Flagship nature reserve threatened by change to funding agreement

Thursday 30th April 2015

Portbury Wharf nature reserve

Concerns for UK’s first residents’ levy nature reserve initiative.

Funding for the UK’s first nature reserve managed for wildlife as part of a residents’ levy initiative is at risk, prompting concerns about its future maintenance for wildlife and the wider community.

North Somerset Council has agreed with housing developer Persimmon to take ownership of Portbury Wharf nature reserve and abolish an annual levy (currently £54/household), designed to fund its maintenance in perpetuity. This is despite previous agreements for Avon Wildlife Trust to adopt the freehold of the land. This recent decision, made without a process of consultation with Avon Wildlife Trust (involved in Portbury Wharf nature reserve’s development and management for the past 10 years) puts future funding for the reserve at risk within Council budgets. 

Portbury Wharf nature reserve became the first scheme in the UK of land managed for wildlife, with the costs of its management and maintenance met by householders. It demonstrates how development can occur alongside restoring the natural environment, with residents having direct access to nature on their doorstep.

Dr Bevis Watts, Avon Wildlife Trust’s Chief Executive, said: “It’s hard to believe this flagship reserve is under threat such a short time after it was created. The decision process to change the funding is not clear and the announcement has been made before any formal agreements completed. We believe it is highly unlikely Portbury Wharf nature reserve will be maintained with the same benefit to wildlife under the Council’s plan and are calling for it to commit to ring fence equivalent funding to that raised by the levy. Under Avon Wildlife Trust’s management the reserve has delivered huge gains for wildlife for, what we had hoped would be, generations to come.

“In a city region that will see approximately 90,000 new homes commissioned by 2026, we need long-term commitments to safeguarding and restoring our natural environment."

Originally created as ecological mitigation as part of a planning approval from North Somerset Council for 2,600 homes, Avon Wildlife Trust has been managing Portbury Wharf nature reserve since 2010. It recently featured as a case study in Tony Juniper's new book What Has Nature Ever Done for Britain.

Paul Wilkinson, The Wildlife Trusts’ national Head of Living Landscapes, said: “With a growing evidence base that nature is good for us, people who want a better quality of life need local and national government committed to securing nature’s recovery. That’s why we’re calling on whoever forms the next Government to pass a Nature & Wellbeing Act that will put nature at the heart of decision-making at all levels to benefit individuals, communities and wildlife. They should know where their local candidates stand on this issue when they cast their vote at the General Election. Our Act for Nature campaign and website will help the general public find out more so they can make an informed choice."

A range of studies have shown that living close to green space has a positive influence on a number of general health indicators, including perceived health, stress and disease morbidity. Natural England estimates that if every household in England were provided with equitable access to good quality green space, then savings of £2.1bn could be achieved every year in averted health costs.

The run-up to the elections provides an opportunity for people to ask prospective parliamentary candidates to recognise how nature is intrinsically at the heart of better places to live in towns and cities as well as across rural landscapes. Ensuring nature thrives and plays a part in all of our lives means decisions must not be based on short-term expediency.

Every Prospective Parliamentary Candidate in England has been sent a briefing document, which can be downloaded here. A Nature and Wellbeing Act Green Paper can be downloaded here. Join the discussion and follow the conversation on twitter with #actfornature

