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From a landfill to a nature park

18 March 2009

Had a fascinating day with the Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts last Friday, courtesy of their Chief Executive Stephanie Hilborne, Rob Stoneman (CEO of the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust) and John Hall who runs their operations in Essex. RSWT run the Local Food programme for us but they were interested in showing me how their wider activites make a difference to communities and people most in need.

We looked, in particular, at their Living Landscapes programme. In brief, Living Landscapes are areas of the country of specific natural interest which RSWT look to focus on in an integrated fashion, with others, to transform spaces, not just to improve the natural environment but improve health, well-being, quality of life, a more sustainable economy etc.  [A bit like BIG’s “Breathing Places” on stilts I suppose.]  They also produced some maps for me, showing the correalation between their identified Living Landscapes and areas of multiple deprivation.  I said our focus was on people – we were very clear about how good quality, open spaces could enhance life in many ways. We were particularly keen on connecting those least likely to take advantage of such opportunities with the benefits that might accrue.

A recurring topic of debate was whether BIG’s “environmental” programmes were sufficiently connected with the rest of our business. We have used Award Partners to assess and manage grant applications across this aspect of our portfolio which could accentuate that divide. We talked around various other ways of incorporating particular environmental expertise into decision-making, rather more akin to how we use young people with other decision-making Committees, for example.

As to the visits themselves, the first was to the “Thameside Nature Park”, probably better known at present as the East Tilbury landfill site. For over 20 years, the rubbish from six London boroughs has been piled up there – 30 or so containers a day, each holding around 15 tonnes of rubbish.  The scale of the site is remarkable.  I’m afraid my awe at the engineering and managerial logistics of all this (as opposed to my appreciation of the skylarks) was probably all too apparent!

We drove over the top of it and down to the jetty in a four-wheel drive, but the 647 hectare site is typically completely closed to the public.  Landscaping is starting to happen and when the site closes in 2011, the intention is to open the whole vast place up to people for the first time, for recreational and wildlife purposes.  There seemed to be excellent partnership working between RSWT and Cory Environmental (the contractors who run the site and are obliged to return it to public use). This will be done through the RSWT taking a “pie-crust” lease on the surface of the land, with Cory retaining the liabilities below.  East Tilbury itself was a real eye-opener for me.  A town built around a Bata shoe factory, which closed in the 1980s and still stands there ruined amid little other local employment.

From there we visited Chafford Hundred. This is a new town of about 12,000 houses, all of which have sprung up in the last 10 years or so, clustered around the tops of some chalk pits.  The development conditions included provision of a green space at the centre so one of the pits has been developed to include lakes, paths and wildlife.  RSWT operate a Nature Reserve Visitor centre at the top of the hill, with spectacular views over the “gorge”. They are clearly working hard to generate interest (school trips, community meetings) and revenue (birthday parties, school holiday events, gift shop).

Once again the setting was truly spectacular, the vision impressive and one could quickly see the host of issues facing a community in transition from wasteland to 12,000 people almost all new to an area, living almost on top of one another and with no history to bind them together. The environment was something they could share.


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