Eric Pickles and the supermodel… understanding the true value of nothing

ImageWhat have Eric Pickles and a size zero catwalk model got in common? Not a lot at first glance, but delve deeper and you’ll find that they both seek to redefine the concept of zero. Hang on a minute, surely ‘zero’ is straightforward; it means ‘nothing’, ‘zilch’, or even ‘nada’ – can it really be an ambiguous amount?

For the fashion model, the coveted size zero doesn’t (we hope) mean being invisible. In the world of catwalks and couture, zero has instead become a trendy, nonsensical tag that just means super skinny.

Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles has, by contrast, redefined ‘zero’ within construction. The target that government and industry are working towards is for all new build houses to be zero carbon by 2016. This all sounds admirable and simple, but given the slippery, flexible qualities of zero, what will it actually mean in practice?

A long while back, the idea that the homes themselves would be zero carbon was scrapped as being unworkable and uneconomic. Instead, the carbon neutral rating would come from offsite ‘allowable solutions’. It then took a couple of years for Government, working with the Zero Carbon Hub, to define what these alternatives could include.

The definition of these ‘allowable solutions’ has just been made public. They include paying a third party to deliver carbon abatement services elsewhere, for example retrofitting older properties with low-carbon technology. Green lobbyists fear that these offsite alternatives will be impossible to measure and certainly won’t keep mitigating carbon for the lifespan of the new properties.

Yes, we need to build affordable housing in a cost-effective way, but the truly zero carbon home is destined to remain an entertaining project on Grand Designs unless we commit to it on a wider scale. Only then will market forces respond and make it economically viable.

It is undeniably cheaper to build houses that leak energy, but it doesn’t make financial sense over the lifetime of the building. The construction industry is bound to take a short-sighted view – the house isn’t their problem as soon as it is sold.

The scary backdrop to all this is the figures recently released by the Communities and Local Government Department. These show that the energy efficiency ratings of the average new home in England have dropped from last year. So we did it better in 2012 – this reveals that it isn’t the technology holding us back, it is the will from the construction industry and the direction set by government.

Let’s not forget that nearly 30 per cent of all carbon dioxide emissions in the UK are from family homes. It’s clear that the situation needs to improve, not worsen. Improving older homes is a vital part of this, but new builds should set the gold standard.

We don’t need size zero models and we don’t need flabby planning laws that undermine a fantastic concept. We are capable of zero carbon homes, but first we need to understand the true value of nothing.

First published in the EDP and EADT on 18th October 2013. Follow Kate on Twitter @kateblincoe.


Why running over the dog isn’t a good idea…or the truth about biodiversity offsetting


I’m so terribly sorry, I ran over your lovely dog. It was unavoidable, I was rushing to work and couldn’t slow down; you know how it is! But really, don’t worry, because here’s a lovely new one for you. Same colour and everything. Well, bye now…

Anyway, back to business: DEFRA has just launched a consultation, which will run until early November, to look into biodiversity offsetting. This would mean that any development, say a new supermarket or road, has to consider the value of the habitats and nature that would be destroyed during construction. Then, as part of gaining planning consent, the developer would be required to pay for them to be re-created elsewhere.

This approach may indeed be somewhat ‘I ran over your dog but here is a new one’, but compared to the current system, it has significant advantages. At the moment, there is no uniform way for wildlife to be protected under the planning laws. Often charities have to fight hard to protect rare species. However, they don’t have the resources to get involved when the places concerned are not unique or the species nationally scarce – and this can be devastating and frustrating for local residents.

The offset scheme could also be fabulous for farmers. Under the proposals, farmers and other landowners who create or restore wildlife habitats will receive income by selling ‘conservation credits’ to the developers who need to offset their environmental impacts. This would mean developers, rather than tax payers, funding farmers to protect and enhance our countryside.

Pilot schemes for biodiversity offsetting are already underway in our region. These are based in Greater Norwich and Essex and involve organisations such as DEFRA, Natural England and local councils working together to see how biodiversity offsetting can work in practice.

In the foreword to the consultation paper, Owen Paterson, DEFRA secretary, states that, “Offsetting is a simple concept.” It may indeed be a simple concept (dog dead; get new one) but Owen Paterson would be wrong to assume it is a simple process (new dog not house trained and won’t walk to heel). Bulldozing a woodland takes hours, growing a new one takes a lifetime.

If we don’t get the detail right on this then we risk paving up nature’s paradise and swapping it for an area of empty space, whilst making development more costly and complicated at the same time.

