At the end of 2017, ALERC consulted its members and other users of the Recorder 6 database about the future of biodiversity data software. Natural England and Joint Nature Conservation Commission, as key stakeholders in biodiversity recording, who presented with the findings of the consultation. Their responses are below.
In September 2017, ALERC wrote to the JNCC to seek more information on how they envisage the future of the Recorder 6 database software. You can read the letter at a later date..
In May, NE and ALERC jointly wrote to LERC managers to provide further details on the ending the MoA, including a more detailed explanation and implications for other work.
You can read the letter below.
ALERC has released a position statement on Local Environmental Records Centre charging. The position sets out the need for LERCs to charge for services and why these charges may be different. It can be read here.
ALERC is a member of the Partnership for Biodiversity in Planning which aims to simplify and improve the consideration of biodiversity in planning decisions.
To achieve this, the partnership will develop an interactive web-based planning tool so that any planning application can be screened for its potential impact on biodiversity. In response to a few straightforward questions, the user of the tool will get an indication of whether the proposed development is likely to affect protected and priority species and if ecological expert advice should be sought to assess this.
Designed for use by non-ecologists, the interactive planning tool can be used before an application is submitted to provide applicants with a clear indication of the biodiversity issues likely to be encountered by a proposed development. Once the planning application has been submitted, the tool can be used by a local planning authority to perform a simple check to see whether sufficient ecological information has been submitted with the application.
The organisations involved in the partnership represent either protected and priority species or expert stakeholders in the planning process. This unique collaboration of developer, planning and ecological expertise will produce a practical tool that will benefit all participants in the planning process and provide positive outcomes for biodiversity.
Led by the Bat Conservation Trust, the Partnership for Biodiversity in Planning is a four year UK-wide project funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation. To see a full list of the project partners, please visit the project website at www.biodiversityinplanning.org
In March 2016, an ALERC delegation met with Natural England to discuss the reasons for, and implications of, ending the Natural England memorandum of agreement with LERCs. One of the outcomes of this meeting was to try and produce a joint statement explaining the reasons behind the decision and if possible provide information on any implications for the future.
On 3rd February 2016 Natural England sent to an email to all English Local Environmental Records Centre (LERC) managers announcing that MoA funding for LERCs will end on 31st March 2016. Naturally this comes as a disappointment to ALERC who question the decision-making behind ending a four year agreement before the end of the first year, and prior to annual assessment of the agreement.
The reasons given by NE are linked to an Open Data agenda and “generic data management services” and are unrelated to the current content of the agreement. NE has expressed an aim to move towards Open Data which, something ALERC supports, but our members are custodians and managers of records from other people and this needs to be recognised. Indeed recent discussions with the Open Data Institute have confirmed the key role that LERCs can play in such an agenda
ALERC believes that MoA funding from National Agencies should support LERCs local as well as national-facing activities. LERCs are organisations with a broad remit, both to support biodiversity data needs locally and engage with national initiatives. This local support (such as training, coordination of surveys and verification) is essential in any system that hopes to increase biodiversity data collection and mobilisation.
In the email of Feb 3rd, it was stated “that generic tools and standards” will provide an alternative to LERCs. ALERC has requested information on when these will be available and what form they will take. ALERC has also notified NE of a number of material concerns regarding the termination of the relationship at this stage. Namely:
Developed over many years, the MoA relationship has allowed LERCs to incorporate changing NE requirements. Work such as accreditation, structured species surveillance and online recording have all been built into our business models as required. LERCs are agile and adaptable businesses, and whilst the loss of a key partner is certainly not a good thing, very few of our members see this as an immediate existential threat. ALERC does not believe that our members are likely to need to recoup the lost income by increasing costs to remaining public sector or commercial partners.
We have written to the NE CEO and the Secretary of State for the Environment asking for a response to the points highlighted below and a review of this decision. We feel it would be appropriate to make any decision following the end of year reporting for the MoA. At that point it will be possible to examine the way in which the agreement has provided the deliverables stated. If there are alternative deliverables that would help NE to achieve its current and future aims then this would be an appropriate time to discuss them and consider any amendment to the agreement.
