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Paul Outhwaite, RSPB
Paul Outhwaite says that the Thames Gateway is both a massive threat to Kent’s birds and a fantastic opportunity to create a natural environment that benefits both wildlife and people. But developers and conservationists need to work together...
The low sun casts long, crisp shadows over the frozen ground. Only the gentle whistling of widgeon, flying in to roost and feed on the North Kent Marshes, breaks the stillness of the underlying silence. It’s a peaceful, uplifting scene and is typical of the sights and sounds to be found in the Thames Gateway, the largest and most ambitious economic regeneration project in Europe.
North Kent marshes from Northward Hill. Photo:RSPB
The Government has identified the Thames Gateway as an area for massive redevelopment. The issues that catch the headlines are the proposals for new roads, new houses (up to around 150,000 of them) and even new airports. What tends to be overlooked is the area’s exceptional wildlife. It is of true global significance and yet the benefits that this can, and should, bring to the people who live and work in the area are often overlooked.
Spectacular numbers of birds depend on the area to survive the winter and the estuaries and marshes of North Kent are one of the unsung wonders of the natural world. There can be almost 300,000 birds present at any one time, with many more passing through on migration. Every year, many thousands of ducks, like widgeon, teals and pintails, and wading birds, such as dunlins, knots and avocets, many from beyond the Arctic Circle, arrive to winter in the Thames Gateway in huge numbers.
The area is also of considerable historical and cultural significance. Napoleonic forts overlook the river, and the marshland of North Kent is the background against which Charles Dickens set some of his most memorable stories. You can even visit the churchyard where Magwitch first met Pip in Great Expectations.
An Avocet. Photo: RSPB
The RSPB, which is Europe’s largest wildlife conservation charity, could all too easily see the Thames Gateway as a massive threat. Certainly, there are threats. The recent suggestion to site an airport near Cliffe is perhaps the biggest (and most ridiculous) example. Nevertheless, the Thames Gateway also offers a fantastic opportunity to deliver the best of both worlds: to be a dynamic, world-class economy set within a natural environment that brings benefits to wildlife and people.
The key to this is integration. Too often, we talk about balancing development and conservation. That implies separating the natural environment from built development – that bit’s yours for wildlife; this bit’s ours to develop. That approach is way too simplistic, more so today than ever before when the greenhouse gas emissions from new developments (be they commercial or domestic) are having an increasing effect on the world we live in.
Dunlin over the estuary. Photo: RSPB
There are areas, such as the internationally and nationally protected sites where wildlife must come first. There are also areas where development is the top priority: some of the new housing proposals could be an example.
However, even these extremes developers (and conservationists) should be thinking about how to integrate the two. For the wildlife sites, are there opportunities for access and recreation? When considering new housing proposals, how can their impact on the natural environment be reduced, perhaps by including energy and water efficiency measures and by looking at how to include greenspace as part of the development.
A Pintail. Photo: RSPB
Research demonstrates that access to greenspace benefits people’s health and well being. It can also enhance perceptions of an area, making it more attractive for investment. These assets must be acknowledged and used to ensure a secure and sustainable future for all the inhabitants of the Thames Gateway.
The RSPB is committed to providing access to the land that it manages in the Thames Gateway (currently about 20 square kilometres). We want to see people enjoying close encounters with nature or perhaps just enjoying a walk. At RSPB Rainham Marshes, on the Essex-London border, we are already doing this. With financial support from Thurrock Thames Gateway Development Corporation, together with the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Cleanaway Havering Riverside Trust amongst others, we have been able to open up access there for the first time in over 100 years. There are now nature trails, outdoor teaching opportunities and a state of the art centre.
In North Kent, the RSPB has around 10 square kilometres of land with eight sites from Gravesend to the Isle of Sheppey. These sites already attract many visitors. Over the next few years, the RSPB wants to work with local people, government and developers to create a network of wildlife sites, with Cliffe Pools at its heart, that will enhance the area’s environment, protect its wildlife and which can be enjoyed by people from the local communities and visitors alike.
We would like to be confident that developers, and the Government, have the same commitment towards providing a high quality environment for people to live and work in.
Can it be done? Can the Thames Gateway set the world standard as a place that has a thriving economy while recognising and embracing the benefits that a top quality environment can offer? Some signs are pointing in the right direction. People at all levels see the vision of a sustainable Thames Gateway as a reality.
“We want to see the Thames Gateway become a world class model of sustainable development, with the living landscape at its heart.”
This is not the statement of some die-hard conservationist. It is from the Government’s own publication Greening the Gateway. The opportunity to deliver this vision exists now. If we succeed, the Thames Gateway could be the envy of the world; if we fail, we will all be the poorer – economically, environmentally and spiritually.
Paul Outhwaite, RSPB. January 2007
last updated: 05/06/2008 at 11:40