It can be done properly though; the RSPB’s Lakenheath Fen in Suffolk is an A* example of this. Created to replace lost habitats on the coast, the reedbeds used to be carrot fields. Now the land is jam-packed full of rare wildlife, such as bitterns, cranes and golden orioles. BUT, and it is definitely a big but, this has taken massive investment, at least a decade, as well as incredible expertise and commitment. There is nothing simple about recreating habitats.

Now is your chance to comment on the consultation. The success of this proposal is all about the detail. Let’s not run over the dog just yet…

First published in the EDP and EADT on 12th October 2013

Rewild parents while you’re at it



George Monbiot wrote for his Guardian blog this week that children aren’t feral enough. They need to spend more time outdoors doing wild, active stuff.

Well, yes. This is one of my passions, and nature deficit disorder is well documented by organisations such at the National Trust

However, this weekend, I slightly reviewed my opinion. I organised a 5th birthday party for my son. It was in the woods and involved a troop of 4 and 5 year-olds rampaging with sticks, building dens, climbing over obstacles and having a trailer ride in my brother’s truck. 

The kids took it in their stride. They had fun, just as they do at the softplay or the go-carting. They really are pretty easy to please (space to run, food to eat, a bit of a party atmosphere). 

However, it was the adults that were euphoric. They said how lovely it was and how unique. Grown-ups forgot their worries to get involved in den building and were delighted at having a cup of tea from the thermos, while actually in the woods.

Focusing on rewilding kids is wonderful and essential. But we forget the grown-ups at our peril. They are the ones that set the weekend’s agenda. If they are not happy in the woods then it simply won’t happen for the children. Whilst many of them will have had a more outdoorsy upbringing than today’s little ones, it was, for most, still far from rural idyll. That is a large part of the reason why today’s newest generation are cut off from nature. Their severance began before their births, back in their parent’s childhoods. 

Schools can help reach today’s children, but we all know that the real education happens at home, and outdoors. Rewilding of parents is urgently required.

Meet me in the woods with your conkers, 2pm Tuesday.

Walking the walk – are you walking to school?


October is ‘International Dodge Speeding Car on Narrow Lane’ and ‘Get Rained on While Wearing Grey Trousers Month’. Luckily, at the last minute the organisers pulled in a new marketing team and decided on the catchier name of International Walk to School Month.

Living close enough to school to walk there with your children is a fantastic opportunity. Even if you live too far, you can park safely ten minutes from the gate and make regular exercise part of your daily routine – benefiting both you and your children.

Walking also reduces the hideous congestion of vehicles that develops around school gates. This haphazard parking can leave residents feeling like they live in a badly regulated car park and children are at risk as they weave their way through the traffic.

Environmentally, walking is a no-brainer. Reducing the number of people on the school car run slashes carbon emissions and reduces air pollution. Indeed, it is the short car journeys when the engine is cold and inefficient, that create most damage on a mile for mile basis. You’ll save money too – did you know that driving the average school run for a year costs over £400?

However, the reality is that less than half of all primary school children walk to school. The reasons include the weather, a shortage of time, having children at separate schools and the stress of walking with younger siblings in tow.

Speeding traffic in villages and outside schools is also a major concern. In my village, parents have worked with the Parish Council to reduce the speed limit outside the school and create a white line demarked space for walking within on a bendy country lane with high banks each side. It’s still not perfect though.

Even where there are pavements, cars go past so fast that your heart is in your mouth every few moments when your child runs to meet a friend or your learner cyclists wobbles ahead of you. Children are not automatons that stick firmly to the centre of the pavement, despite you shrieking at them. They scamper and frolic as well they should. The traffic around them makes no concession to this. It can feel like there is zero room for error before your beloved child becomes a statistic.

I have to keep telling myself that although there is a small risk walking to school, the risk of not doing so is even higher. Overweight, unhealthy children, streets that are out-of-bounds and a trashed environment are not a future we should be willing to accept.

We need to reclaim the streets this month and be as noisy as a troop of seven year olds who have eaten too many Haribos. Speak up and ask your school how it is getting involved in Walk to School Month. Lobby your council about 20 mph zones and traffic calming measures. But above all, get out there with your hi-vis jackets on and walk to school.

Find out more about the Walk to School campaign here.

Badgering the bodgers


Cards on the table: I am a badger loving softy. My single best wildlife moment was seeing four badgers in a dusky Norfolk wood. They froze and stared at me; I held my breath and marvelled at them. 

However, I am also a farmer’s daughter. I am passionate about supporting British farming and believe it is the backbone of our society and countryside. I know how difficult farming can be, particularly for small family farms, coping with the challenges of price-cutting supermarkets, international competition and tough economic times.

