Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Public Money and Public Scrutiny

No secret that this blog maintains much of the management decision making at Blacka is about getting hold of grants especially farm and environmental subsidies. Also interesting is the discovery that the Countryside Stewardship Agreement was signed in 2002 even though it was never discussed at the lengthy Icarus consultation in 2006. I have regularly said that the major problem with handing over public land to private organisations is that there is no longer a possibility of genuine public scrutiny. We have found that Sheffield Wildlife Trust can simply say what they want and disclose information or not when asked by people who otherwise would have a right to know. Through Freedon of Information request to Natural England we can now read the text of that Countryside Stewardship Agreement. You can access the papers here though you will have to open a zip file. Amongst other stipulations it insists that:

"Grazing must take place for at least 12 weeks between 1 April and 31 August."

This is of course a major contentious item for the public. The grazing and farmification of Blacka was just what we had resisited. But it was on this that Sheffield Wildlife Trust depended to get its grant.
But what happens if they don't comply with this requirement and for one reason or another do not or cannot graze?
Well apparently they just carry on getting the money. This can be seen in another document from the same FoI request. It shows that a similar amount has been paid for each of the years from 2007. Extract below:

Enhancing lowland heath SK2880 7714 71.85 £3,592.50 Dec-07
Enhancing lowland heath SK2880 4267 19.22 £961.00 Dec-07
TOTAL £4,553.50

Enhancing lowland heath SK2880 7714 61.14 £3,057.00 Nov-08
Enhancing lowland heath SK2880 4267 6.51 £325.50 Nov-08
Enhancing lowland heath SK2880 9040 10.74 £535.50 Nov-08
Enhancing lowland heath SK2880 5665 12.71 £635.50 Nov-08
TOTAL £4,553.50

Enhancing lowland heath SK2880 7714 61.14 £3,057.00 Oct-09
Enhancing lowland heath SK2880 4267 6.51 £325.50 Oct-09
Enhancing lowland heath SK2880 9040 10.64 £535.50 Oct-09
Enhancing lowland heath SK2880 5665 12.71 £635.50 Oct-09
Enhancing lowland heath SK2881 6515 0.07 £3.50 Oct-09
TOTAL £4,557.00

Enhancing lowland heath SK2880 7714 61.04 £3,052.00 Oct-10
Enhancing lowland heath SK2880 4267 6.55 £327.50 Oct-10
Enhancing lowland heath SK2880 9040 10.67 £533.50 Oct-10
Enhancing lowland heath SK2880 5665 12.54 £627.00 Oct-10
Enhancing lowland heath SK2881 6515 0.07 £3.50 Oct-10
TOTAL £4,543.50

Yet payments were made after claims went in for two years on this chart when no grazing happened. The details show clearly that the payments were made even when the main condition for the payment was not complied with. Do we really have this sort of money in the public purse to pay out on an operation that is useless anyway and didn’t even happen? In 2008 and in 2010 there were no cattle on what they choose to call the ‘lowland heath’ (at 1100 feet, for goodness sake??)– and in my view the place was much the better for it. I have the photos to show that.

I am now awaiting a response from the Rural Payments Agency regarding Single Farm Scheme payments. It will be interesting to see if further payments were made in the same years.


Mark Fisher said...

Everything now fits into place. The wildlife trust applied for agri-environment funding without any consultation with local people - who should have a say on publicly owned land - and then is locked into the requirements of that funding under penalty of returning the funding if the requirements are not carried out – or as we have here NOT EVEN THEN! As soon as SWT signed that Countryside Stewardship Scheme agreement, local people lost the ability to have any say about the management of Blacka Moor. It became the prejudices of one or two unelected people in what was English Nature back in 2002, who drew up the agreement, and on the slavish adherence to dogma by SWT. Well, to be accurate, those rights began to be lost as soon as Blacka was originally notified as a SSSI. from then on, management options on Blacka were lost to pre-conceived ideas about desirable states of the land – in this case, taking it back to a state when it was a grouse moor in the Duke of Rutland’s estate. What an admirable am!

So, even though the leasing of Blacka to SWT by the City Council was held up because the charitable trust did not allow it, SWT still went ahead in 2002 with application for CSS. Subsequent events should all be seen in light of that. Thus when Freedom of Information was used to obtain the minutes of a closed meeting in October 2005 between SWT, English Nature (now Natural England) and the Peak District National Park Authority, it showed agreement that the issue of cattle grazing and fencing should not be negotiable. This was against the backdrop that funding for that management approach had already been obtained. Thus the public consultation sessions that took place with Icarus over 2006, funded by SWT, were doomed from the outset. SWT just ignored them because the management approach had already been decided in the application for the CSS.

Let’s also look at the role of English Nature (Natural England). As I have found all over England, the condition report of a SSSI immediately changes after an agri-environment funding scheme is agreed, with the presumption that the unfavourable condition that existed is miraculously cured. This is the case for Blacka, such that the condition changed from Unfavourable declining in 1999 to Unfavourable recovering in April 2003, the alteration made WITHOUT A FURTHER SITE VISIT. The presumption of effectiveness but lack of any scrutiny, was also the case for the additional funding from Wildlife Enhancement Schemes on Blacka – there were no compliance visits!

Has there been any interim evaluation of the outcome of the CSS on Blacka? SWT will undoubtedly go straight into a Higher Level Stewardship scheme at end of CSS, so that the money train continues. This sickening mis-use of public funds is shown up in numerous examples, painstakingly revealed by ordinary people, their only recourse being Freedom of Information requests. The Kingwood Common preservation group, formed to prevent fencing and grazing of their common (which is now actually a wood!) found out that an interim appraisal of the CSS on the Nettelbeds Commons in Oxfordshire showed that the Conservators and BBOWT had overstated the area of heathland on Peppard Common, and had to return the money. It looked like they were restoring heathland on the road than runs through the common. More seriously, they over-represented the area of heath on Kingwood Common by a factor of about 40 times, which was discovered and corrected after the evaluation visit, but puzzlingly, they were not required to return the 15,000 quid that they had received in the meantime!

I am convinced that the mis-use of agri-environment funding to carry out the narrow and publicly unsupported agenda of Natural England and the conservation industry is a national scandal. More pointedly, what this reveals about SWT argues absolutely that they must have no place in managing publicly owned land, such as their ambitions for more empire building by getting their snout in the trough of the Sheffield Moors, and the public funding they can suck in there

Neil said...

Mark, I'm grateful. Your succinct analysis is on target. It reveals the cynical manoueverings of an arrogant class of self-serving bureaucrats who believe they have an inalienable and godlike right to determine the future of our landscape without reference to those of us who experience it and live alongside it. It's time we reclaimed our land.