Where to start? Natural England has submitted its comments on the planning application for SeaChange’s North Queensway business park. To call it damning doesn’t really do it justice.
In fact, it’s so bad that Natural England has declined to give a final opinion on the project – it has instead asked for a lot of extra information from SeaChange, and warned that without it, Natural England ‘may need to object to the proposal’.
Reading the report, you get a strong sense of the frustration of the author that SeaChange has ignored all previous advice from Natural England relating to this development. For instance, the report points out that Natural England has raised concerns on four separate occasions regarding putting units on the plot immediately adjacent to the SSSI. Despite this, SeaChange’s plans include units on that plot.
Throughout, the phrase ‘we advised’ comes up again and again – in fact ten times in total, along with ‘we again advise’, ‘we have consistently highlighted’, ‘we have provided substantive advice’, ‘our advice has not been reflected’, ‘we reiterate’, ‘we specifically requested’. SeaChange has a reputation for being unwilling to constructively engage, and this report certainly reinforces that.
Once again, Natural England says it has ‘considerable concerns’ about the plans. It is particularly concerned about the impact of developing plot 2.1 (the largest, speculative, plot) because of its proximity to Marline Valley SSSI and the risk of pollution of the stream from runoff, or breaching of the sandstone layer during construction.
Natural England has said on several occasions that plot 2.1 should be omitted from development. It reiterates it in this document, staing that ‘the area covered by Development Plot 2.1 is of particular concern and should be omitted from development in favour of retaining greenspace and incorporating SuDS [sustainable drainage systems] features for example’.
It goes on to point out that:
Our advice has not been reflected within the scheme’s design, which has placed a significant proprotion of development into area 2.1 which is both closest to the SSSI and contains permeable geology.
The document says that developing plot 2.1 poses a ‘significant risk’ to Marline Valley. It notes that, as no alternatives to developing this plot are given (SeaChange has dismissed the idea of leaving that plot out, stating that it would impact its profits), the proposal does not follow the ‘mitigation hierarchy’ – that is, ‘significant harm to biodiversity should first be avoided, then adequately mitigated, or as a last resort, compensated for’. SeaChange’s plans do none of these things.
Moving on, the document states that:
The submitted plans indicate little retention of greenspace. This is reflected in the expected 25% loss of biodiversity should the developments proceed. This is unacceptable. We again advise that area 2.1 be allocated for greenspace and enhancement.
It points out that the National Planning Policy Framework requires new developments to provide net gains for biodiversity and says it has ‘considerable concern’ that this development does not comply with that.
‘Underestimated the impact of the scheme’
Natural England says that SeaChange has underestimated the impact of the scheme in various ways. For one, in its ground conditions statement (p21) SeaChange says that the surface water of Marline Stream is of medium sensitivity to pollution – and in any case, the risk of contamination, SeaChange says (p24), is ‘negligible’. Natural England doesn’t see it in quite the same way. It states:
We note…that for surface water Marline Stream and Ghyll has been attributed a medium sensitivity. Given that these contain interest features of a nationally important wildlife site, which relies on the water quality and quantity arising from the application site, the sensitivity of this receptor should be high.
Natural England points out that inaccurately reporting the importance of habitats and species has a knock-on effect, in that impacts of development will therefore also be inaccurate. You can almost hear the frustration of the report’s author:
It is therefore of critical importance that affected receptors are accurately represented in this assessment. We reiterate that this area supports nationally important habitats.
Natural England is unhappy that SeaChange has not included the cumulative impacts of its scheme in the environmental impact assessment. In particular, it says that it has previously advised that the ill-fated ‘Enviro 21’ business park developed by SeaChange’s precursor company, SeaSpace, just a few hundred metres away should be included in the assessment. Enviro 21 is also right next to Marline Valley, and was covered with the same type of ancient woodland until SeaSpace cut it all down. Natural England goes on to say:
We note with concern that this assessment has not been carried out…[W]e advise again that…the cumulative impact of the loss of naturally functioning land may be significant.
In a particularly scathing section, Natural England says that SeaChange’s proposed monthly monitoring regime (point 8.6.9) of the water in the stream is ‘likely to be insufficient’. Seachange had dismissed the issue of pollution into the stream, saying, ‘It is therefore considered that these mitigation measures will mitigate that risk to controlled waters from the introduction of new potential contaminants to the environment. The measures to mitigate the risk to controlled water will effectively mitigate the risk to ecology and wildlife’.
Natural England is unimpressed and states drily:
We advise that monitoring…is not mitigation. Mitigation involves putting measures in place to prevent adverse impacts.
Natural England’s standing advice on ancient woodland is that there should be a buffer zone of at least 15m around it, in order to protect the trees and their roots. SeaChange’s ecology statement (point 6.6.7) shows that part of the site will be just 5m from ancient woodland.
Natural England says that ‘clarification is required on the distance between developed area in plot 1.1 and the adjacent ancient woodland’. As an aside, it is notable that the borough arboriculturalist, whom you might expect to raise concerns, has a one-line response to the planning application: ‘The planting proposals, both buffer and within the development are suitably robust’.
More information needed
Natural England has provided a lengthy list of the information it wants SeaChange to provide before it looks at the proposal again:
Will SeaChange provide the information Natural England is asking for? Will it withdraw plot 2.1 from the development? Or will it go its usual happy way, ignoring all criticism, and confident that Hastings Borough Council will, as always, approve its plans? We shall have to wait and see.
In the meantime, it’s still not too late to object – particularly now that Natural England’s requirement for clarification from SeaChange will delay the project even further. It only takes a couple of minutes – see this blogpost for how to do it.