Jobs or birds: Turning Rio rhetoric into reality

Birds at Dungeness The site is home to many birds

Under the vast skies of a lonely corner of south-east England, a battle over the future of an airport mirrors countless similar contests between Man and Nature around the world.

Amid the stark flat lands of Romney Marsh in Kent, an ancient and eerie terrain of shingle, lakes and reeds, rival forces representing development and conservation are ranged against each other.

Once a haunt for smugglers, the marshes are now better known as the scene of two very different sights: the grey hulks of Dungeness nuclear power station and countless species of birds, many of them exceptionally rare.

The contest is over a plan to transform tiny Lydd Airport into a hub for two million passengers a year.

The question is whether this can take place without doing untold damage to the wildlife.

This is just the kind of challenge on the agenda for world leaders as they prepare to travel to Brazil next week for the Rio+20 summit on sustainable development.

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The aim, in theory at least, is to forge a new path in which the actions of this generation do not wreck the chances of the next one. ”

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The gathering is a 20th anniversary attempt to rekindle the fires of environmental ambition that marked the famous Earth Summit held in Rio in 1992.

The aim, in theory at least, is to forge a new path in which the actions of this generation do not wreck the chances of the next one.

Many new jobs

The plan in Romney Marsh is to extend the existing runway to make it capable of handling passenger jets to create what will be called London Ashford Airport. In the process, something like 350-400 jobs should be created.

In this eastern edge of Kent, a region blighted by high unemployment, a multi-million pound investment on this scale is music to the ears of some, including the group Supporters of Lydd Airport.

Tim Crompton, a spokesman, who runs a local hotel, describes the airport proposal as 'obviously good' for the area - with economic benefits spreading from the airport itself into the wider community through sub-contractors and support services.

light aircraft Airport expansion threatens wildlife

He points out that the nuclear power station, a major employer, is due to be shut down in coming years and he has no time for those fighting the plan.

"Would you really put birds before jobs?" he asks.

"The reality is that people's progress and people's living and life is more important than a few bits of flora and fauna which will still be here no matter what."

The flora and fauna in question include some unique species of plants, insects and birds that thrive in the unique mix of shingle banks, reed beds and lakes that make up the marshes.

Reed Bunting, Sandwich Terns, Shovelers, Bewick's swans, Bitterns, Grebes and even Purple Heron - all are among those seen in the RSPB's Dungeness reserve, one of its most treasured.

Spokesman Andre Farrar called it: "One of our Crown Jewels - the special of the special."

Legal protection

Such is the value of these wetlands that for decades they have enjoyed the maximum level of legal protection - a Special Area of Conservation, a Special Protection Area and a Site of Special Scientific Interest - meant to provide a 'triple-lock' of conservation.

Andre Farrar says that geology and location have combined to create such a vital area - a shingle peninsula jutting into the Channel.

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A decision on Romney Marsh will be a crucial test of whether the cry for jobs outweighs the defence of the natural world. ”

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He said: "It would be a huge mistake to nibble at this special protection for an economic benefit that's probably illusory."

The RSPB is one of several organisations fighting the airport plan, the opposition coordinated by the Lydd Airport Action Group.

He points out that one million visitors a year come to the reserve - a potentially vital stream of revenue to the local area.

And this goes to the heart of the struggle in so many parts of the world. The area needs an economic boost but at what cost?

Tim Crompton thinks the birds won't be harmed - the airport was far busier in the 60s and 70s when the planes co-existed perfectly happily with the wildlife.

And if there is a clash, he reckons, the birds' instinct for self-preservation will lead them to move.

Relocation of birds
Dungeness lighthouse The site is much loved for its natural beauty

Andre Farrar disagrees. He thinks the threat of bird strikes to the vulnerable engines of passenger jets will make it essential for the birds to be relocated or even killed - safety will require it.

In many cases a possible solution is offered by national legislation.

Projects impacting on the natural world should either be adjusted or provide an equivalent or larger area of terrain in compensation.

