Power without responsibility – the prerogative of the harlot
It was Stanley Baldwin who made the first public use of the unforgettable remark, “Power without responsibility – the prerogative of the harlot through the ages”. That was when he was Prime Minister almost a century ago, but it is still applicable today.
Its truth and relevance occurred to us when watching one wild fire after another ravage the landscape and its wildlife, and they were just a sample – there have been hundreds. Hundreds of wildfires involving thousands of people risking injury, and even death, while putting them out. Hundreds of wildfires costing millions of pounds in damage and using up scarce Fire and Rescue resource, and countless hours of unpaid toil from local people, farm workers, gamekeepers and others. God knows how much wildlife has been destroyed at the height of the breeding season, with the landscape full of young birds and animals unable to get out of the way of the flames. We dare not even guess how much stored carbon will be released from burning peat.
But we can be certain of two things. First, that we are eternally grateful to all of those whose instinct is go to the fire and put it out. In the context of the uplands, to the extraordinary people of the Fire and Rescue Services can be added gamekeepers, shepherds, farmers and farm workers, using their local knowledge, their skill and their equipment
The second thing we can be certain of is that the people whose decisions may well have created the calamity will be nowhere to be seen. The regulator, who determines how the landscape is managed. The board of trustees and the management teams of the land owning and campaigning conservation charities. The rewilders and the anti-management brigade. The chances of seeing them anywhere near a wildfire – that's a wildfire that their policies have made more likely and when it happens, worse – are vanishingly small.
When the people fighting one of the fires that their policies helped to create finally descend, blackened with smoke, parched and exhausted, the people they won't meet are the people who have told the world that having re-wetted the moor, it is impossible for it to burn and that there is therefore no need to reduce fuel loads, have fire breaks or any other traditional management – because a fire won't happen.
In an English context it is Natural England that decides what can or cannot happen on a moor. In many cases they have decided that, despite the knowledge, skill and understanding of the owners and their staff, which often amounts to many generations of keeping the land free from damaging wildfire, they know best. They may have never been on a moor. They may have never set a controlled cool burn; more likely they have never seen one. Nor will they have put a fire out, either managed or wild. But they know best and more importantly, they have the power.
So when the owner or his staff plead that if they are not allowed to reduce the fuel load there may be a catastrophic wildfire, NE can – and does – say: "we don't agree, do as you're told or else". In this they are of course singing to a tune which has been composed by the RSPB and friends; but nevertheless it is Natural England that has the power to say no, and all too often does.
When they do this, they are not only ignoring the wishes of the people who own and manage the land and who will have to bear the cost of dealing with a wildfire. They are also ignoring the advise of the professionals who have to put them out. Following a week of news being dominated by wildfires, the Sunday Times interviewed the Deputy Chief Fire Officer for West Yorkshire who, having confirmed that things were getting worse, said that they were moving to the use of controlled burns as a vital tool in attempt to mitigate the risk and severity of wildfires.
That would, of course, be what moorland managers have been doing for generations. Well, good luck. If it's a grouse moor and you need consent from NE, don't hold your breath because the chances are you won't be getting permission to carry out controlled burns any time soon. In fact, anytime at all.
NE seem to be in perfect harmony with their friends in the RSPB and judging from their actions seem to believe that on moorland that has been re-wetted, fire breaks or a broken up and reduced fuel load are completely unnecessary.
This is despite the fact that moors that are treated in this way, without fire breaks and with their fuel load untouched, burn with monotonous regularity. Only this week the RSPB-managed moor at Crowden has gone up in flames again. This is despite having had a £1,600,000 grant to repair previous fire damage, prevent fires and employ two people to act as fire watchers and fire watch co-ordinators.
If this had been a privately owned moor, where NE had forced the owners to adopt the RSPB system (which appears to be based on prayer and a fond hope that peat that is wet at Christmas will still be wet after a dry summer and 30 degree plus temperatures) the owners would have had no grants to employ fire watchers, or repair the damage, or to cover the costs of fighting the fire. They would have zero help. They would have had to pay for the consequences of NE's abuse of its powers to prevent them from protecting their own land and its precious carbon stores themselves.
How can that be just? How can someone stroll up and stop something that has kept a place safe from wildfire for generations – and then when they are proved wrong, and the predicted catastrophe happens, in effect say: 'Tough. Life's like that. I've got the power, and the consequences are your problem'.
Nor is it a small problem. It may cost millions. What does NE contribute? Nothing.
It may burn hundreds of thousands of tonnes of carbon and destroy entire ecosystems. With what consequence to NE? None.
It may drag scarce Fire and Rescue resources from other emergencies, but what effect will it have on the tranquil offices of NE? None.
It may injure or even kill people, either directly or indirectly, by massive air pollution, with what impact on the people who made the decisions at NE? None.