The Committee considered a report of the Corporate Director of Neighbourhoods and Climate Change which provided progress on the Ecological Emergency strategy and action plan (for copy of report see file of minutes).
Steve Bhowmick, Environment and Design Manager thanked the Committee, whose recommendation had led to the formal declaration of an ecological emergency for County Durham, by Cabinet at the meeting held on 6 April 2022. At that meeting, Cabinet also requested that an initial plan be produced relating to Council activities in response to the declaration. The initial strategy and action plan was presented to Cabinet on 14 December 2022.
Stuart Priestley, Principal Ecologist, highlighted that the initial plan aims to identify key areas of Council activity required to deliver against the ecological emergency, drawing across all Council services. The initial plan sets out current and proposed areas of activity within the three key themes of Land Management; Engagement, Education and Behaviour Change and Policies and Strategies. He stressed that it was an initial plan and Members were requested to provide their comments.
Councillor Adam questioned the length of time taken to produce the initial strategy and plan, highlighting that the declaration had been made by Cabinet in April 2022, however, the initial strategy and plan was not produced until December 2022. Councillor Adam also expressed concern at the lack of detail with regard to deadlines, targets and key performance indicators and commented that he felt those measures would be key to monitoring performance and he suggested that incremental targets should be set. The Principal Ecologist acknowledged the points and explained the difficulties of setting targets, prior to knowing the scope of work and what resources will be available.
Councillor Wilkes commented on the scale of the task ahead, including the assessment of current provision and the identification of resources, within the current financial constraints, including funding from external sources. Councillor Wilkes also spoke of ensuring that the plan is future-proof.
Councillor Sutton-Lloyd suggested that the term ecological opportunity would have been a more appropriate term to use, rather than ecological emergency and he recognised that a great deal of work had already been undertaken which should be developed, with a co-ordinated approach.
Councillor Brown highlighted the need to ensure the Council balances the competing demands of its sites, pointing out that a number of sites are multifunctional and are classed as a recreational, however they also have habitats and wildlife which require protection. Referring to the example of Pow Hill country park, Councillor Brown commented that the location had become increasingly popular with members of public and it had been suggested that this had resulted in the demise of the red squirrel in the area as the population of grey squirrels had increased.
Councillor Potts noted the need to ensure that biodiversity is included in planning obligations when considering development in the county. He provided the example of the Toft Hill bypass and stressed that net gain requirements must be met by developers.
The Principal Ecologist explained that future planning obligations were increasing as local authorities moved towards the introduction of mandatory biodiversity net gain, later in 2023. In addition, the Local Nature Recovery Strategy will include mapping opportunities to deliver for biodiversity.
Councillor Elmer referred to comments made by the UN Secretary General in relation to fossil fuel giants, stating that their business models were incompatible with human survival. Councillor Elmer went on to point out that global oil companies are a strategic partner of the Council through the pension fund and there was a need for wider consideration. He provided the view that some areas were missing from the initial plan, including the need for the Council to review practices with regard to verge planting and landscape schemes to maximise biodiversity and to consider the benefits to biodiversity in relation to land rentals and sales. Councillor Elmer also commented that it was important that the plan is embedded corporately to ensure change is driven forward throughout the Council as a whole. He also highlighted the opportunities for income generation from biodiversity net gain in relation to the amount of land held by the Council and the development of the visitor economy as a result of increased biodiversity.
The Environment and Design Manager commented that the declaration provided a unique opportunity for Members and officers to work together on a core agenda in respect of the ecological environment.
a) That the report and appendix 2 be noted.
b) That a further progress update be provided to a future meeting of the Committee.
c) That the Committee receives progress updates on the development of the Local Nature Recovery Strategy with the first update scheduled for the Environment and Sustainable Communities Overview and Scrutiny Committee meeting on the 12 May 2023.