The locations and numbers of offshore wind turbines in the London Array wind farm were altered to take account of red-throated divers.

The design of the new London Gateway port includes 'compensation sites' for wildlife forced to move.

Ensuring this system functions successfully is clearly essential if economic growth is not to ruin the natural world - and it has plenty of critics.

A recent study by the Policy Exchange, a pro-free market think tank, identified a failure in the planning process that stifled development while not protecting biodiversity.

The report, Nurturing Nature highlighted the importance of the natural environment to economic activity - that ecological processes deliver the resources needed for economic progress - but 11 of 15 of the most important UK habitats are declining.

It found that although particular patches of land are protected, they form 'ghettos' which are not connected by the corridors that wildlife needs.

The report also concluded that protecting areas of land did not always mean protecting particular species and that the effectiveness of compensation schemes for biodiversity was rarely monitored.

The study argued that managing biodiversity needs to be enshrined in the design stages of projects, especially if the principle of a 'net gain' in biodiversity is to be achieved.

No alternative

But what if the area in question is unique, as the conservation bodies say of Romney Marsh?

What if no other areas will offer the same type of terrain and conditions, making 'compensation' impossible?

At the Rio Summit, only the British delegation is likely to have heard of Romney Marsh.

But each team will have its own equivalent in mind and be wrestling with the same question.

The last big gathering of this kind 20 years ago pledged international action to tackle climate change and the growing threat to the natural world.

In the two decades since, emissions of carbon dioxide have risen by 40% and the number of species that are safe has declined by 12% as habitats are eroded.

In many areas, conservationists have had successes - more of the planet is protected by national parks and reserves than ever before. But the state of the economy has made these battles more intense.

A decision on Romney Marsh will be a crucial test of whether the cry for jobs outweighs the defence of the natural world. The planning inquiry's verdict is due later this year.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 84.

    If the UK wants a hub airport it should be halfway between London and Birmingham close to the M40 and the new high speed rail link i.e. ex RAF/USAF Upper Heyford not stuck down in the South East of Kent.

  • rate this

    Comment number 83.


    "...More jobs for the sake of jobs not because stuff actually needs doing..."


    I had one like that in the 1970s, along with many others, and they got us off to a good start.

    Much better than job cuts for the sake of job cuts, even though stuff does need doing, as we have now...

  • rate this

    Comment number 82.

    69. Rob
    Dinosoaurs died out as a result of a meteor strike, hardly 'natural selection'. The birds that die out, as a result of this 'development' will be do so by a bunch of selfish, allegedly intelligent primates, who's only concern is money.
    As for your comment about the teraputic effects of nature, seriously? I hope you've not procreated as I'd love to see you on the endangered species list!

  • rate this

    Comment number 81.

    The point of "hubs" is that they are widely spaced centres where traffic concentrates.

    How is Lydd suposed to compete with Gitwack and, particularly, Heathrow?

  • rate this

    Comment number 80.

    That's a lot of personal value judgements required for evaluating one dilemma ! and across time---present and future, across species---humans, flora, fauna, across space---local and global, and more probably--as well as seeing what is need and what is desire when attempting to prioritise.

  • rate this

    Comment number 79.

    The best thing that could be done for the economy and unemployed on the Isle of Thanet would be to build factories on the runway at Manston. After 30 years of hearing the false promises of prosperity from those who promote it as an airport the locals are sick of hearing it. History has shown it will never have the business it needs to succeed, so would you invest £100M in a high speed rail link?

  • rate this

    Comment number 78.

    Who is supposed to use this airport? As somebody who lives in the populous area to the west of London, I would never want to travel all the way to Kent to get on a 'plane.
    I would prefer better rail links to Birmingham International and other existing airports, rather than new airports being built.
    This country has spent billions on construction and is in recession, a new strategy is needed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 77.

    Andre Farrar says geology & location have combined to create such a vital area - a shingle peninsula jutting into the Channel.
    I agree with Farrar: "It would be a huge mistake to nibble at this special protection for an economic benefit that's probably illusory."

