Agenda item

Management of DCC land for Biodiversity - Overview


The Committee considered a report of the Corporate Director of Neighbourhoods and Climate Change which provided information on the role of the Parks and Countryside team, together with colleagues within the Clean and Green team, to deliver management of nature reserves and green spaces across Durham County Council owned land (for copy of report and presentation see file of minutes).


The Committee welcomed Geoff Knight, Technical and Service Development Manager and Darryl Cox, Principal Parks and Countryside Ranger, to the meeting. Introducing the presentation, the Principal Parks and Countryside Ranger outlined the three main objectives of the team which are access for all, the maintenance and conservation of landscape, wildlife and historical features and the strengthening of community links and participation.


The Committee heard that the estate comprises of 63 sites including two major parks, Hardwick Park and Wharton Park and includes 75 miles of railway path network. A team of countryside rangers are responsible for the parks whilst assistant rangers deliver activities.  All sites have a management plan and some of the sites benefit from Defra stewardship schemes and receive financial support. 


Following the Covid-19 pandemic a comprehensive volunteering programme had been re-established and work is undertaken with private companies to support them to fulfil their corporate social responsibilities.  Engagement with schools is carried out and other activities include volunteering, guided walks, community engagement and partnership projects.  Partnerships with agencies such as the Bright Water Landscape Partnership and the Seascapes and Heritage Coast are key in order to share good practice on regional and national developments.  In addition, engagement work is also undertaken with multi-agency partnerships relating to matters such as accessibility and public health.


Outlining recent challenges for the service, the Principal Parks and Countryside Ranger commented on the impact of austerity measures and how this had forced a a refocus within the service.  More recent challenges included shifting government priorities and issues arising from Brexit.  Natural capital accounting requires the Council to consider how the value of its assets is measured, and as survey monitoring requires intensive resources, a phased approach is being undertaken as part of the Ecological Emergency Action Plan and the initial focus is on local wildlife sites. Condition assessments will be commissioned in due course. 



Opportunities for the future include the use of satellite technology which it is hoped will assist to identify long-term trends.  Public engagement is becoming increasingly important and Bioblitz events encourage public participation to identify and record different species and this is being extended across the estate.  Whilst the pandemic highlighted the importance of nature and outdoor space to health and wellbeing, the recent cost of living crisis was having an impact on income streams.  Recent investment in staff had enabled a refocus of activity to help to address the climate and ecological emergency declarations. Biodiversity net gain, which requires developers to contribute to biodiversity as part of the planning process, provides new opportunities and work is underway to identify appropriate land. 


The Technical and Service Development Manager, Geoff Knight, then provided information on the Clean and Green Service which is responsible for providing grounds maintenance in areas such as schools, cemeteries and parks and open spaces.  In its approach, the service aims to balance the promotion of biodiversity whilst maintaining public amenities and the Manager spoke of the plans for future biodiversity interventions and the development of a strategy with the Ecology team for habitat and meadow creation which will follow national mapping of the commonly used pollinator corridors across the country.


The Committee heard that the Clean and Green team are seeking to change the management of currently mown grassed areas in order to encourage wildlife.  In order to encourage biodiversity along highway verges, routine maintenance will change and all verges will be reduced to one cut per year, to a maximum depth of 15cm, however this will exclude sightlines in order that road safety is not compromised. 


The Committee also received information on the review of the use of herbicides in public spaces and the consideration of alternatives to glyphosate and trials of pelargonic and acetic acids. The Committee noted the appendix to the report which was a study by Cardiff Council, found glyphosate was the most effective and cheapest option. The Technical and Service Development Manager also explained that the service is undertaking a mini-wilding approach and trialing the ceasing of herbicide use on green spaces around trees and hedges to allow natural species to grow.


The Chair thanked officers for the detailed presentation.  The Committee made  comments and asked questions as follows. 


Councillor Elmer commended the work and thanked the Cabinet Portfolio Holder for Neighbourhoods and Climate Change, for his work in driving the actions forward.  He welcomed the opportunity for biodiversity net gain and acknowledged that a full audit of land in Council ownership was required to understand the level of income that could be generated. 


Councillor Elmer referred to the advantage that local authorities have in their power, to create local nature reserves and the value they bring, not only to biodiversity but also for health and wellbeing and public engagement opportunities.  He added that he would like to see the return of a programme of local nature reserve declaration.

The Cabinet Portfolio Holder for Neighbourhoods and Climate Change cautioned that the declaration of a local nature reserve can be a very lengthy and complicated process.


Councillor Elmer also commented that he was pleased to see the new plans for grass maintenance and he stressed the importance of engaging with the public to ensure they understand that the Council is not merely ‘letting the grass grow’.          Councillor Elmer stated that he would also like residents’ feedback to be gathered to acquire a clear understanding of the amount of support and opposition.  The Service Development Manager highlighted that a consultation process was in progress which will include the consideration of mail-drops and door-knocks within the immediate vicinities. Referring to biodiversity net gain, the service is working towards having survey sites identified by November, to align with the statutory requirements under the Environment Act 2021, for all planning permissions granted to deliver biodiversity net gain.


