This fight is bigger than us

When local residents first began the campaign to stop floodlights over Merrow Downs the harm was perceived mainly as one to human beings. People who cherish a natural landscape, dark skies and tranquillity. Tormead and County Schools, on the other hand, argued for the health benefits of the Urnfield development to young people.

Doesn’t this sound like a “first world” battle?

In the last three years the public mood has shifted, most obviously captured in the Wild Isles TV series, and our understanding as a group of local residents has also developed, as we have learnt more about the bigger issues at stake in this fight. Because this development is not simply about “spoiling the view” for a bunch of middle class NIMBYs. It is symptomatic of a dismissive approach to nature that is now being seen widely across government, business and civil society as deeply flawed and with the potential to undermine our very way of life, soon, if we do not all start to do things differently.

WWF, the RSPB and the National Trust have come together to launch an urgent call to action through #saveourwildisles. As part of the campaign they have produced a 30 minute film featuring business guru Deborah Meaden, John Lewis Chairman Sharon White, the CEO of Tesco and other leaders to urge businesses to act differently right now. Merely planning for Net Zero is insufficient, because continued nature depletion will undermine those efforts to decarbonise, whilst investing in nature recovery will facilitate our efforts towards Net Zero. The (perhaps reluctant) belief that the destruction of nature was a prerequisite for economic development is old hat. The phrase now being used by businesses with foresight is “Nature Positive Net Zero”.

A simple plan for business is outlined in the film. Firstly, every business needs to assess its interface with nature: what impact does it have on nature and where are its dependencies upon nature?

Secondly, an assessment needs to be done of the risks and opportunities to the business based on those interfaces with nature, and responses developed. The biggest risk to business, suggests one interviewee, is the relationship with customers. Because we know that customer views on the environmental and social role of businesses are changing rapidly.

Schools are businesses. They need to maximise bums on seats and deliver good (rounded) education and pastoral care safely. We, society, are their customers because we host, live with, pay for and are governed by, the young people they send out into the world.

The Urnfield campaign has centred around the impact of floodlight towers on both people and wildlife. Less has been said about the impact on nature of the development as a whole. Digging up a hectare of grassland (albeit heavily “improved” and mown) removes a large carbon sink, and water sponge at the top of a hill. Removing undisturbed (albeit slightly messy) scrub, shrub and hedging destroys habitats for a range of rare and common animals. Trimming the woodland and then shining bright lights on it will drive away nocturnal animals, and affect bird and insect behaviour. Covering this area of grassland with an artificial surface removes foraging trails and food sources for a whole range of species.

Replacing this nature with a couple of bat boxes and a thin strip of poorly thought out “wildflower meadow” (on a shaded north facing slope) cannot possibly represent adequate compensation. This is nowhere near being Nature Positive.

Tormead might reasonably argue that driving lots of buses powered by internal combustion engines to other hockey pitches in the local area also destroys nature as well as harming human health through air pollution. So why not use the money earmarked for the Urnfield to invest in electric buses? What message about the value of nature is given to our young people by building over the Urnfield ground? What alternatives might a different approach to nature bring in ensuring good health and wellbeing for the students at Tormead and County School? Surely the current proposal merely reinforces the old school (excuse the pun) thinking which pits nature against economic development. Because be under no illusion – this development is about money, for both schools.

Even if we do not have daughters at Tormead, we are their customers. When a former Tormead pupil runs a company or a public body that provides goods and services for me, I am Tormead’s customer. We will all live with the consequences of the values instilled in their students. And their business.

It’s worth a watch, whatever your business….How can businesses solve the nature crisis?

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