The Beddington Farmlands 'obs' (top left window overlooking the Northern Lake)
This weekend sees our final closure of the Beddington Farmlands 'obs' and the end of a very exciting chapter and hopefully the beginning of an even more exciting chapter. In 2009 Little Oak Group appointed ourselves to become 'Community Champions' for the Beddington Farmlands Nature Reserve. We wanted to do something 'for society' following many years of doing well for ourselves and the farmlands was an exciting project where we could learn a lot from too. It was my local patch where I connected with nature as a child so was a special place too. The Beddington Farmlands project was a multi-stakeholder conservation model where a corporation (Viridor), council (Sutton) and local community all worked together to create a public nature reserve. The project had started in 1995. Restoration delays, declining target species and weak local community involvement needed addressing and with lethargy and apathy deeply embedded within the local council and community and Viridor following a standard corporate 'managed decline and value extraction strategy' (i.e. promise anything to get planning permission within a local community and then over a couple of decades, collective memory loss and shifting baselines deliver a shadow of earlier promises and exploit/extract value from the community) - an intervention was clearly required.
Therefore we set about a five year plan to get things on track (it ended up taking twice as long!) . The plan was a simple one; co-ordinate local community involvement to facilitate the council and Viridor and make it as easy as possible for them to accomplish their commitments. As the local community champions we planned to make sure that our contribution was the best we could give and hope that the other stakeholders would do a bit more too (the bare minimum would have been good). Therefore we planned on building a local community volunteer base that would carry out ecological monitoring (vital to measure ecological success), raise funds to spend on integration of the reserve within the wider regional park and to implement small scale conservation projects to compliment the restoration and reserve development.
To that end we carried out the following:
1) In partnership with the Beddington Farm Bird Group we resurrected and improved the local community annual Bird and Wildlife Report to record not only annual trends in birds but also other taxa including butterflies, moths, dragonflies and damselflies and to record the conservation progress and reserve development. We also published the book 'The Birds of Beddington Farmlands'.
2) Carried out a species inventory of the site to record all species present on site (a pan-species list). This ambitious project has recorded over 2500 species to date with much more potential to find more species too. The results were published in the new annual reports More Here .
3) Arranged numerous publicity events including regular public walks, talks to local community groups and exhibitions at Sutton Council events, the Carshalton Environmental Fair and Wandle Valley Regional Park events. We also did various TV productions including BBC Spring Watch and Winter Watch, BBC Natural World and other TV news and documentary pieces. We did many local paper articles HERE and HERE. We also got an article in Private Eye and the Telegraph.
4) Set up a new website for the reserve and social media including facebook, twitter and flikr. Later we developed the Beddington Farmlands Ebird Hotspot and integrated the annual report into this platform and published all our works on Research Gate for open access.
5) Carried out several small scale conservation projects including scrub management, wildflower meadow planting, habitat creation, created local wildlife gardens and also teaming up with Bioregional we helped to create a new entrance to the farmlands. We also worked with Sutton Council Biodiversity on the Biodiversity Gardens Project to improve biodiversity across Sutton's gardens and our local church grounds.
6) Worked with the Hackbridge and Beddington Corner neighbourhood development group to write the environment section of the Neighbourhood Plan that would aim to integrate Beddington Farmlands Nature Reserve into the local neighbourhood and Wandle Valley Regional Park through developing wildlife corridors, wildlife gardens and improved biodiversity in local green spaces and through developing improved access and visitor facilities for the reserve.
7) Purchased a property overlooking Beddington Farmlands in order to set up a long term base and co-ordinate all of the above.
8) Found lots of good birds from the obs window (HERE) and recorded 385 species of moths from the bug room including many first for sites which took the Beddington Farmlands moth list to 617 species.
We were extremely successful in achieving all of the above and successfully managed to build a strong local community base for the reserve, raised the profile of the project to national level (in the nature conservation sector) and won various awards for our work including being awarded for Environmental Excellence by Bioregional and Sutton Council in the Hackbridge Green Business Network Project, Hackbridge Hero award and was also nominated for Birdwatch Conservation Heros and the prestigious BTO Marsh Awards for Local Ornithology. I calculated that at peak we were co-ordinating approx £175,000 a year worth of work (HERE).
One thing we were not successful with at all was inspiring Viridor or Sutton to do anything at all and after six years of hard work and successful results it was soon apparent that some of the problems we aimed to address were simply getting worse with continual delays in restoration and declining target species. It was quite possible that we had contributed to that decline too by making Viridor 'look good' through our good work- effectively inadvertently greenwashing them. We had ticked one box however and that was the local community were now much more aware and empowered but the other stakeholders in the group continued with their relentless bleed of the local community and local wildlife.
