Planning system: Call for evidence

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Manx BirdLife has provided a written submission in response to the Isle of Man Government's call for evidence regarding the Planning System (the deadline for which was 15th February 2019).

The purpose of Manx BirdLife's response was to highlight the systemic weakness of the current planning system in protecting the Island's natural heritage:

7th February 2019

To: Mr Roger Phillips
Clerk of Tynwald
Legislative Buildings

Planning system: Call for evidence (submission deadline Friday 15th February 2019)

Dear Mr Philips,

I should like to summarise some important observations about the current planning system and how it does not serve well the interests of the nation’s natural heritage.

1. Land area

Currently 88% of the Island’s land area is under agriculture with a priority to optimise ‘productivity’. A further 5% of land is urbanised, leaving just about 7% available for everything else including a working ecosystem and the nature that is our life support system.

Birds and other wildlife have been squeezed out to the margins. The planning system perpetuates this.

There should be an overarching, strategic target for land that is available for optimisation of the natural environment (space, habitats) and the social, fiscal and organic benefits that a vibrant, sustainable ecosystem and its food chains should provide.

2. Precautionary Principle

The Precautionary Principle is one of the key elements for policy decisions concerning environmental protection and management. It is applied in the circumstances where there are reasonable grounds for concern that an activity is, or could, cause harm but where there is uncertainty about the probability of the risk and the degree of harm. The Principle has been endorsed internationally on many occasions. At the Earth Summit meeting at Rio in 1992, World leaders agreed Agenda 21 which advocated the widespread application of the Precautionary Principle.

The Precautionary Principle has four central components

    1. taking preventive action in the face of uncertainty;
    2. shifting the burden of proof to the proponents of an activity, not leaving it those who must try to defend against any potentially arising impacts;
    3. exploring a wide range of alternatives to possibly harmful actions;
    4. and increasing public participation in decision making.

An overt commitment, or restating of the Isle of Man’s commitment, to the Precautionary Principle in order to protect the Island’s natural heritage is urgently required.

Conservation organisations do not have the resources to challenge myriad planning/development proposals; and where they do, very often it is impossible to compile the scope and scale of evidence necessary to build a case. The onus must remain with the proposers to demonstrate that their capital is being spent in a manner that does not further deteriorate the natural environment and its organisms. In case of doubt, the default position should be to invoke the Precautionary Principle.

3. Reciprocation

The principle of ‘mitigation’ is well versed, though its practice often falls well short of making up fully for the medium and long-term environmental loss or damage caused by development. Commitments given – and stipulations made – during the planning process may remain overlooked, forgotten and unfulfilled.

The principle of reciprocation should be added to planning requirements. For every species or acre of habitat affected by a planning proposal, that proposal should commit tangible funding or other appropriate resource to protect, safeguard or restore at least an equivalent population or area of viable habitat. For every acre of nature destroyed, at least one acre must be set aside for nature with appropriate funding to sustain the requisite conditions, fauna and flora.

4. Valuing our nation’s natural heritage

There is currently no specific, enumerated target for how much biodiversity and bio-abundance we should endeavour to maintain on the Isle of Man.

Moreover and for example, thresholds for evaluating the value of Manx populations of birds are typically borrowed from Britain and are not contextualised to the Isle of Man. Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) and Ecological Reports (ERs) are often written by consultants from the UK and elsewhere. These typically are commissioned by the planning applicant or development proposer/investor. Experience demonstrates that such reports can lack an understanding of the Island’s ecological situation and the relative significance of its bird life. There are citable examples of irrelevant and erroneous standard data/paragraphs being cut and pasted from British/UK templates into Isle of Man reports.

Further, standard ‘British’ thresholds are used to evaluate the significance of bird species and their populations on the Island. But what is insignificant at a British level might be wholly significant at the Island’s own national level. A species that must number in excess of hundreds or thousands of individuals at any given locality in Britain in order to be deemed important, will be equally important to the Isle of Man at smaller numbers. Treating Isle of Man populations as mere subsets of British populations devalues our nation-Island’s bird life, effectively rendering it ‘locally’ expendable. Species and populations on the Isle of Man that are presented as being of merely ‘local importance’ (using British criteria) are very often in fact of ‘national importance’ to the Isle of Man.

