It has been a curious week or so in the world of conservation in London culminating in some soul searching and perhaps the rolling of a particularly big head.
Lets start at Lodge Hill. Out in Kent, the Lodge Hill SSSI, celebrated nesting site for Nightingales, has been approved for development of 5,000 new homes, to be created by Land Securities. This one is set to run and run and could become a key flashpoint and signaller of the ever growing and perennial Homes vs Nature argument. There’s going to be a lot of great content poured out on Lodge Hill over the coming months. We’ve had the predictable complaints about ‘feathered obstacles’ from the ‘Greenest Government everTM’. It has seen the promotion of the predictable ‘well if you are anti-homes then you must be anti-people’ rhetoric, whereby everyone who has a pro-nature agenda is tarred with the brush of misanthropy (ok, true in my case), and more disconcertingly portrayed as the very thing we often work against: land managers intent on
maintaining land for their own interests, ignoring those of the public. The argument basically runs that by preventing the building of homes we are deliberately, and happily, keeping people on the streets. It’s a neat trick, attempting to turn the environmentalists against the deprived, and obviously a load of bunkum; I suspect the 5,000 new homes will not be homing the needy and desperate. So far, so ‘same old, same old’, but here’s where it starts to get interesting.
While Land Securities are busy pushing for the destruction of the Lodge Hill SSSI in Medway, they have also moved to install their Financial Controller on the board of trustees for the London Wildlife Trust. It’s easy to see what their angle is here, this would have been a huge PR coup, not to mention the benefit of being able to influence decisions at the highest level of London’s biggest conservation charity. It is perhaps more difficult to see what LWT would get out of the deal. Yes, Marc Cadwaladr brings obvious financial skills, but are these skills that cannot be found from other sources, in-house perhaps? Are the financial skills, and presumably revenue streams, that Cadwaladr brings experience of, the kind of areas that an environmental charity should welcome being connected with? Yes, an environmental charity needs all the financial skills and experience it can get, particularly those which are intent on adopting a more ‘business-like’ model, but there are other, more gaping holes, here; The current board of trustees, and indeed staff, at LWT are not exactly representative, of the community. This is a larger problem all conservation charities are currently faced with, but for the London Wildlife Trust, it is pretty poor.
Surely someone at LWT must have seen what Land Securities were trying to do here? But no, among some baffling quotes in The Guardian piece from LWT was this:
“Marc Cadwaladr, if he is elected to serve as a trustee for London Wildlife Trust, would not do so as a staff member of Land Securities, but as a volunteer who, in his spare time, could bring significant financial skills, capabilities and experience to the trust.”
I’m still trying to get my head around this one. So, he would be a trustee and while he was undertaking his duties as trustee he would not be a member of staff for Land Securities but would be a volunteer for the London Wildlife Trust, but he would still, presumably, continue to work for Land Securities when he was not fulfilling his trustee duties. Eh? Does he resign his position with Land Securities every time he undertakes trustee duties and is then reappointed when finished? It’s all rather unpalatable and not a little deluded.
Then there is the rather sinister question of just how the London Wildlife Trust was proposing sneaking this past its members. Ahead of the AGM and nominations for trustee positions, LWTs website stated (and as of today, 27 Sept, still states) ‘As we have the same number of candidates as vacancies we do not need to hold a ballot of members’, neatly sidestepping any potential (and obvious) opposition that would occur from the nominations. This, according to The Guardian, was later clarified to state that members could vote either by attending the annual meeting or by arranging proxy votes. Would this have made a difference? I, for one, would like to know just how many votes the trustees and senior members of staff who had seemed intent on pushing the appointment through, would have carried.
Now, the London Wildlife Trust, unlike many of the other Wildlife Trusts, does not rely to such a degree on membership subscriptions, but they still form a large part of the income. By attempting to make this appointment, they have risked alienating and losing may of these members, seemingly in favour of pursuing other financial means. But even without the membership subscriptions, the will and support of the public is all for an environmental charity, lose that and they may as well all go home.
A more damming indictment of the state of affairs at LWT is the complete lack of knowledge most members of staff appeared to have about the potential appointment. One senior staff member indicated that a large portion of the workforce knew nothing of the issue until it was published in The Guardian this week. This smacks of something a little underhand going on, and there certainly seems to be something more to the story.
Cadwaladr has now withdrawn his nomination, saying “it doesn’t feel right to let my name go forward for election as a trustee of the London Wildlife Trust.” But how on earth had the other trustees and SMT at LWT allowed them self to think that it felt right? Judging by the lack of knowledge of ground-level staff and the slightly dubious-looking election process, they did know but intended to push it forward regardless. This complete lack of respect for both its members and staff will have serious repercussions for key figures at the Trust and on this occasion the Chief Executive may have finally overplayed his hand*.
*Update April 2015: Chief Executive of LWT has now departed. Whether this was connected to Land Securities or this hatchet job with its tiny readership, I can not confirm