Notes to editors

[1] Read the full letter distributed to residents of the Village Quarter at Portbury Wharf in Portishead here:
[2] Avon Wildlife Trust has recognised the need to amend the funding mechanism but has not been consulted on the detail of alternative plans.
Almost 1,200 people will lose the benefit of free membership of the Avon Wildlife Trust which the levy entitled all households to take up.
[3] Portbury Wharf nature reserve
Located between the town of Portishead and the Royal Portbury and Avonmouth Ports, Portbury Wharf is a gateway to the wildlife-rich Gordano Valley, providing a green link for people and wildlife to the Severn Estuary. Portbury Wharf nature reserve is a condition of the 2,650 dwelling, Port Marine development and the outcome of a unique partnership between North Somerset Council, Persimmon, the residents and Avon Wildlife Trust. It acts as a sponge, absorbing run-off from the development and offers flood protection in the event of a sea wall breach. The nature reserve comprises 47 hectares of wetland, open water, grazing marsh areas, hay meadows and hedgerows. It is home to water vole and otter which live in the wetland habitat. Invertebrates, including the hairy dragonfly, can also be seen here, as can the endangered greater horseshoe bat. The grazing marsh is important for birds, such as snipe and lapwing, and the hay meadows and hedgerows are rich in insect life, providing food and shelter for many small mammals which, in turn, provide meals for birds of prey including buzzards and owls.

Avon Wildlife Trust’s management of this nature reserve, on land formerly used to dump ash from coal-fired power stations, has delivered huge gains for wildlife. Populations of water vole have grown significantly, and wetland bird species have returned to the land where the network of ditches, rhynes and pools have been extended. The nature reserve has also become a fantastic public amenity with footpaths, cycle ways and integrated bird hides, and serves as an important part of the area's flood defences. In the last year alone more than 1,150 people participated in events run by the Trust on the reserve including wildlife film making for school children, family photography days, wildlife walks, wild play sessions in school holidays, and regular activities for parents and pre-school children.

Persimmon, the developer, was largely responsible for the creation of the nature reserve. This involved extensive earth moving and landscaping; the creation of open water in large ponds and scrapes; the construction of footpaths and bridleways; the erection of fencing, gates, footbridges and signposts; the installation of ‘public art’ features and the construction of boardwalks and three bird hides.

Avon Wildlife Trust has managed the nature reserve since October 2010. Ongoing costs are met by the owners of the new houses. The annual charge to residents is fixed each autumn by an intermediary management company. The revenue funding received by Avon Wildlife Trust pays for reserve management and community engagement. In return, residents qualify for free membership of Avon Wildlife Trust, a regular newsletter, and access to nature on their doorstep. Portbury Wharf has a dedicated nature reserve warden and part-time community officer who work with the local community and a committed group of volunteers from the housing development. All are involved in practical work and wildlife surveys, as well as working with local schools.

The State of Natural Capital
The Natural Capital Committee’s recent third report to the Economic Affairs Committee states that today’s higher population density in urban areas means that the provision of good quality, accessible and safe urban green space is critical. Box 2.2: Green spaces and human health
As over 80% of England’s population now lives in urban areas, accessible nearby urban green infrastructure is vital to our nation’s wellbeing. A range of studies20 have shown that living close to green space has a positive influence on a number of general health indicators (including perceived health, stress and disease morbidity).
Green space supports physical and mental health; it improves air quality, reduces the urban heat effect arising from the built infrastructure, captures and stores carbon, provides habitat and food for wildlife, and reduces flood risk. A major challenge for policy-makers and planners is that not everyone has access to good quality greenspace.
The provision of green space encourages higher physical activity levels, but this is just one of the health benefits from such areas. Approx 7m people in England have been diagnosed with mental illness. Research in the UK has shown that dissatisfaction with local green space is associated with poorer mental health while participation in green space exercise programmes has been shown to improve confidence, self-esteem and mood. Moving closer to a green space appears to have a long-lasting positive effect on mental health. While it is important to scrutinise the causal claims in this evidence carefully, these effects are likely to be accompanied by substantial economic benefits.
Improving and expanding urban greenspace
5.1.19 Green space, particularly in urban environments, can be of enormous recreation value… In addition, there is a growing body of evidence supporting the substantial mental and physical health benefits that can arise if people use it regularly. Natural England, for example, has estimated that if every household in England were provided with more equitable access to good quality green space, then around £2.1bn in health cost savings could be achieved by the National Health Service (NHS) per annum53. The vast majority of homes do not have such facilities54.