As a result, the call to cull badgers to prevent the spread of bovine tuberculosis leaves me in a confused spin. Do I stand up for our natural wildlife or do I support people’s livelihoods?

It’s all pretty emotive, so let’s look at the facts. Bovine TB is a devastating disease that can cause crippling financial losses to farmers and lots of suffering to cattle. It is carried by badgers, although originated in cattle.

So, is culling badgers any different to killing other wildlife? We must not forget that, like it or not, it is a commonplace activity in the countryside. Rabbits, foxes and deer, all beautiful animals, are routinely controlled across farms, estates and nature reserves nationwide. It is done to protect game, crops or even to help rare species survive. This doesn’t make the headlines, so what is different here?

The major factor is that where badgers are concerned, culling has not proved to be effective. It is clear that with rabbits, fewer bunnies mean fewer nibbling mouths to eat your young wheat crop – this is simple and guaranteed. However, with badgers it is more complex. There are many views, but it seems a strong possibility that their slaughter may not actually lead to reduced levels of tuberculosis in cattle.

Firstly, you do not know if the badger you are aiming your rifle at is actually carrying TB. Consequently, any given death will not automatically remove a degree of risk. Secondly, studies on the effects of culling show that it can make the problem worse, not better. Animals will move; some leaving sites to seek safety elsewhere and others moving into vacant territories. The effect of increased roaming from infected badgers will inevitably lead to more exposure for cattle.

A pilot cull is happening now in two areas of Somerset and Gloucestershire. Those hoping for it to shed some light on whether this cull could help are likely to be disappointed. It has been criticised because the ‘success’ of the pilot isn’t actually based on whether or not TB is reduced in local cattle, but instead on how many badgers, infected or not, are killed.

Every penny that is invested in expensive cull attempts, which are only a short term measure unless you eradicate the whole population, is a penny less to invest in finding a permanent solution. Vaccination options are currently imperfect, but are surely the way forward, alongside ever more stringent cattle testing and livestock movement controls.

Bodged badger bashing is not the answer because it isn’t going to help farmers or tax payers. All this sorry situation highlights is how few cards wildlife holds in the sad game of policy poker.

First published in the EDP and EADT on 27th September 2013

Meaty matters

ImageLadies and Gentleman, please step away from the tongs and novelty aprons, the barbeque season is now officially closed. We’ve had a fabulous BBQ summer, but it has been virtually impossible to accept a social invite without encountering chargrilled sausages and cremated burgers.

Now is a great time to reduce your meat intake before rich winter foods are on the menu. Thanks to the McCartneys, the trendy way to do this is with Meat Free Mondays.

A meat free day is nothing new. Historically, it was often followed for religious reasons, such as a Friday fast, or because of rationing in times of shortages. Today, the aims are different; to improve human health and the environment.

So how would going veggie for one day a week help you and the planet? UN’s top climate scientist Rajendra Pachauri explains that, “People should consider eating less meat as a way of combating global warming.” Indeed, UN figures suggest that meat production puts more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than transport.

As is so often the case, what is good for the environment is often beneficial for us too. Many of the world’s leading health organisations now encourage a reduction in the amount of meat people consume. It could help you avoid cancer, heart disease or a stroke. According to a study carried out by Oxford University, if we ate red meat no more than three times a week it would save the NHS £1.2 billion each year.

Meat Free Mondays have other benefits too. You are likely to reduce your weekly food bill, lose weight and escape a food rut with the discovery of yummy new recipes.

However, I wonder if Meat Free Mondays aren’t a bit like smoking heavily most of the week but saying ‘its ok I never light up on a Tuesday’? Surely if it is so important we should commit to quit our carnivorous habit 24/7?

Not in my book. I was a vegetarian for many years, but now I’m not. This is largely for moral reasons (although my Mum’s Sunday Roast lured me back too!). It is because I am a passionate advocate for British farmers and want to support the best of them by spending my money on ethically produced meat. I also know that livestock is important to our countryside and can even help maintain habitats for rare wildlife – a landscape without sheep and cows would be an empty place indeed.

Meat Free Mondays is a similar concept to the wildly popular 5:2 diet (two days of fasting, five of eating normally). Having a set time when you eat more mindfully can impact your habits across the whole week, without the normal fatigue and failure that sets in with more radical regimes. How many wannabe vegetarians have lapsed on week two, when the smell of a bacon butty cuts through the fog of a hangover and becomes absolutely essential?

In my family, we’ll be embracing several meat free days a week. But even better, what about Seasonal Sundays – a day where everything you eat is seasonal and locally sourced? So long as no one suggests Cake Free Wednesdays, I’ll be there.

First published in the EDP and EADT on 20th September 2013