  • rate this

    Comment number 76.

    Manston should be the first choice. High speed rail not far away, lots of space around it. Area of high unemployment, close to Dover and Ramsgate Ports, huge runway, far fewer SSSI's nearby. It's a no brainer for long term development. Lydd is no better than Biggin Hill for development.

  • rate this

    Comment number 75.

    As has already been said, why redevelop Lydd airport which in reality is in the middle of nowhere (ie. no nearby transport links) when Kent International at Manston is already there. It already has a runway that services passenger jets so again why do we need another 30 miles away that will also affect the wildlife. What about the road and rail infrastructure that will also need to be built.

  • rate this

    Comment number 74.

    "Jobs a are necessitous now"

    the project is planned to take 15 years minimum to build very little to do with jobs now.

    The money could be invested to create far more jobs, with +ve effect on environment. Change is needed but it can be done without destroying environment.

  • rate this

    Comment number 73.

    I live in this area and I know lots of 'minumum wage' people also don't want their homes destroyed by an airport which won't provide local jobs as most staff will move from other airports, will ruin the area they grew up in, stop other government investment as this will be seen as 'the answer' to all the area's problems and is really a money making presitge project for politicans, architects etc.

  • rate this

    Comment number 72.

    So many fuddy duddy conservatives on this website i thought the BBC was non-partisan. The scorn for minimum wage workers is unbelievable on this thread, a few traditionalists with an idea of green and pleasant are you lot working for Danny Boyle? Jobs a are necessitous now, coming with it more air passenger duty and flights to up and coming markets. So go with a more progressive strategy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 71.

    Air (and other) travel is a necessity. That some creatures will be impacted is inevitable.

    Make the decision, start the project and move on. These are not bears, tigers or whales. And we are creating other wetland habitats along our coastline so there is a fair balance.

  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    69 Rob.

    the point you are missing is some are arguing the attitude that it doesn't matter if something becomes extinct may directly lead to our extinction.

    This would not be a cycle but a consequence.

    If you truly hold such nihilistic attitudes as not seeing any difference between an action which extincts a species or not - then there'd be no point in doing anything (including flying)

  • rate this

    Comment number 69.

    67. Steve
    Isn't that the point though. if some one had decided the dinosaurs were worth saving then those little warm blooded mammals would never have had the chance to become us. So the cycle must continue. The ducks at this site that can't adapt, die a new creature that can adapt gets the chance to thrive. If (and I have no doubt we will) we die out then again something gets that chance.

  • rate this

    Comment number 68.

    Looking at this conflict particularly, old readers will recall that Lydd was handling probably 50 commercial flights per day in summers back in the 1960s, shuttling between Kent and Calais, Ostend, and Le Touquet.

    So what impact the "expansion" would actually have, compared with 50 years ago is debatable. Whether the "new" Lydd will ever be successfully is even more suspect.

  • rate this

    Comment number 67.

    Economic well being is all very well but if we continue to ignore the need to protect nature then we will suffer in the long run. We can't continue to put unbridled growth ahead of the natural world. If we keep on as we are then the global biosphere will collapse and humans could end up as an ex species that once lived on the Earth just like the dinosaurs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 66.

    More jobs for the sake of jobs not because stuff actually needs doing - we're getting something badly wrong there. Also, a world where everything is convenient and functional but dull, ugly, and characterless would be absolute hell to live in. There's a balance to be found but the money obsessed don't seem to realise it (and don't really care that a lot of people are miserable because of it).

  • rate this

    Comment number 65.

    Nobody's mentioned that about 30 miles away is Kent International Airport - up for sale. It's a former NATO diversionary field with a massive runway. They've been promoting it commercially for 20 years and got nowhere

    Passenger numbers in Kent IA: 25,813

    Heathrow passengers: 69,233,430

    Looks like a Dungeness based airport would be a huge white elephant as well as an environmental mistake


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