A plan to develop an 11 ha rugby “centre of excellence” on wetlands near the River Usk is being criticised as a threat to the breeding ground of rare birds and fish on a site of special scientific interest. It is clear that British rugby needs as many centres of excellence as it can get, but as only 15% of Britain’s wetlands now remain in their natural state, perhaps government help might be forthcoming so that this facility can be sited somewhere less ecologically sensitive.
Environmental concern here seems reasonable enough. But last week, it was announced that a 2 ha reservoir development in Abingdon, Oxfordshire, might be put on hold because a rare breed of freshwater mussel has been found living in the shallows of a stream that would be affected. Is it really not possible to manage the development so that the two could co-exist? Surely, somewhere within the parameters of a reservoir some sort of natural waterlife facility should be possible.
And now a colony of bats has been discovered in Wembley’s famous twin towers. Does this mean that Foster and Partners’ masterplan to rebuild the stadium will be put on hold? Somewhere along the line, we are getting the balance wrong between conservation and development.
It seems to be perfectly acceptable to cover extensive tracts of farmland in nasty spec housing because sustainability is about as far down the list of developers’ priorities as contributing to the architects’ benevolent fund, leaving us with acres of tarmacadam hardstandings that are about as eco-friendly as a pile of nuclear waste. Yet the sighting of a few bats can threaten to delay one of the most important national cultural development programmes this century. It would probably be cheaper to pay Lord Foster to individually pilot each pipistrelle to its mating destination in his Lear jet than to postpone this project, but probably even this would fail to satisfy the most entrenched of the special interest groups.
I have come across some instances of people and nature working hand in hand. One London council used to recycle tree thinnings. All the branches were laid in long piles and covered with plastic. As the thinnings became warm and squelchy, an army of voracious tiger worms that liked nothing better than to eat their way through this stuff would, in a matter of a weeks, turn it into manure that could be used as high-quality peat.
What is a £200 fine for illegally felling a 300-year-old oak if it makes room for a vital bin store?
However, earlier this year when I was overseeing the removal of a lorryload of thinnings from some large plane trees at a site in Hampstead, I discovered that this recycling process had been abandoned. The council cancelled the subsidy and the stuff now just gets burned. Of course, it is much easier and cheaper, but that is because no one is paying the environmental cost – at least not within the electoral lifetime of a borough councillor.
At least that authority was open about its poor husbandry – not the case with another London council’s recycling policy. I have heard that one waste department gets residents and businesses to dutifully separate rubbish – carefully keeping the glass separate from the tins, and so on – but that once the refuse leaves the borough and the council-tax payers have been allowed to feel they have done their bit, the whole lot gets dumped together in a landfill site just like anywhere else.
Britain is famous for institutions and pressure groups that are quick to stop building work. If it is not a redstart’s nest, it is a Roman skeleton. The imbalance between protection and progress evident in the ecological cases mentioned earlier can also crop up with archeological finds. And it could mean that contractors on a tight programme may be tempted to cut corners and blow the consequences.
The response can be that as soon as there is the least hint of a Roman pottery shard poking out from the rubble, the contractor pulls the whole lot out, carts it away and covers the site in a layer of demolition detritus as soon as possible.
Gus Alexander runs his own architectural practice in Clerkenwell, London.