In order to provide clarity for LERCs and other members of the biodiversity data community on the data strategy that NE is pursuing, ALERC request:
ALERC have requested a meeting to formally discuss the decision and the process behind it, and to discuss the role of LERCs in the Defra biodiversity data strategy. We also seek assurances that LERCs retain a key role in delivering the new NBN Strategy, the aims of Biodiversity 2020, the National Planning Policy Framework and local biodiversity policies.
Thanks to all those members who took the time to respond to this issue with their thoughts in such a short amount of time. The response rate was particularly good considering it is something we wanted to address quickly. Your thoughts have been passed on to the directors and will inform their future actions on this subject. It was also been good to see such a consensus on most questions, which only makes ALERC stronger. A summary of the responses is below.
NE MoA questionnaire responses
Total number of responses: 25
Response rate: 76 %
Does the decision by NE not to pursue future MoAs with LERCs pose an existential threat to your centre?
Is it likely to affect your relationship with your other partners?
Don't Know 5
Will you be revoking NE access to data via the Gateway?
March 31st 22
Not at all 1
How many hours’ worth of enquiries will you no longer be fulfilling for local NE staff?
29 Days (estimate)
Up until now, had you been providing data services to NE staff away from the NBN Gateway (e.g. via GIS layers)?
Are you likely to increase the prices of your data searches to try and make up the £5 000 shortfall?
Natural England’s evidence team has recently contacted managers of Local Environmental Records Centres (LERCs) in England to announce that it will no longer be pursuing Memoranda of Agreement with LERCs. This means that they are not going to provide support for the daily running of LERCs or requesting specific services from them. This was not a decision NE have taken lightly, but felt it was a necessary step in the pursuit of a strategy more in line with their open data agenda. As a consequence of the decision, from April 1st 2016 onwards NE will not be using species, habitat and sites data provided by LERCs in their decision making.
Martin Horlock, the chair of the Association of Local Environmental Records Centres (ALERC) said “we are naturally disappointed that the lead public sector body for nature conservation in England has terminated access to important wildlife information, and that it feels that its evidence strategy is not heading in the same direction as our members', their partners and recorders who provide them with data. Despite the decision, our members will continue to work with other national and local partners, and will participate in several other projects with NE’s national and local teams that are in the planning stages or already in progress. We will now take some time to assess the full ramifications of the MoA termination for our members and partners, and will publish the results. We will also be making a formal response to NE, Defra and the Secretary of State.”
The decision does not necessarily mean a complete end to NE – LERC relations, as NE intend to offer LERCs the opportunity to bid for Open Data grants in the future. However it will have a significant impact on data access to NE at a national level and will require local Area Teams to make their own funding agreements with LERCs where they need to continue accessing their services.
At the 2014 ALERC conference, last October, the ALERC Business Development subgroup sparked a debate on how to define records centres. An unintended consequence of this discussion was to highlight the fact that there wasn’t even agreement on what term to give records centres, and that the most common term – Local Records Centres – didn’t really say anything about the records they kept and didn’t synchronise with the Association of Local Environmental Records Centres. In response to this, ALERC launched a consultation on both the term for records centres and their official definition. The level of response was good, and although there was not universal agreement on what term should be used for records centres, there was strong agreement that LRC is inadequate and that the simple addition of the word “environmental” to produce “LERC” is better.
A proposed definition of LERCs received generally positive feedback, and following the comments on this, and some further inspection from the Business Development subgroup and the ALERC directors, the following definition has been finalised:
“Local Environmental Records Centres (LERCs) are not-for-profit organisations that collect, collate and manage information on the natural environment for a defined geographic area. LERCs support and collaborate with a network of experts to ensure information is robust, and make information products and services accessible to a range of audiences including decision-makers, the public, and researchers.”
Whilst these are not huge changes, they are a step on the way to forging a more cohesive and coordinated ALERC. Special thanks must be given to those who took the time to respond to the consultation and those who contributed to the conference debate.
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