Peter Alfrey is to quit his role as wildlife warden at Beddington Farmlands nature reserve, accusing the local council, Greater London Authority and incineration company Viridor of a “greenwash” and of multiple broken promises, all of which is causing an environmental disaster “on a catastrophic scale”.
“For biodiversity and for the potential of Beddington Farmlands being a major urban nature reserve in South London, all seems nearly lost,” Alfrey has written this week.
Alfrey says he is “shipping out”, to pursue other projects.
He reserves his fiercest criticism not for the “incompetent” local authorities who have failed to protect their patch and interests of local residents, nor for multi-billion-pound multi-national companies, but for the larger environmental charities which he accuses of “selling out”.
Alfrey has seen key species at Beddington Farmlands all but wiped out during his time working on the environment project there – tree sparrows were down to one pair by last winter, compared to more than one thousand pairs in the country’s largest breeding population just eight years earlier.
“Beddington Farmlands is a glimpse of the future for the rest of the UK, if democracy continues to be eroded by profiteering career ecologists, lawyers, incompetent local authorities and walking dead local communities. In many ways the commercial corporations are just doing their job – the blame arguably lies predominately with the conservation community for selling out.
“The Battle for Beddington Farmlands has been lost in a catastrophic way, and the rest of the UK is next unless something radical changes and the conservation community remodels itself away from its reliance on corporate funding to survive, the same corporations which are destroying the environment on a catastrophic scale.”
Beddington Farmlands is a 400-acre site, close to the Croydon-Sutton borough boundary, with Mitcham Common and Beddington Park nearby. It is Metropolitan Open Land and is designated a Site of Importance for Nature Conservation, and has been a home for eight endangered bird species, including the northern lapwing and tree sparrow and nationally important wintering populations of green sandpiper, caspian gull and water pipit.
In 1995 Viridor was granted permission to landfill the area on the condition that it would be restored to a public nature reserve by 2015. A conservation management plan was drawn up and various target species for conservation were selected to monitor the success of the restoration. The permission included a series of conditions, including the creation of a number of biodiversity action plan habitats such as wet grassland, acid grassland and reed beds.
By 2015, though, instead of opening a public nature reserve in south London to rival the Wetland Centre or Rainham Marshes, Viridor were building an industrial-scale incinerator on the site. A formal complaint to the Local Government Ombudsman over the lack of enforcement of planning conditions and the resulting ecological collapse of Beddington Farmlands led to no action being taken, with the public servant Ombudsman also deciding to keep the results of their deliberation secret.
For Alfrey, he feels there’s little more that he can do – and he also fears that much of his ecology work has been abused by Viridor to provide a cover of environmental credibility for their work, while they ignore their legal responsibilities.
“There’s just not much that can be done,” Alfrey told Inside Croydon, saying that he feels he has been “bashing my head against a brick wall”.
“I think the work we’re doing with the bird report and the natural history recording is giving a respectability to the Viridor restoration which they use to ‘greenwash’ what is actually an ecological disaster.
“I think they are using our own work against our group objectives. So I just want to step back but try and keep involved with any fundamental changes that might be possible.”
Alfrey lists a number of initiatives which have been agreed by all parties that should be put in place, “such as getting in a national conservation e-NGO to manage the restoration, the completion of the Restoration Management Plan, the appointment of a reserve warden, setting up a green team to manage the reserve day-to-day, the development of a visitors centre as per the objective of the Hackbridge Neighbourhood Plan and the establishment of a management group that develops and manages public access”.
But there has been little, if any, sign of progress. “Viridor and the newly-formed Conservation and Access Management Committee are ultimately responsible for all of that but meeting four times a year is at worse hopeless or a best a very, very slow process,” he said.
“At this pace and projection what wildlife is going to be left? At this rate, not much.
“The situation at Beddington Farmlands is in a dire state. There have been some gestures by Viridor to improve the situation and the council has pledged to encourage Viridor to fulfill their planning obligations, but there have been no fundamental changes and the situation continues to decline, with new threats on the horizon including the de-designation of Metropolitan Open Land along the east boundary of the site and the phasing out of sewage disposal in an area that makes up nearly 50 per cent of the Site of Importance for Nature Conservation.
Alfrey suggests that Viridor will eventually deliver a sort of sanitised nature theme park alongside their potentially polluting incinerator, rather than any genuine wildlife habitat as once existed on the site. “What will probably remain in the future is some kind of view of nature that Viridor feel is appropriate – a waste management company’s idea of what nature is… a few pools of water and something that looks green, with a few ducks and swans on the lakes.
“The biodiversity action plan habitats have not been created, the target species have all but been lost and there have been no legally binding commitments to any fundamental changes to imply anything in the future will be different – the only commitments made have been verbal, which if the past is anything to go by is at best appeasement and at worst blatant deceit.”
Perhaps above all else, Alfrey feels let down by the major environmental organisations, including the RSPB, and the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, which have received funding through Viridor’s “charity” arm, Viridor Environmental Credits.
In the past, the bird charity has received several substantial grants from Viridor, via its environmental credits backdoor.
- These have included £128,000 from the Landfill Communities Fund – basically tax-payers’ money which Viridor gets to allocate to “causes” of its choosing – towards a lagoon near Poole in Dorset.
- Then there was the £700,000 grant from Viridor for the RSPB’s Great Crane Project, operated together with the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust.
- Or the £406,000 Viridor “environmental” cash that was paid towards a lapwing reserve at Middleton Lakes in Warwickshire.
- And there was an unspecified cash sum to provide “a facelift” (the RSPB’s description, not ours) to a visitor centre at a reserve in Devon.
All in all, it adds up to at least £1.2 million of Viridor charity funds handed over for high-profile RSPB projects in the last four years.
Viridor, meanwhile, has landed a £1 billion contract from four south London councils, including Croydon, to build and operate the waste incinerator on Beddington Lane for 25 years.
Alfrey feels let down by the likes of the RSPB – slogan: “Giving nature a home” – and WWT, accusing them of being complicit in the destruction of Beddington. “All these organisations have kept considerable distance in the Battle for Beddington – another indication of the scale of the failure of the planning system, where developers have more or less complete control over local communities and the environment.
“Beddington Farmlands represent a very good example of complete planning system failure in protecting wildlife and a demonstration that it is possible for a private corporation almost to completely wriggle out of their social and environmental obligations without any serious effects on their rolling agendas.
“It is also a case study of commercial ecologists assisting in that destruction and a demonstration of the ineffectiveness of local authority to have any control of a commercial corporation when it comes to biodiversity obligations.”
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