Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Rumour, Wishful Thinking, or Fiction?

On August 30th, The Friends of Latchmore issued a press release.  It spoke of an independent review which would cause the Forestry Commission to immediately withdraw the planning application for the Latchmore Brook wetland restoration. It was all their Christmases come at once.  It was a complete fabrication.

Now, to be fair, it is possible, as we will see, that they were led up a garden path, rather than, as has often been the case, the leaders.

The August 30th Press Release Begins:

Representatives of the Friends of Latchmore are pleased to learn that the Chief Executives of the Forestry Commission and Natural England have agreed that there will be a full and independent review of the wetland 'restoration' proposals in the New Forest National Park, including Latchmore Brook. The review is expected to begin towards the end of this year as soon as suitable experts can be appointed.

We now know that, apart from the first nine words, this is untrue.  It then decends into a series of flights of fancy "Forestry Commission and Natural England officials are relieved at the decision, due to the range of complaints…" and "the Forestry Commission is expected to withdraw the Latchmore planning application".  Then crows a "Spokesperson for Friends of Latchmore said "We are absolutely delighted with the announcement" ".

The alarm bells already ringing became a klaxon.  Much of what had already been said was out of character, to say the least, with what we knew about the resolute intentions of the Forestry Commission to see the planning application through.  But a reaction to an "announcement"?  What announcement?  There had been no announcement.  It appeared that FoL had published their "Press Release" with absolutely no corroboration.

Cue, half a day of tail chasing, FC and NE internally, and many of us on the outside trying to determine a) if there was a shred of truth to this b) where these notions originated.  We confirmed that it wasn't true, there had been no announcement, and that the rumour would be addressed by the Deputy Surveyor at the Consultative Panel.

At the 1st September, New Forest Consultative Panel, Steve Avery, Executive Director Strategy and Planning for the National Park when asked about the alleged withdrawal of the planning application by the FC, "That hasn't reached me, or my authority.  We have a live planning application that we will proceed to determine until told otherwise."  The Deputy Surveyor, Bruce Rothnie categorically denied any intention of withdrawing the planning application or knowledge of an independent review.

[partial transcript of the Consultative Panel]
BR: There's been a degree of misunderstanding, misinformation that has put out in the last few days and I want to clarify the position.  We remain fully committed to Latchmore Brook Restoration Project and believe the current planning process is the appropriate way to deliver that.  Some of you will remember that some time ago, and certainly before I returned to the Forest, it was agreed that this should be handled through the planning process because of the democratic process it brings.  And that we volunteered to produce an Environmental Impact Assessment which was not required but we felt responded to the concerns of communities around us.  Now we've completed that and it is our intention to see that process through.

[referring to the rumour of the independent review]
I have no information to me that there have been any discussions of chief executives coming down to me.  I’m intrigued as to where you got that information.  I have certainly not been able to find any other information provided, down to this level, about that, so perhaps you could explain wherever that’s come from.

[a Burley Parish Councillor, then pressed a leader of Friends of Latchmore, in attendance representing another organization, to make a statement ]

FoL: The information came from the top of Natural England. The press release was “passed”. It was understood that there was to be a joint statement today from the Forestry Commission and Natural England, that there would be a review. There’s obviously some confusion somewhere. I’ve no idea quite how why what’s occurred there, but that’s where the information has come from.

BR: Through what channels ...?

FoL: Board of Natural England.

BR: And how was that released to you, your knowledge?

FoL: Through somebody that is in touch with them, and released through the environmentalist that’s been advising them, which I gather Steve’s had a letter from telling him all about it. So I was a little bit surprised that Steve said he didn’t know anything about it so there’s obviously confusion. Let’s say that. I can say no more, that’s the information I’ve had.

[shortly afterwards, Steve Avery was asked for a final comment]
SA:  In the last week, out of 283 representations we received, one of them was from a gentleman called Tom Langton who referred to an imminent review of the scheme and withdrawal of the application, but it's not grounded or sourced at all as to where that information has come from. The document is on our website, for everyone to see. But, like Bruce, I'd be interested to know where that information has come from, whether from the Forestry Commission or Natural England as alleged.

Tom Langton is the Consulting Ecologist that the Friends of Latchmore hired for their "rapid review" (as we know, rapid is how all the best science is done). After the Consultative Panel closed, panel members speculated that it was possible that either Langton or the Friends of Latchmore had become confused about the review of the New Forest Wetland Management Plan 2006-2016.

The New Forest Wetland Management Plan 2006-2016 published in April 2006, is (and was already at the time of these events) undergoing its end of term review.  The big clue is in the "-2016".  The review is being done internally within Natural England with the participation of the Forestry Commission.  The Management Plan is available on the New Forest HLS website. It's difficult to conceive that the leaders of Friends of Latchmore would not be aware of this important document.

