Theresa Villiers’ acres, Rishi Sunak’s ‘taking back control’, Zac Goldsmith’s ‘ramp up’, the very real problem of Teesside International Airport, and the meaning of words.

*updated 29 Jan 2020 at the end of the blog

**updated again 31 Jan 2020 at the end of the first paragraph

I noticed recently that the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and MP Theresa Villiers delivered the government’s target for tree planting in the imperial unit of acres,  a measurement once described by an infamous English wit as a measurement of three rods, 9 perches, two pecks and a bushel by two cubits, seven chains and the length of your neighbour’s largest oxen (for nerds…that was a yoke). By contrast, in the 21st Century, a hectare is 100 metres by 100 metres. Obviously 75,000 acres sounds a lot more than approx. 30,000 hectares given most people can’t envisage either area, but nevertheless I’ve written a Freedom Of Information Request to find out what the government’s official unit of area measurement actually is, and whether Defra uses a different one. ** I was thanked for bringing the matter to their attention and they confirm hectares as the unit of measurement that “the Government intends to use in its targets going forward.”


A small part of the common bird’s-foot-trefoil studded grassland adjacent to the Airport.   Meadow barley can be found nearby.

In my local area the Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen campaigned on the importance of using public money to buy the local airport and indeed managed to do so when elected. When I was younger buying privately-owned businesses with public money was called nationalization, but I noticed that the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and MP Rishi Sunak called it ‘taking back control’ in his latest Darlington and Stockton Times column so perhaps the meaning of the word nationalization has been rebranded as ‘taking back control’ and we can expect buses, railways*, etc. to be taken back into control in future; this does rather seem at odds with the Prime Minister’s recent comments about how the UK was made great through championing Free Trade  . Counterpoint; it was made great by putting the word Great in front of the word Britain possibly because it was the largest Isle of many – but always tricky to be sure when words have different meanings.

The idea of control is an interesting one. Now that Teesside International Airport is in public ownership then the information about the wildflowers that grow there should be in the public domain. Having good survey data of the botanical composition of the 100 ha of semi-natural lowland grassland within its boundaries would help to see to see how it relates to the other similar grasslands in the Tees Valley. It could even be ancient grassland as some parts are clearly ridge and furrow – I know because I pointed to the evidence needed to have it included on the local Historic Environment Records database. The grassland is important nationally too, being in the top 10 % in terms of size in England, though when I emailed Natural England they said they have insufficient funding to survey it – it wasn’t even on their radar though it is now.

In a Tweet the unpaid and unelected Minister of State Zac Goldsmith asked us all to ‘ramp up our efforts’ in support of Nature (although at the time of the Tweet he was paid, elected, and Parliamentary Under Secretary of State) and so I did. I emailed Parliamentary Under Secretary of State with responsibility for Natural England and MP Rebecca Pow and asked if the Government were intending to increase the funding for Natural England back to the 2010 level. She didn’t reply, but I was informed by the person who did reply (after the 15 day target but they did apologise) that “grant-in-aid allocated to Natural England from Defra has reduced from £121.1 million in 2014/15 to £85.7 million in 2019/20” and “…overall funding position is close to the Defra group average [decrease] of 23% across the same period”. Sadly, it didn’t really answer my question which is one of the disadvantages of not using a Freedom of Information Request. In fact Natural England’s funding has been reduced to 2/5 of the 2009-10 total . Perhaps Minister of State Zac Goldsmith’s ‘ramp up our efforts’ means reduce to 2/5 of your effort in 2009-10; maybe I’m being a bit mean there and should say ‘reduce by 23% of 2014/15’s effort’ but, more seriously, the main limiting factor in the protection of biodiversity in the Tees Valley is the lack of resources for Natural England to carry out their statutory function under Section 2 of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006

ensure that the natural environment is conserved, enhanced and managed for the benefit of present and future generations, thereby contributing to sustainable development.

Anyway, back to the airport, I wrote to the Tees Valley Combined Authority (who are the Public Body that own most of the airport) to ask about what information was available on the composition of the grassland within the airport boundary on the 16th July 2019. My email wasn’t answered so I have just written it again as a Freedom Of Information Request and look forward to actually receiving an answer. The Tees Valley Combined Authority commissioned a report costing £17,719 in January 2019 to see if it was viable to sell the site for housing if the airport became financially nonviable in say 20 years and it said the site is worth about £42 million to create a ‘Garden Village’ style housing development (starts at p171 of 225) . There are also new plans to put an industrial park on part of the airport land (270 acres – the 21st Century waves “Hi”) .


All our public grasslands could easily be as rich in locally-native wildflowers as this one adjacent to the Airport

Meanwhile, the Local Nature Partnership have asked through the appropriately agreed procedure that the Teesside International Airport site be designated a Local Wildlife Site as it meets the qualifying criteria for locally important grassland within the Lower Tees Valley; the Unitary Borough having the airport’s main area within its boundaries refused to do so, with the support of the heads of all the other councils. I wrote to my MP about it on the 7th March 2019 but have not heard back – I actually wrote to all the MPs in the area because I thought they might work together as a team on behalf of the Tees Valley – apparently not, only your own MP can respond or not respond as the case may be. Recently I emailed a Freedom Of Information Request to the Unitary Authority to find out more details concerning why they refused to designate it as it was an unprecedented decision locally, and to ask for a copy of the report that mentioned the decision (it is no longer present at the same address on their website). I’m shall write it all up in my book ‘Finding England’s Ancient Grasslands’ with a chapter all to itself because I think the problems involved in finding out biodiversity information from people who don’t want you to know biodiversity information are pretty much universal in England.

And before I finish, one mention for what the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and MP Rishi Sunak suggests to be a future “key to re-balancing the North-South divide” which is the concept of Free Ports – two words that, as he points out, really mean Tax-Free Ports for Business, but then that doesn’t sound as good does it, not when we hear so much in the news about big companies avoiding paying tax?

*today it was announced that Northern railways will be nationalized on March 1st or as Secretary of State for Transport and MP Grant Shapps put it “Today (29 January 2020) marks the first small step towards the north taking back control of its railways and its people taking back control of their travelling lives.”  although I do note that the government seems to be saying in that press release that the problem is infrastructure which is under the control of Network Rail … a public sector body under the remit of the Department for Transport and therefore publicly owned.

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