Dr. Dave Dawson, ex-GLA, and John Archer, LB Tower Hamlets Biodiversity Officer and ex-GLA
London has a trend-setting framework for protecting and enhancing biodiversity. The Mayor’s Biodiversity Strategy(1) has two main themes: protecting important wildlife habitat and priority species, and improving access to nature. These two themes are reflected in the strategy’s two main targets: no net loss of important wildlife habitat, and reducing areas of deficiency in access to nature. The London Plan(2) reflects the same themes and Londoners can be proud that a comprehensive series of wildlife sites has been protected. This amounts to some 30,400ha,(3) or 19% of London’s land area, divided across fully 1,400 individual sites.(4) Despite this comprehensive protection in planning, large areas of London lie far from accessible nature. The Areas of Deficiency in Access to Nature(5) indicate the extent of this deprivation. These currently total some 25,000ha,(6) so that many Londoners lack nearby access to a natural site.
How did all this planning for nature get into place? Well, the origins date back to the early 80s when Ken Livingstone’s Greater London Council decided to embark on ground-breaking work in urban nature conservation. By 1983, Ken had a team of ecologists led by Dr. (now Prof.) David Goode. David saw the need for a comprehensive survey of London’s wildlife habitat, and the London Wildlife Trust was commissioned to undertake this. The protocol for the original survey was developed by Dr. Meg Game and this is still the foundation for comprehensive surveys in London.(7)
After the abolition of the Greater London Council in 1986, the work was continued for London boroughs by the London Ecology Unit. The two themes of the Biodiversity Strategy were there from the outset. There was already a UK tradition for identifying sites to protect on the basis of their “intrinsic” value for nature conservation, but most of the best sites were distant from London and the few in the capital were far from where most people lived. For example a resident of Lambeth would have had to travel over 10 kilometres to their nearest SSSI. The new London system built on the survey results and existing UK nature conservation practice, but was also inspired by the excellent work on access to open spaces in the Report of Studies on the proposed Greater London Development Plan.
This led to the use of a hierarchy of search areas to facilitate access to the best sites across London.(8) Sites of Metropolitan Importance were selected on a London-wide basis. Borough sites, however, were selected from candidates within each borough, so ensuring that each had some sites identified. The lowest tier of sites was selected as the best to redress the remaining local deficiencies, and the Report of Studies suggested the mechanism for this, leading to the development of the “Areas of Deficiency in Access to Nature”, drawn around the metropolitan and borough sites. Local sites were selected as the best located to redress these deficiencies. Another inspiration for the local sites was the refusal, in 1983, of planning permission to develop Gunnersbury Triangle, primarily on the basis of it being the best site in its locality in suburban London. All site selection employed comprehensive survey information, so ensuring that all candidate sites could be compared even-handedly against defined criteria.
Up until 2000, when the London Ecology Unit was absorbed into the new Greater London Authority, the sites and areas were described in detailed Ecology Handbooks, one for each individual borough that supported the Unit. These handbooks provide a full reference to the important areas in most London boroughs.
When the Greater London Authority came into being, the first Mayor recognised the strategic importance of London’s wildlife sites system, and the GLA took a leading role. The Mayor formally endorsed the Sites of Metropolitan Importance and established a 10-year rolling programme of habitat survey to ensure the sites could be reviewed using up-to-date data. Responsibility for designating borough and local sites was, quite properly, passed over to the boroughs, but the GLA took a lead in reviewing these sites working closely with the boroughs, when each borough was surveyed.
It was at this time, too, that London’s wildlife sites moved into the digital age – they had previously existed only on paper maps. The massive task of digitising some 1,400 sites (some of which, like the canal network and the Lee Valley, are enormous and very convoluted) was contracted by the GLA to the London Wildlife Trust’s Biological Recording Project, GiGL’s predecessor. Mandy, now GiGL’s Director, recalls that time fondly;
“The digitising was undertaken by Jon Riley and his crazy Australian alter-ego, Sue. One of the many by-products of the project was a gallery in London Wildlife Trust’s kitchen of SINC boundaries that resembled Scottie dogs, gorillas, sunglasses and objects not suitable for listing here.”
The habitat survey programme ended with the survey of Bromley in 2008/9, completing at least one resurvey of every borough since the original 1984/5 Greater London Council survey. There is now no London-wide lead in gathering information on London’s habitats, but individual boroughs do undertake surveys as and when resources and political will allow.
The London Wildlife Sites Board (LWSB) was set up in 2010 to oversee the review of London’s wildlife sites. Chaired by the GLA and including representatives from the boroughs, London Wildlife Trust, GiGL and the London Geodiversity Partnership, the LWSB’s role is similar to that previously played by the GLA’s biodiversity team. For example, the LWSB will comment on proposals to add, delete or change the boundaries of metropolitan sites. For borough and local sites, the board will look at and endorse the process undertaken by boroughs in reviewing sites but has no role in the evaluation of individual sites.
Despite political changes over the last 20 years, the sites have fared well. Over the years, proposed designations in local plans have been challenged, but with very little success, given the excellence of the data, the adopted criteria and the even-handed process of evaluation. Similarly, it has proved difficult for developers to challenge the designation of sites. But every planning decision is a local matter, and the most important reason for this success is that local people support site protection. National advice on the designation of non-statutory sites(9) has retrospectively endorsed large parts of the London procedure, but sadly it failed to recommend explicitly the use of a hierarchy of search areas, including Areas of Deficiency, an essential element of site selection in our London system.
Areas of Deficiency are still used as an aid for the selection of local sites, but have also been employed as a graphic way to document and indicate progress in making nature accessible in London. One of the adopted indicators of the state of London’s environment is the extent of its Areas of Deficiency(6). Some confusion has resulted from various attempts to develop guidance for similar systems across the UK.(10) The London system provides a coarse indicator, both of places where new access is of the highest priority(11) and of progress in providing access. There is nothing sacred about the one-kilometre walking distance employed, except that it has proved eminently practical over many years of use, and that any other arbitrary distance of about the right magnitude would serve the same purpose.
We need continued vigilance to protect the London system against attrition from lack of investment in our vital, local, natural places.
1. “Connecting with London’s nature.” The Mayor of London’s Biodiversity Strategy. July 2002.
2. “The London Plan. Spatial Development Strategy for Greater London”, July 2011. Policy 7.19.
3. The full statistics were provided in the Mayor’s first State of the Environment Report “Green Capital”, published in May 2003. Very little has changed since, but this statistic is from the second report “Greener London”, published in June 2007.
4. From “Green Capital”
5. Defined in Appendix 1 of the Biodiversity Strategy.
6. From “Greener London”. Sadly, the 2012 State of the Environment Report does not measure the change in this important indicator since the previous measurement.
7. The most recent published version of this is in Appendix 4 of the Biodiversity Strategy.
8. The detailed criteria and procedures are given in Appendix 1 of the Biodiversity Strategy.
9. “Local Sites. Guidance on their identification, selection and management”. Defra, 2006.
10. See English Nature Research Report 256 “Accessible natural greenspace standards in towns and cities: a review and toolkit for their implementation”
11. “Improving Londoners’ Access to Nature”, London Plan Implementation Report, February 2008.