Gabriel from Hastings is opposing a destructive link road funded by the South East LEP in the High Court this month. Read a guest post by Andrea Needham from the Combe Haven Defenders to find out why.
For some time, Combe Haven Defenders have been aware of the next local road threat after the Bexhill Hastings Link Road (BHLR): the Queensway Gateway road, previously known as the Baldslow Link.
This road, pushed very hard by our Conservative MP, Amber Rudd (minister for climate change, who never saw a road she didn't like) would go straight through the middle of the Hollington Valley Local Wildlife Site in Hastings. This little site, a valley with a spring emerging at the top, rich meadowland and extensive woodland, is described in its designation report as 'invaluable and irreplaceable' and 'one of the best wildlife habitats in the Borough'.
The purpose of the road is to allow the 'opening up' of land (that is to say, the wildlife site) by our local 'regeneration' company, SeaChange Sussex, for a business park and the £15 million in funding for the road comes from the South East Local Enterprise Partnership through a 'growth deal' agreed with the government last year. The fact that SeaChange has flattened two other green spaces for business parks within spitting distance of this one, and has been able to fill neither, is apparently irrelevant. It's in the Local Plan, therefore it must happen.
We knew the cards were stacked against us, but we had to try to save this beautiful little green oasis. We had already done what we could to raise awareness of the threat: blogposts, press releases, social media, putting signs up at the site. We held a treedressing ceremony, decorating a mature oak standing at the top of the valley, and later a camp under the same tree.
When the planning application was submitted we set to work gathering objections, mostly at street stalls in the town centre. What we discovered from standing at the stall for hours, blowing on our fingers and stamping our feet, was that there are a huge number of people locally who value our green spaces and don't want to see another one torn up for yet another useless business park. By the time the planning committee met to consider whether to grant permission for the road, we'd managed to collect almost 500 objections.
How high the cards were stacked, however, became evident in the run up to the planning committee meeting. We emailed all the councillors on the committee to put our views forward. Most of them ignored us. We asked to meet with the chair, vice chair and our individual councillors. All refused to meet us, saying it would be 'totally inappropriate' or would mean that they could not vote on the application.
Planning guidance to councillors makes it clear that they are quite at liberty to meet with objectors beforehand, provided they don't express any opinion which could be construed as predetermination (ie deciding the outcome before the hearing). However, they wouldn't have it and refused to meet us (this is the subject of an ongoing complaint to the council). Meanwhile, SeaChange was holding briefing meetings for the very same councillors to persuade them of the merits of the road – judging by the report of the meetings, they needed very little persuading.
When the application was finally heard, we knew that it would almost certainly go through, but were unprepared for the lack of serious consideration it was given. The almost 500 objections were not mentioned, the extremely well-qualified environmentalist who spoke against the road was ignored, and most of the questions from councillors were about traffic congestion.
We need the road, they said one after another, to relieve the congestion that will be caused when the BHLR opens – never mind that the primary purpose of the road is to allow access to the business park, not to improve traffic flow (arguably, it will make traffic congestion even worse). The environmental destruction, the threat to protected species, the increase in carbon emissions, even the fact that SeaChange can't fill the sites it's already got, were all ignored. The councillors were fed up of sitting in traffic jams, and that was that. The application was passed unanimously.
Just a few weeks later (and during the nesting season), we were out in Hollington Valley trying to stop SeaChange contractors felling the trees. We did our best, but a heavy-handed police presence ensured that before long, contractors had cut down every tree, hedge and bush in sight, turning a once beautiful site into a wasteland.
However, trees can be replanted, but once the road was built, that would be it: it had to be stopped now or never. A local man, Gabriel Carlyle, was concerned enough about the plans to make some enquiries with an environmental law firm: was there anything further that could be done to stop the road?
The answer was yes. Having scrutinised the planning application, the lawyer found that there were a number of issues which suggested that the granting of planning permission was unlawful. The road would cause breaches of EU air quality directives; the developer had not taken proper account of the Habitats Directive, particularly in relation to dormice; the council had failed to consider the increase in carbon emissions the road would cause; the 'no road' alternative had not been considered, and neither had the cumulative impact of the road and the planned business park.
The papers have been submitted. SeaChange and Hastings Council deny all wrongdoing. The case is going to the High Court, and the case will be heard at the High Court on June 25 and 26. If Gabriel wins the case, the council will have to reconsider the decision. Of course, they may grant permission for a second time, but it gives local campaigners a window of opportunity, to put pressure on councillors, to shout about the issue locally, to get more people involved.
At the very least, it's a costly delay for them, and might make them think a bit harder next time before assuming they can push projects like this through without any opposition. These are our green spaces, this is our public money being wasted, this is our planet being destroyed. We need to stand up and fight.
A guest blog post by Andrea from the Combe Haven Defenders - visit their website