SeaChange’s plans for their North Queensway business park project are not progressing well. They’ve lost the funding, costs have increased by nearly £2m [p145], and the planning application is mired in objections. Apparently undaunted – and with no other funding in sight other than a pie-in-the-sky plan to find private investors [p145] – SeaChange is ploughing ahead.

Toing and froing

Since the planning application was submitted in April 2021, there’s been a great deal of toing and froing between SeaChange, Natural England and Sussex Wildlife Trust (SWT) – both the latter have serious concerns which they have repeatedly asked SeaChange to address.

SWT put in an objection in June 2021, closely followed by a long contribution from Natural England, which stated that unless SeaChange could provide a lot more information, they might need to object to the proposal.

Twenty pages of refutation

Months passed with no word from SeaChange. Then in November, an ‘agent response to objections’ appeared on the planning application. This was a twenty-page refutation of the points raised by various objectors. It didn’t take long for a response from SWT and Natural England, who both added further comments, noting that SeaChange had failed to address most of the issues they had raised.

Then twenty more pages…

A few more months passed, then in February 2022 SeaChange submitted a second twenty-page ‘agent response to objections’. Whilst purporting to address the various objections, on most points SeaChange simply doubled down on their previous stance, insisting there were no problems and even copying and pasting some of their previous comments into the new document to reinforce the point. What Natural England and SWT will make of this, we have yet to find out.

The documents are long and dry, but for illustrative purposes, we’re going to look at three of the key issues raised by Natural England and Sussex Wildlife Trust: building on plot 2.1; loss of biodiversity; and the impact on bats.

Plot 2.1: Natural England says no

Natural England had been saying ad nauseum and for some years that plot 2.1 (the plot to the NW of the site) should not be developed because of the risk to the Marline Valley Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). There is a concern that damage to the sandstone layer under the plot during construction, or runoff during operation of the business park, could pollute the delicate SSSI. Natural England reiterated this in their first response to the planning application.

Plot 2.1 (rear) before access road was built
Plot 2.1: SeaChange says yes

In response, SeaChange said that they still planned to develop plot 2.1 (albeit making it smaller than originally planned) but had removed plot 2.2 [p3], the plot nearest the entrance, earmarked for a car showroom) from the plans.

Plot 2.1: Natural England says no again

Natural England was unimpressed, saying in their next response [p2]: ‘The removal of plot 2.2 from the proposed development does not avoid impact to the area of the site which is of highest risk.’ They ask SeaChange to provide further information about how they will avoid breaching the sandstone layer under plot 2.1.

Natural England also raise the question of the ‘mitigation hierarchy’. This is a planning tool which aims to minimise the impact of development on biodiversity by creating a hierarchy of action: avoid, minimise, remediate, compensate.

Natural England stated [p2] that it had told SeaChange in June that:

‘the proposed development did not clearly demonstrate that the proposals have followed the requirements of the mitigation hierarchy as alternatives [to developing plot 2.1] had not been considered.’

Plot 2.1: SeaChange says yes again

But in response to that accusation, SeaChange says [p2], slightly tersely:

Natural England are reminded that the hierarchy does not necessarily require alternative locations, and to insist that sites allocated within the Local Plan must be left undeveloped due to the hierarchy is a misreading of the both letter and spirit of the hierarchy as presented.

SeaChange goes on to say that since the site has already got a road, drainage and street lighting; has been divided into ‘development parcels’; and is allocated as employment land in the Local Plan, there is no requirement for the company to consider alternatives to developing that particular plot. We shall see what Natural England makes of that.

North Queensway, summer
Ancient woodland: Natural England says 15m

Standing advice from Natural England is that new developments should provide a 15m buffer with any adjoining ancient woodland, to protect the roots of trees. In their first comments on the planning application, Natural England noted that SeaChange’s plans did not provide this buffer [p6]- in fact, the plans show only a 5m buffer.

Ancient woodland: SeaChange says 5m

In their first response, SeaChange dismissed these concerns [p11], saying airily that their arboricultural survey ‘demonstrated that a buffer zone of less than 15m is suitable to avoid any root damage to the trees within the ancient woodland area and therefore demonstrates that no harm is caused by the proposed development.’

Ancient woodland: Natural England says 15m again

Natural England were unimpressed. In their second response to SeaChange, they say [p5] that the standing advice is clear, and that the plans need to be modified to incorporate a 15m buffer zone

Ancient woodland: SeaChange says 5m again

But SeaChange aren’t having this. In response, they double down, stating that the 15m buffer zone is guidance only, and that:

We have confirmed, and evidenced via an arboricultural survey that less than a 15m [sic] is suitable for the small area of plot 1.1 that cannot be placed beyond a coarse 15m buffer and will avoid root damage to the trees within the ancient woodland area.

