Why have police failed to prosecute over destruction of Smallford Pits wildlife site?

The scale of destruction at Smallford Pits.

The scale of destruction at Smallford Pits. - Credit: Christine Pedder

Continued failings to take action against the ongoing destruction of a vital wildlife environment have resulted in outspoken criticism of Herts police.

As extensively reported by the Herts Advertiser, Smallford Pits has been devastated by pollution and intensive construction work, including the destruction of ponds, trees and other plant life, leaving it as little more than a muddy wasteland.

The area was previously a Local Wildlife Site, which identified it as a crucial location for wildlife in the county and should have protected it from development by the planning system.

It had been a breeding ground for great crested newts and was also an important area for dragonflies.

In September the ponds on the site were dredged and scrub cut to the ground, and in December fuel was dumped in the water. A JCB later levelled the plant life, including felling trees, which neighbours believe has caused further damage to the environment.

Although the Environment Agency considered the damage to constitute a wildlife crime, the police and Crown Prosecution Service decided not to take action due to insufficient evidence and an inability to identify the owner of the land.

An internet search reveals the land is owned by a company called Colney Smallford Ltd, based in Milton Keynes, but nobody from the firm has been formerly interviewed by police.

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Matt Dodds, planning and biodiversity manager at Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust, said: “We are hugely disappointed by this development.

"As a Local Wildlife Site, Smallford Pits was an incredibly important place for wildlife; the devastating news that another crime against wildlife has gone unpunished highlights the urgent need for a stronger protection of our wild places.”

Neighbour Christine Pedder, who first reported the destruction, has made a formal complaint about what she perceives to be failings in the police investigation.

"The police were extremely slow to gather the necessary statements and at one point suggested they had a problem with identifying the owner(s) of the land. 

"In light of the apparent inability of the police to investigate, they were provided with witness statements, photographic evidence and ecological survey evidence of protected species living there. The owner had in fact identified himself to one witness as he was pumping the remaining water out of one of the dredged ponds.

"Local police say the CPS were contacted on an informal basis and it was decided that there wasn’t enough evidence to warrant a prosecution. I have been told the owner of the land was never interviewed and the time limit for prosecution has lapsed.

"I am forced to conclude that the police have not acted appropriately in this instance and failed in protecting the environmental heritage of the community they purport to serve. There is an overwhelming public interest in the investigation and prosecution of environmental crime, particularly when the perpetrator has been identified.

"The failure of local police to properly investigate or even interview in light of the evidence presented by concerned members of the public is a horrible and inexplicable dereliction of duty.

"I would very much appreciate an explanation from the CPS as to why it was felt that this case did not warrant a prosecution and from the police as to why they did not interview the landowner and why they took so long to gather evidence."

County councillor for Colney Heath and Marshalswick, Cllr John Hale, said: “The failure of the police to take action shows how weak the law is when it comes to protecting nature and how over-stretched the police are. The current legislation is inadequate to stop developers spoiling sites prior to making planning applications, this might change if the government proceeds with the proposed environment bill, but that was delayed, yet again, earlier this year.

"This is the third time the government has delayed this bill. In the meantime, residents are seeing open spaces they have enjoyed for many years being destroyed. As a local councillor I am frustrated that there is no means to stop this happening. On this site there was evidence of protected species, but the police have failed to take action even when there is legal protection available.”

A formal complaint about the lack of police action has been submitted to the Complaint Resolution Team (CRT) in the Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner, although this will not result in police reinvestigating the alleged offences.

A spokesperson for Herts police said: "I can confirm that a complaint has been made and is currently being reviewed. As a formal complaint has been made, it would be inappropriate for us to comment any further at this time."