Sunday, 27 September 2015

Secrets and Lies

Sheffield's Cabinet approved the leasing of Burbage, Houndkirk and Hathersage Moors after a report was presented to its meeting of 16th September. There was no discussion of this to speak of apart from answers from the Council Leader to a public question. In fact there has been no public discussion or elected member scrutiny at all. Whether or not you agree with the idea of this handover you might expect at the very least some mildly searching questionings to go on within the council. But then you have to remember this is Sheffield where accountability might crop up in a spelling bee if at all.

In fact if the report of the decision on the website is to be believed, it could have been worse. If there had not been two letters responding to the advertising of this intention, one expressing reservations and one objecting there could not have been the safeguards built in, such as they are. Which in itself is pretty damning of those who did not respond or slavishly wrote in uncritical support!

The letter expressing reservations came from DVS. The single objection, readers of this blog will not be surprised to learn, came from its author, i.e. me. That is what transparency means - declaring your responsibility. Those writing to support will, I'm sure remain anonymous. That is secrecy and I'm sure if I asked for their names even under Freedom of Information, the Council - that is Head of Parks and the Directors concerned*, would somehow contrive to claim FoI did not apply.

That needs some explanation. I don't like the moors in question. They are a travesty of what a supposed natural site should be; I've called them a desert. So why bother that they be passed on to organisations that are, so the RSPB's publicity tells us, committed to making a place for wildlife? Well we need to look behind the hype and the hollow corporate spin.

But first it's worth reminding ourselves that the council's major justification for leasing the land to the conservation charities is that they have resources Sheffield's Council does not have - to do more management. Think of that. SCC has not the money or resources to manage the land. Where have we heard that before? Large areas of Blacka Moor were once as bare and desert-like as Burbage. Many of the beautiful natural trees that grow now on Blacka are there because the owners, SCC, did not have the resources to manage the land, i.e. cut them down; or did not have the courage to go against the public's wishes and saturate the place with that white woolly plague - sheep grazing. It's a fair assumption that more management before the 80s and 90s would have meant for example no red deer and much impaired natural interest - warblers and cuckoos for example; and fewer obvious seasonal changes such as the spring and autumn delights of birch and rowan and the special qualities these bring to the views here.

 But my objection to the policy of land handover here was not primarily about the way the land was going to be managed. Frankly I see little to choose between the council and the charities in as far as what they would be likely to do, except that RSPB/NT might have more money to spend on covering the moor with those fences everybody so loves. My position as someone who dislikes the way the moors look is that only a radical return to nature could rescue this landscape from an inevitable management-dominated dreariness well into the future and I see no sign that there's the ambition or inspiration that is called for anywhere in the local conservation establishment to do anything radical. If there's any inspiration or creativity around it usually gets directed towards producing glossy brochures and their online equivalents; as I've said often enough before the time would be better spent getting their boots dirty.

The reason for my objection was a vain hope that it might stimulate an open public conversation that could bring about change.These were the terms of the objection.

My objection is chiefly for reasons of transparency and accountability.

1 The public has not been provided with the opportunity to examine the full terms of the proposed lease.
2 To my knowledge there has been inadequate public discussion of the background to and reasons for this disposal. A very large area of public land should not be handed over to private interests without much more public awareness. Yet most people in Sheffield know little or nothing about this proposal.
3 Sheffield City Council is an established public body with duties and responsibilities to the public that do not apply to private organisations. There are also procedures within the SCC constitution that give a public right to raise matters, and to have access to information and a complaints procedure. With RSPB/NT the public does not have comparable rights. The lack of accountability and transparency amounts to a democratic deficit.

Contd here.

The report to the Cabinet meeting indicates that while this was the only actual objection there were 22 people and groups writing in support. My understanding is that these people have mostly been encouraged to write in to counter the objection. According to the text many mention the value of the RSPB's stakeholder forum run at the Eastern Moors. My request to be a member of this forum was refused as was my request to know who the members were, as also was my request for access to minutes of their meetings. I was told that the members wanted to be secret and unidentified. I assume that they don't want people to know what they say and what they support. Perhaps they tell lies and feel bad about it which would do them a little credit.

So welcome to the world of the local conservation industry and its stakeholder supporters whose culture is one of total rejection of transparency and bravely hides behind anonymity. A recipe for corruption if ever there was one.

My information suggests that at a meeting earlier this year a proposal was put to the stakeholders that they should submit independently their welcome of the moors disposal to Sheffield City Council's agents.

Excerpt from minutes:
“Do we all agree? Please have another slice of chocolate cake and collect a free lifetime membership of both RSPB and NT. And be so good as to let us know your preferred delivery address for the saddle of venison to be despatched next month.”

Absolutely true?

Well they could choose to deny it. The RSPB and NT could always publish the secret meeting minutes.

Until they do I'll believe it. So should all of us. Maybe afterwards as well.


* being transparent here, we should name names:  Executive Director 'Place' Simon Green; Director 'Culture and Environment' Paul Billington; 'Head of Parks' Chris Heeley.  There's a legal requirement for their salaries to be published so they can be accessed at the bottom of this page on SCC's website.

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