Objectors will no doubt be relieved that the ancient woodland on this site has only very small roots and does not need the protection afforded to other similar areas.

Biodiversity: SeaChange plans for 25% loss

The initial planning application showed a 25% loss of biodiversity [p27] on the site if the business park was built. Natural England said this was unacceptable, as the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) requires new developments to show biodiversity net gain.

In its first response [p10], SeaChange said that plot 2.2 (the one nearest the entrance, previously earmarked for a car showroom) was no longer going to be developed, which would mean that the overall biodiversity loss was going to be just 0.68%.

Biodiversity: Natural England want 10% gain

This wasn’t good enough for Natural England, however, who responded [p5] that ‘this development in this sensitive location provides a key opportunity to provide a demonstrable net gain in biodiversity.’ It reiterated the point about the NPPF and noted that the emerging Hastings Borough Council Local Plan contains a draft policy requiring all new developments on greenfield sites to deliver a minimum 10% biodiversity net gain (either on site, or off site if the gain cannot be achieved on site).

Plot 2.1 in the summer
Biodiversity: SeaChange says no to 10%

Predictably, SeaChange were combative in their response to this. They accuse Natural England of ‘misunderstand[ing] the existing condition of the site’, which they say has already been partly developed and divided up into development parcels – the implication is that therefore SeaChange don’t need to worry about biodiversity.

They dismiss the Local Plan, as it is not yet adopted. They also dismiss the Environment Act which enshrines the need for biodiversity net gain into law, as it was not in force at the time the application was made. Thus do SeaChange attempt to squirm out of any necessity to increase biodiversity.

Bats: Sussex Wildlife Trust concerned

Sussex Wildlife Trust, leasees of Marline Valley, had also made extensive comments on the plans, including concerns about biodiversity, ancient woodland, and building on plot 2.1. In addition, SWT also raised concerns about bats. They noted [p3] that contrary to good practice, only one bat survey had been carried out at the site since 2012 and that although this survey found six species of bat on the site, the survey concluded that the impact on the bats would be ‘negligible’.

SWT pointed out that the plans included car parking spaces just 5m from occupied bat boxes, and that light pollution from headlights could impact on the bats. They stated that the plans should be changed to allow a 15m buffer between car parking and the ancient woodland where bats were roosting (there should of course, be a 15m buffer in any case, bats or no bats).

Pipistrelle bat, Evgeniy Yakhontov, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Bats: SeaChange unconcerned

SeaChange’s response [p12] was abrupt, to say the least:

All habitats of higher relative value for bats…will be unaffected by the development and therefore significant impacts on bats due to habitat loss are considered very unlikely…Enhanced woodland boundaries will be unlit after-dark [sic] where possible.

Bats: Sussex Wildlife Trust still concerned

Now, SeaChange might have predicted that SWT would not be satisfied with this non-response. And indeed, SWT came back shortly afterwards to say [p2]:

SWT’s concerns about the lack of bat surveys have not been addressed. The response to objections letter states that ‘enhanced woodland boundaries will be unlit after-dark where possible’, however the boundary along plot 1.1 is not being enhanced, it is being encroached into by parking. We note that bats were recorded along this boundary in October, when dusk is around 6pm. We are not clear how the applicants can guarantee that cars will not be turning on headlights at this time of year.’

Bats: SeaChange copying and pasting

And so the ball was back in SeaChange’s court. Their response [p9]? ‘Enhanced woodland boundaries will be unlit after-dark, where possible.’

This is both risible and insulting. It is clear from the odd punctuation (‘after-dark’) that far from addressing points raised by SWT, SeaChange have simply copied and pasted their original comments.

Doubling down, and down

There is much more of this in the same vein. SeaChange have clearly taken inspiration from the mitigation hierarchy (avoid, minimise, remediate, compensate) and produced their own objection hierarchy: ignore, restate, refute. Far from engaging with the serious objections raised by individuals, organisations and statutory bodies, SeaChange have simply doubled down on their arguments.

Will this high-handed approach wash with Hastings Borough Council? Will they override the seemingly almost inevitable objections from Natural England and Sussex Wildlife Trust? Watch this space.

If you’ve read this far…

Please remember it’s not too late to object to this application! See here for how to do it.