Hence the thresholds for considering whether bird and other wildlife populations on the Island are important/significant must be recalibrated commensurate with the size of the Island and its species/habitat capacity. Authors of EIAs and ERs, when evaluating the importance of species and populations to the Isle of Man, should be instructed to use the Island’s own evaluation thresholds (which have yet to be agreed and articulated).

5. Species and habitats targets

When considering the impact of development proposals on wildlife, this is done from a top down perspective, i.e. “how many Curlew, Yellowhammer, Brent Geese etc. can we afford to lose this time without conscience or consequence?” No agreed minimum level has been set below which the range of species and the size of their populations should not fall.

Thereby bird populations and other wildlife are diminished bit by bit, where each bit is considered expendable and there is no underlying limit on how low a numbers can descend. Loss by loss, we don’t notice the change; but cumulatively the impact has already caused the national extinction of formerly resident species from the Island and brought others to the brink. Even common birds are at risk. For example, just 30 years ago the Yellowhammer was a frequent sight and sound across the island. It was a species well known and loved by many generations. Yet today, this once common and widespread species, has disappeared from the Island. Others have gone too, and many others such as Curlew and Lapwing are on course to follow suit.

Our recommendations

So what do we hope for from this inquiry into the operation of the planning system? Manx BirdLife hopes the inquiry will consider, or pledge the means to consider, prescribing:

  • A strategic target for the total terrestrial area that is dedicated to, and can be optimised for, the natural environment and the diversity and abundance of the nature it hosts;
  • That the Precautionary Principle is promulgated and enforced;
  • That there is reciprocation of development loss and impact by at least equivalent physical and monetary resources for the enhancement and sustaining of the Island’s wildlife and the habitats on which it depends;
  • That bird species and populations are assessed in the context of the Isle of Man, not Britain as a whole;
  • That species and habitat targets are set at the highest strategic level of policy and decision-making in order to guarantee a viable and meaningful assemblage of Manx natural assets.

We recognise that DEFA has made strategic commitments to site protection, preservation of habitats and species conservation. What we need now are specific, timed, measurable goals for sustained diversity and abundance of our natural heritage. These goals must be underpinned by meaningful controls that uphold strategic thresholds below which we are committed not to fall. Otherwise, our nation’s natural heritage is doomed to extinction bit by bit.
Yours sincerely,

Neil G. Morris
Managing Director
Manx BirdLife

Appendix: Example
Elle - Pale-bellied Brent Goose
Elle - female Pale-bellied Brent Goose from the Canadian High Arctic population (Image © Neil G. Morris)

Above: This is ‘Elle’. She is a seventeen year-old Pale-bellied Brent Goose Branta bernicla hrota from the East Canadian High Arctic (ECHA) population – one of the most vulnerable populations of wild bird in the northern hemisphere.

‘Elle’ is shown above accompanied by her long-term mate (immediately behind) and one of her offspring (at the back) feeding in the Langness, Derbyhaven & Sandwick ASSI. The family was photographed in early spring, prior to embarking on their northward spring migration back to the family’s Arctic nesting grounds some 4,500 kilometres from the Isle of Man.

The Langness, Derbyhaven & Sandwick ASSI and Bird Sanctuary, is the only location in the Isle of Man where ‘Elle’ and other members of her species choose to feed, rest and shelter. Many families of Pale-bellied Brent Geese use the bays and food-rich foreshores of the ASSI as a vital ‘refuelling’ stop on their twice-yearly perilous migration between their Canadian nesting grounds and wintering haunts around Strangford Lough in Ireland. While nearly the whole world population of this petite goose winters in Ireland, up to 100 adults and their families each year instead choose to stay on the Isle of Man, using the impact zone of the proposed development as their winter residence.

Pale-bellied Brent Geese have only recently returned to their wintering haunt on the Isle of Man, following the slow recovery of Derbyhaven Bay from previous development, disturbance and pollution (pers. comm. from local residents).
The proposal for a new hotel to be built on Fort Island Road on the Langness Peninsula once again threatens this species’ existence on the Isle of Man.

Will current planning policy and controls prevent the loss of yet another species of wild bird from the Island? While the small wintering Manx population is not considered to reach the threshold for international significance, it is of utmost national significance – and unique – in the context of the Isle of Man’s natural heritage.