In 2012 Virdor submitted a planning application to build an incinerator which was granted permission in 2015. Our involvement in this was to support local campaign groups in ensuring that the local wildlife did not suffer any further and to ensure adequate mitigation. Despite a Judicial Review, which we were heavily involved in, we didn't feel that the s106 agreement was adequate mitigation but nonetheless decided to move forward in the best way possible. We decided that we needed to raise the issue wider to a regional audience to put a spot light on the situation as things kept getting worse for the local community and local wildlife so we wrote several articles in the national media (eg) to highlight the problems and the need for regional support and pressure to ensure that Beddington Farmlands was a success. In 2016 we met with Viridor directors and Comms to agree on working together to achieve the best possible post-incinerator outcome for the farmlands. They were set to make a billion out of the incinerator so could afford to throw a bit of pocket change at the farmlands now. It seemed that the national publicity campaign had worked and Viridor were keen to manage their reputational image and to work with the local community and also do a little bit more.
However on 31st May 2017, Viridor announced that they had rejected three separate applications by the local community to work with Viridor, effectively denying vital funding by blocking access to the Community Fund that had been set up as part of the s106 agreement for the local community. The applications were projects to integrate the reserve into the local neighbourhood as per the local neighbourhood plan. This was interpreted by us as a clear lack of support for anything the local community had done (it was basically a declaration of war on the local community ) and with Viridor breaking all their promises from earlier meetings it was an aggressive attempt to pour cold water on local community effort in a bid to continue with their long term agenda of value extraction and to suppress community expectation in order to negate further on planning obligations and to minimise any spending on the reserve development.
The gloves were off , Viridor had betrayed us and there was only one possible option for us- to use campaigning tactics to highlight the corruption and to apply maximum public pressure on them to keep their legally binding commitments. The council quickly sided with Viridor and I was carefully removed from the Council chaired Conservation Science Group by the Sutton Biodiversity Officer (more HERE)
Our local community band Thee Bryans' tribute to Viridor HERE
So job done, given the circumstances there wasn't much more we could have hoped for and it was time to move on , wrap things up and hand over the local community reins. A new nature reserve warden was being appointed (and being paid for the grief!) so we no longer need to play the Community Champion role and there appeared to be enough momentum in the local political machine to now bare the torch for the farmlands. We've spent the last covid year or so handing things over and automating recording systems too. Towards the end of this chapter I became a dad too so I need to concentrate on family life now and we also have some exciting plans to build a family run nature reserve of our own now and are currently working hard at achieving that.
It's been a lot of fun and exciting (and occasionally frustrating and sometimes depressing at the bleakness of corporate control/oppression on local communities) and we've worked with and met some amazing genuine people . We hope to keep helping out at the farmlands with a few things (maintaining databases etc) and also hope to help out in any legal challenge that might occur after 2024, when the planning condition enforcement deadline that council set is passed and if the reserve is still not complete and open to the public. There is a solicitor working on this already so will see if anything develops there. That could be very interesting if things do escalate to a high profile legal case as that could help to develop improvements in the system of how corporate-council-local community alliances can deliver ecological objectives. Nature needs more than just NGO's (who do a great job when they are not in bed with companies like Viridor, More Here) , ecology needs to be embedded into the DNA of a future political system and corporate led nature conservation is one of the most important future developments in nature conservation. The current main driver of ecological destruction can in theory become the future saviour especially if they form symbiotic alliances with council and local community. There's a still a chance for Viridor to vindicate themselves at the farmlands.
One of the main lessons learnt is how theoretically there could be changes in the system that improve the efficiency of community alliances. Nobody needs to go through the journey we have, nature hasn't got time for that. If we can pass on some lessons that can save precious time that would have been our greatest achievement We proved that no matter how hard and smart you work for a local community and local wildlife, for as long as a fundamental capitalist corporation is in control, everything is more or less futile. Addressing the out of control hugely destructive billionaire controlled fundamental capitalist corpocracy is the single biggest challenge in addressing the ecological emergency.
If things are done properly the potential for corporate-council-local community alliances is immense. However within these alliances there is also immense potential for corporate greenwashing and the corporations are not alone in the need to improve their performance. From the other sides of the alliances there is equal embarrassing performance- there's biscuit seeking community poodles, hugely wasteful public money spending by community groups, exploitation of community groups by sub-contractors, frustrated council officers on power trips, professional ecologist on the game and general worst side of humanity that is winning (roll on AI !) Everyone needs to improve their behaviour and performance- it's a failing society . I guess even we could have done better- there is always better.
Optimisation could theoretically be achieved in the local community output by introducing metrics that identify the most productive members in a group.. There are various ways of measuring community member productivity- number of engagements on social media, number of articles published, projects completed, amount of Ebird or record forms submitted, no of species recorded, amount of support for petitions, blog views, public participation on events, talks walks, membership numbers, etc etc . Once the most productive members of a community are identified objectively they should be positioned onto community liaison and committee groups and these members should have decision making powers (they need to sign off planning applications/ amendments etc ). These metrics should also be used in identifying who should be given public money to spend and that should be monitored for ratio of economic capital spent to natural and social capital metrices increase. All these things can be measured with various metrices (biodiversity monitoring, public engagement etc ). The least productive members of a community can also be identified and they should be removed from committees or any decision making positions (this will prevent the current situation where community reps are generally selected on their ease of manipulation to be used for corporate-council exploitation- community poodles).