Councillor Townsend referred to recent correspondence from the service on the plans to increase the number of spaces which are allowed to grow wild and she asked what the next steps in the process will be.  The Service Development Manager explained that local members will be engaged to agree actions and the actions will vary from site to site.


Councillor Sutton-Lloyd said he was encouraged by the work and the recent additional funding and he highlighted the importance of including the smaller towns and villages in the work.  He added that he would like to see further joint working, particularly with schools.  Councillor Sutton-Lloyd gave the view that the term ecological opportunity would be more appropriate than ecological emergency, as it was clear that the amount work involved in the process will take time.


Councillor Quinn asked what impact the recent capital investment and increase in the number of staff had on the service. The Service Development Manager responded that it will be of great benefit to support the delivery of the Ecological Emergency Action Plan.


At 11 am, attendees stood to observe a national minute’s silence to mark the one year anniversary of the full scale Russian invasion of Ukraine.


Councillor Potts queried whether there was more work to be done to engage with parish and town councils and the farming community. 



The Service Development Manager highlighted that service level agreements are in place with some local councils.  The Principal Parks and Countryside Ranger added that the Low Carbon Team recently conducted an online seminar for parish and town councils on how to manage green spaces for biodiversity and he suggested that it may be useful to repeat the work.


Councillor Adam referred to biodiversity net gain and asked how much work had been done with the planning team thus far and what metric was being used.  The Principal Parks and Countryside Ranger replied that some baseline surveys had been carried out and the metric is based on an agreed system whereby the land loss through development is measured, which must be replicated elsewhere in terms of biodiversity units gained.


Councillor Adam observed a focus on grass and wildflower meadows and he asked whether hedgerows were part of the process. He drew attention to paragraph 38 of the report which referred to the potential to deliver benefits through restoration and creation of wildlife habitats, if resources were allocated.  He questioned whether there was a lack of resources available for hedgerows due to resources being targeted elsewhere.  The Principal Parks and Countryside Ranger clarified that the comment in the report related to previous funding cuts.  He added that there is not a great deal of traditional hedgerow within the county and that, where it does exist, it is managed to ensure it does not interfere with access. The Principal Parks and Countryside Ranger provided an example of traditional hedgerow management which is carried out at Aykley Heads where hedgerows are laid using a traditional technique to increase growth and offer protection for wildlife.


The Cabinet Portfolio Holder for Neighbourhoods and Climate Change highlighted that on 8 February, Cabinet considered the Developer Viability, Affordable Housing and Financial Contributions, Housing Needs, Design Code and Trees, Woodlands and Hedges Supplementary Planning Documents and suggested that Members may wish to feed into the consultation which runs until 11 April 2023.   The Chair agreed to circulate the link to the consultation to all Overview and Scrutiny Members. 


Councillor Charlton spoke of the benefit the additional countryside ranger had brought to the Causey Arch site. She referred to the site identified in her division for the wilding project and she gave her view that the marshland in the area would be a better location.  Councillor Charlton also asked for more information on Bioblitz and  engagement with schools.  The Principal Parks and Countryside Ranger informed the Committee that the most recent Bioblitz event took place at Wharton Park where the public and experts carried out survey monitoring in a joint effort, to identify different species.  He added that schools are engaged in activities mainly through the destination parks and whilst outreach work with schools is increasing following the Covid-19 pandemic, traditionally, secondary schools are more difficult to engage with. 


Mr Cramond referred to biodiversity net gain and observed that the Environment  Act suggests that net gain should be provided on site, whereas with a county wide perspective, it is likely that there will be more benefit for it to be outsourced beyond the site of the planning application. The Principal Parks and Countryside Ranger clarified that there will be a county wide approach.  In a further question, Mr Cramond referred to the sites identified to date and the requirement that compensation is provided like for like and he asked whether there was a range of habitats available, such as aquatic habitats which are difficult for developers to secure.  The Principal Parks and Countryside Ranger responded that whilst there will be potential for this in the future, at present, the majority of sites are grassland sites.


In response to a question from Councillor Elmer as to whether the Durham Hedge Grant, administered by Durham Hedgerow Partnership is still available, officers confirmed that it is available and the scheme provides financial assistance for the renovation and planting of hedges.


Councillor Nicholls thanked the officers for their work and he remarked on the amount of public interest that exists with regard to trees in residential areas.  He asked whether local residents are consulted when tree planting occurs.  The Service Development Manager clarified that existing trees are covered by a strict tree policy and the policy is due to be reviewed in the spring. A dedicated officer, Sue Mullinger, Landscape Delivery Manager, is responsible for overseeing the planting of new trees and he suggested the Committee may wish to request further information from the specific team. Members of the Committee echoed Councillor Nicholls’ comments regarding the difficulties residents face with regard to trees which cause nuisance or damage to properties. The Cabinet Portfolio Holder for Neighbourhoods and Climate Change highlighted that, in the Cabinet report he previously referred to, there are plans for improvements.  He also referred to the amount of good work done in the wake of Storm Arwen.  


On behalf of the Committee, the Chair thanked all the staff for their good work, not forgetting the countryside rangers and volunteers.


The Committee Resolved that:


a)    the report and presentation be received;

b)    arrangements are made for the Committee to visit DCC parks and open spaces within the 2022/2023 work programme.


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