we did when these plans were written.
The vexed issue of the potential for conflict between grounds maintenance and biodiversity objectives remains on the table. BNEF did ask for information as to whether the terms of the contract and operating instructions filled in any of the site management plan gaps, but we are none the wiser on this as the point was not answered and we have instead been referred to a Council Officer who we have not dealt with before.
BNEF Chair Dr. Ray Gray said “Whilst the revelations in this response were not entirely unexpected, the situation is very disappointing. It is hard to see how the Council can pursue a coherent programme to implement its biodiversity-related policies when so many sites lack management plans within which targets can be set and against which outcomes can be monitored by either officers, the Councillors or the public. There is a very basic ‘ducks in a row’ issue here, especially with regards to the grounds maintenance that happens in practice. In the absence of up to date management plans and guidance, it is all too easy to take the expedient time and cost-cutting route of razing everything to the ground at once, rather than make the effort needed to protect and enhance our wildlife.”
Vice-chair of BNEF, Chris Rose, commented “DEFRA’s guidance to Local Authorities on their biodiversity duty makes the very basic point that not only should Councils identify Local Sites of importance for biodiversity, but that they should manage systems, in partnership with others, that take these into account within their planning and land management processes. Fortunately some of the Borough’s private sites are in the hands of groups such as the Woodland Trust and London Wildlife Trust who know what they’re doing, but the lack of advice for other private owners is worrying. You can’t sensibly just tell someone their site is now a SINC and expect them to know what to do about it, and only get involved if they later want to concrete it over.”
BNEF sought the information because it was already planning to talk to the Council’s Places Scrutiny Committee about these issues later in the year. Ray Gray commented “Whilst unwieldy all singing all-dancing plans that can quickly date, or never get properly implemented may be almost as unhelpful as no plan, we think it vital to have at least a basic plan for every SINC, one that it flexible and can be updated fairly easily and, moreover, that has a grip on maintenance on the ground. There is plenty of scope to both save money and enhance wildlife with a bit of time and imagination. If the Council is serious about enhancing biodiversity it needs to be looking to move SINCs up the grading ladder as well as improving other open spaces to SINC standard. It can’t do that without management plans.”
SINC SITE FACTS AND FIGURES – OWNERSHIP AND EXISTING MANAGEMENT PLANS
20 SINCs are wholly owned by the London Borough of Bexley
9 are part owned by Bexley and part privately
28 are wholly privately owned, sometimes by multiple owners
The wholly Council-owned sites with management plans are:
Danson Park (expired 2007), East Wickham Open Space (expired 2007), Franks Park (expired 2008). There is a 2010 management plan for the woodland at Parish Wood Park. A new Lesnes Abbey Woods management plan is in preparation, alongside the Heritage Lottery funded ‘improvement’ works, though these themselves are not tailored to biodiversity matters per se.
The Shuttle restoration plan has been mentioned above. There is also a 2010 report produced by the London Wildlife Trust regarding the management of Bexley Park Woods, where selective coppicing would help protect and restore the ground flora, from which species are being lost, but there is now no money to implement it.
Of the sites part-owned by the Council and part by private owners, an updated management plan is going to be produced for the Council’s southern half of Crayford Rough, based on an older document. There is a 2011 management plan for the Belvedere Dykes, though it is not entirely clear whether any are on Council land or not. There seem to be unwritten plans or partial plans for parts of the River Cray, but these were not mentioned in the FOI response. Site manager Chris Rose has a management plan for Thames Road Wetland, which has been provided to the Council but it has never made any comments. We believe that the Woodlands Farm Trust will have a plan for the Bexley Council part of Joydens woods, but we don’t know about neighbouring Chalk Wood which is council-owned.
The remnant of Erith Marshes is in the hands of Thames Water where Site Manager Karen Sutton has a biodiversity-driven plan. Braeburn Park is now owned by the Land Trust and leased to London Wildlife Trust. St. Paulinus Church in Crayford has a management plan for the wildflowers there. We assume that Woodlands Farm has some kind of management plan that includes wildlife considerations.
Council owned/part-owned SINCS that do not have overarching management plans (even out of date ones) for biodiversity include Hollyhill Open Space, Bursted Woods, Marten’s Grove, Shenstone Park, The Warren, Rutland Shaw, Slade Green recreation ground rough, Barnehurst Golf Course and Erith Cemetery.