By using multi-indices and measuring social, natural and economic capital (from the local community) ecological outcomes could be optimised with corporations maximising their returns on any socio-environmental investments (via s106 agreements), local community could effectively become a hand of an ecological concerned corporation by utilising the skills of the most productive members and abandoning the tradition of recruiting sycophants, lap dogs and little hitlers to help them in their wicked ways. The quality of local community rep needs a good bar raising.
Local community can also raise additional funds to spend in projects and the council would optimise it's middle man position and do more than just seek to get it's pound of flesh out of corporate exploitation. Personally I would advocate that triple bottom line accounting and measuring success of societies and individuals in social, natural and economic capital terms is the solution to the climate and ecological emergency and it is the duty of the next generation to achieve that system update from fundamental capitalism to a sustainable system and there is nothing stopping local communities independently setting up those systems now as front runners to the global upgrade. These metrics can help to identify the weak parasitic members who gravitate to the top in a corrupt society, marginalise them and elevate the productive members into leadership and decision making positions. At the moment most members of the community sitting on local committees (including council committees) are low achievers with little local community support or productivity and simply being elevated by corrupt peers and unrepresentative democratic processes (like local councillor elections where only 10-20% of the local population vote and often follow national party lines anyway). This is the fundamental cause of local government system corruption, these weak low achievers are easily played and exploited by the corporate lobbyists, which enable them to destroy nature and local community. Replacing these weak links with objectively measured productive local community members is a democracy upgrade utilising the internet computer system to identify the key candidates and to improve democratic engagement. These members should also be embedded into the planning system algorithm, working closely with planning officers to optimise recommendations in officer reports to voting committees and nothing can be signed off and approved without their approval. By also upgrading the ease of voting by using on line systems to vote (like they use in mass participatory gameshows etc but secured with on line banking security and even block chain security), transferring local political campaigning mainly to social media with integrated voting and using the metrics for candidates to display their productivity and also to monitor what they achieve- the strongest members of society will be the decision makers, will be objectively accountable and could finally bring the corporate monster rampage under control before they destroy the future for everyone and everything. The front line of corporate exploitation is local politics, this is the cutting face where the damage is done- this is where the war will be won. Most of the technology to do this already exists and a system can be hobbled together using existing tools.
A few other changes could help, like the site ecologist being employed by the council (with money paid by Viridor) to address obvious conflict of interests between the site ecologist not biting the hand that feeds and companies like Viridor not employing the cheapest (an inexperienced and low quality or simply dodgy) deal going. Viridor could also use community monitoring and employ bird group members to carry out surveys with the site ecologist working closer on more complex matters.
So anyway, that's for the 'next gen' of environmentalists and we are moving on to pastures new (to increase our personal resilience as the global damage to society caused by runaway corporate exploitation is yet to manifest its worst effects so its important to make personal security decisions) and taking with us some valuable lessons learnt including in theory how to actually develop, manage and run a nature reserve- the new chapter in our journey.
I would personally like to thank the following people and groups and the group co-ordinators who were overall supportive of our efforts and who I feel have helped set Beddington Farmlands on the right path including Andrew Turner (Viridor comms ), Mark Constantine (our benefactor), Dominic Mitchell (Birdwatch Editor), Mark Avery (Wild Justice), Extinction Rebellion Sutton, DPG solicitors, Thee Bryans, Lee Dingain, The Sutton and Croydon Green Party, Inside Croydon, some members of the Beddington Farmlands Bird Group (surprisingly many were unsupportive of our efforts- I guess they wanted to keep the farmlands for themselves?), the Hackbridge and Beddington Corner Neighbourhood Development Group, Bioregional, The Wandle Forum, David Lindo, Sutton Council's Housing, Economy and Business Committee, our new local MP Elliot Colburn and the tens of thousands of people that signed the public petitions and the thousands of people that support Beddington Farmlands on social media. There is such thing as society- it's a bit of a mess and like a big family everyone is often falling out with each other and fighting but private enterprise alone cannot create something like a 15 mile regional park through South London, with a 1000 acre coreland and a 400 acre nature reserve at its heart, all open to the public (millions of people) for free and preserving nature within a Capital City and providing a model of how to create global ecological stability in the most densely populated areas of the planet. We very much look forward to the reserve opening officially by the end of 2023 (or the final showdown if they don't) and it is with a little sadness (and lots of relief!) that we close the door of the Beddington obs for the last time this week.