Environment protector

Ecologist Stewart Lowther fears that next week's spending review will cut sources of advice available to planners on the biodiversity implications of planning proposals, Huw Morris finds.

Stewart Lowther
Stewart Lowther

As a university researcher studying the breeding territories of curlew on Orkney, Stewart Lowther became a dab hand at radio tracking.

The best way to do this, he found, was to climb onto the roof of a Land Rover with a receiver and radio antenna and scan the landscape, hoping to pick up signals from the tagged birds.

"One afternoon I stopped in the local shop to buy a sandwich. The lady behind the counter said she'd seen me with the antenna and wondered what I was doing.

After I'd explained, she looked amused. 'Oh no,' she said. 'My daughter saw you the other day and rushed out and bought a television licence'."

After almost 20 years as a professional ecologist, the managing director of renewable energy and environmental specialist Atmos Consulting sees clouds on the horizon.

With public spending under review, Lowther is not alone in hoping for the best and fearing the worst. Chief among his worries is the expected carnage at Natural England, already struggling with its workload but losing one-third of its workforce.

He fears that cuts on this scale will mean a lack of authoritative and consistent guidance for planners getting to grips with life after the abolition of regional spatial strategies. The cuts are already adding significantly to developers' costs and frustrations, pointing to a lose-lose scenario.

"Changes to the way environmental impact assessments and planning applications are prepared will mean that clients will become more dependent on the advice of private sector consultants," he predicts.

"My concern as an ecologist is that with the likely contraction of the role of the statutory nature conservation agencies, we will once again find that the approach of planners to major applications is determined by the advice of voluntary pressure groups or local ecologists with limited horizons. This could lead to geographical inconsistency and doubt about the viability of any given development investment."

However, Lowther steadfastly maintains that the problem does not lie mainly at the door of planners. "I have seldom encountered a professional planner who was 'going wrong', even if some of them seem rather cautious at times. The main difficulty lies with the planning committees rather than their advisers," he complains.

"On several occasions I have left committee meetings with the feeling that key issues that have taken months or even years of discussion, negotiation and sheer cost to overcome have been pushed aside by members' interests and preconceptions.

"There can be few things as pathetic as watching an experienced planner trying to explain to a committee that there is no justifiable basis for refusing an application and that the local authority can simply not afford another public inquiry."

Lowther is concerned that the environmental sector tends to track the development industries in areas such as construction, civil engineering and energy. As such, it has struggled over the past couple of years of economic uncertainty. Moreover, he feels that the so-called green shoots of recovery are growing more slowly than predicted in some quarters.

"My own company has been very focused on the renewable energy sector, which has insulated us from the worst of the economic crisis. But we recognise that we have to diversify to safeguard against the likely impacts, on wind energy in particular, of changes to the planning system.

As for the environmental sector as a whole, it will spring forward the moment the housing and commercial construction sectors resume a growth curve," he believes.

"As far as changing anything goes, it's a difficult question. The country is in the process of major change as we speak. Mistakes will be made. Reforms may bring benefits, but we'll have to wait for the comprehensive spending review before we can assess the effects on the environmental and planning sectors."

Lowther has had some notable career highlights. Between 2004 and 2006 he was heavily involved in a proposal to locate gas storage caverns in salt deposits in Lancashire. This involved directing many of the associated environmental studies and acting as the main contact point with the client.

The complex project involved high-level consultation and discussion with bodies such as Natural England, which eventually dropped its objections.

He found the experience thrilling. "I gave evidence to a public inquiry covering all ecological aspects, from plankton to bats. It was very demanding, but it was such an interesting project that I found the whole process incredibly rewarding.

"While giving evidence, I felt so on top of the issues that I had to remind myself inquiries are a serious business and to stop enjoying myself so much."

But as anyone with a 20-year track record will confess, there are low points too. One that particularly jogs Lowther's memory is accompanying clients to a public meeting organised by a planning committee with the intention of fielding questions on the likely ecological impacts of a proposed wind farm. About 300 people turned up, all vehemently opposed to the plans.

"The committee chairman was hopeless and the meeting descended into chaos. In the end I was accused of lying and not caring about the effects of the scheme on bats. It was bruising. I spent the long journey home wondering what the point had been and vowing never to agree to stand in the stocks again."

CV
Age: 46
Family: Married with two children
Education: Degree in humanities; MSc in advanced ecology, Durham
University
Interests: Finding wild food, guitar, cinema
2007: Managing director, Atmos Consulting
2003: Technical director, Hyder Consulting (UK) Ltd
1999: Technical director, Casella Stanger Ltd
1996: Principal consultant, SGS Environmental Ltd
1993: Ornithologist, Environmental Advisory Unit Ltd
1990: Research technician, avian research group, Durham University


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