In Tom Langton's letter to the Planners he sites "threats to geological SSSI features and Odonata interests of international importance", strange when you consider that the British Dragonfly Society (the Odonata in question) support the project. 

It is my understanding that the Chief Executives of the FC and NE have agreed in recent days to undertake an independent inquiry/review of the Latchmore and other restorations and that this will be put in place later this year. …

I think you may agree on reflection that, in any case, the need for a review in effect casts sufficient doubt over the Latchmore plans.

It would be helpful if the application is withdrawn before this Friday 2nd September, the close of the consultation period.

He doesn't seem to be at any pains to explain how he reached his "understanding", and at no point does he, in the words of Steve Avery, ground or source his statements.  The actual review is a standard end of plan exercise, not caused by a negating "need", and as it is a review of the work carried out under the management plan 2006-2016, it won't include Latchmore as that hasn't happened yet.  His strangely presumptive sign off continues his baselessly strong suggestion that the application be withdrawn.

On 17th of September, FoL issued a further press release which attempted, poorly, to reconcile statements, allegedly from the statutory bodies.  Strangely it shows that they don't know the difference between an independent review (denied) and an internal assessment (confirmed).  They seem to be happy that the fact the word "review" was used at all somehow corroborates their original fantasy.  The Lymington Times of 17th September published a story that partially continued to credit the refuted press release, and the Salisbury Journal ran an article which quoted much of it word for word.

On the 19th September a Forestry Commission Communication Manager confirmed several things to us:
  1. The statements about the alleged agreement to an independent review between the Chief Execs of FC and NE, and the withdrawal of the planning application in the Friends of Latchmore 30th August 2016 press release are total fiction.
  2. The Forestry Commission had further denied the statements directly to the reporters from the Lymington Times and the Salisbury Journal before their deadlines for the pieces that ran anyway erroneously continuing to credit those statements.
  3. The New Forest Wetland Management Plan 2006-2016, as mentioned, has already been in preparation -- but there has been a decision to speed up finalising this document so that it is done in the next two weeks.  It will then get an extra peer review, as described below:

Statement from Natural England:
Over 140 wetland restorations have been undertaken in the New Forest since 1997. Ongoing reviews of evidence, experience and lessons learnt are an integral part of any long term nature conservation project such as this.

During the past 12 months, Natural England has been working on an Assessment of the evidence supporting wetland restoration projects in the New Forest.

The Chief Executives of the Forestry Commission and Natural England recently agreed to prioritise finalising this Assessment.  The next stage for the Assessment is an independent peer review through Natural England's Science Advisory Committee.  The objective is to ensure that the evidence and justification for wetland restorations reflect the most recent developments and that any gaps in our knowledge are identified. 

The draft Assessment has been authored by Natural England staff, including a Senior Freshwater Ecologist and Senior Wetland Specialist.  Scoping and commission of the peer review is about to commence and we expect it to be completed during October.  Once completed, the Assessment will be published on the Natural England Access to Evidence website.

Unfortunately this leaves us with some speculation as to how they arrived at this, it looks like Tom Langton may have heard about the existing review of the wetland management plan, put two and two together and came up with five. Then either he potted it up as truth which he presented to his one time masters who embraced it as a dream come true, or passed it on as rumour which the leaders of FoL felt no compunction in passing off, uncorroborated as truth.

Even had an independent review been in the offing, would the leaders of FoL have been happy with any result that didn't go their way?  As far as we can tell, this project has received more scrutiny than any other project of its kind.  The voluntarily done Environmental Impact Assessment shows the planning authority how well the application fits the required criteria.  The leaders of the FoL won't be happy with anything except stopping the project.

What's so dangerous about either of the speculative scenarios is that they both point up the leaders of the Friends of Latchmore "special" relationship with the truth.  We're used to their lack of fact checking, their disproportionate elevating of minor issues into cause célèbre, and general hyperbole that sadly obscures the few valid points they may raise.  We have, and will continue to point these out here and elsewhere.  But this feels like new territory, releasing uncorroborated rumours as Press Releases, with their usual unearned authoritative tone, and even after public denial, getting two local media outlets to swallow this guff.  That's steering towards the land of fabrication.

That brings us onto a third possibility.  They intentionally cooked this up with their lackey Langton, to press for what didn't already exist, and perhaps lead everyone on a merry chase.  Are they that calculating, canny?

So you judge, Rumour, Wishful Thinking, or Utter Fiction?

(although noted within the text, speculative passages have been italicised)