Minutes of Economy and Tourism Overview and Scrutiny Panel, 29th April 2010

20. COUNTRYSIDE SERVICE

The Panel received an update from Stuart Clarke, the Countryside Policy Officer, on how the Council was responding to the issues raised by Natural England in its report to the Panel in October 2009.

Although these issues related mostly to Turbary and Kinson Commons, they were relevant to all countryside sites in the Borough. Natural England’s two main concerns were about land management, particularly scrub control, and the prevention of harm to SSSIs - Sites of Special Scientific interest. Stuart Clarke reported that the Council had now met with representatives of Natural England to agree programmes of work for all sites. Actions taken to address the issues included the following:

  • Improved scrub management using machinery provided by Natural England
  • Enormous contribution of the volunteer groups in the maintenance of sites
  • Grazing management for heathland sites, including the use of Exmoor ponies and Shetland cattle in fenced areas of Turbary and Kinson Commons
  • Working with Natural England and Wessex Water to reduce water pollution
  • Working with partner agencies and local ward councillors to promote SUDS, part-funded by Natural England’s HLS - Higher Level Stewardship agreement
  • A full survey of Turbary Common to identify and address problems, also funded by the HLS agreement.

Stuart Clarke reported that Turbary Common was now such a good example of urban heath grazing management that the Dorset Urban Heaths Partnership had arranged a site visit in June. He talked about how much the site had improved over the past ten years especially as a sense of ownership had grown among local residents.

Stuart Clarke confirmed that Natural England was satisfied with the actions the Council was taking to address its concerns. However he advised Members that the countryside team had reached the limit of its capabilities in terms of maintaining the high standard and high expectations of the service. Any further staff reductions would have serious consequences for the Council in fulfilling its statutory obligation to conserve and manage its SSSIs. This would lead to a reduction in how much the sites were valued and how much voluntary activity took place.

Councillor Ron Whittaker, Ward Member for Throop and Muscliff which included the Stour Valley, spoke about the work which Stuart Clarke was currently doing on Hicks Farm with Ward Members and the Stour Valley Supporters, and he thanked him for his dedication. Councillor Whittaker expressed his concern about the pressures being placed on existing staff and volunteer groups due to two members of staff leaving and not being replaced. The number of volunteers was also falling. He reminded the Panel of the Council’s statutory requirement to maintain its SSSIs. He asked that the issue of staffing levels be pursued.

Stuart Clarke and Michael Rowland, the Parks Policy Manager, responded to questions from Members. Michael Rowland referred to the recent parks budget reduction exercise and stated that there would be no further reductions in the countryside service. Within the restructure of the service there would be provision to assist and co-ordinate the work of the volunteer groups. Stuart Clarke agreed to look into the current status of the Friends of Turbary Common.

DECISION MADE:

  • That the Panel notes the update on the Countryside Service and the actions taken to address the issues raised by Natural England in October 2009;
  • That the Panel records its gratitude to the volunteer groups for the time and effort they spend in supporting the countryside sites
  • That the Panel asks the Cabinet Member for Leisure and Tourism to liaise with the Officers and the Cabinet Member for Resources to see if there is any possibility of increasing staffing levels in the countryside team.