Sedgemoor District Council’s plans to create an ‘Eco Park’ on the Meads floodplain between Westover, Hamp and Wyndham wards, have been challenged by long term campaigners from the Durleigh area opposed to the proposed Housing Development on the fringes of the Meads and more recently by a petition organised and presented to SDC by Hamp resident Ursula Martin, which had attracted 538 signatures when presented on 11 July 2013.
Sedgemoor Labour group, including Westover councillors, had voted to support the Eco Park on the understanding that neither Houses nor permanent roads were to be built on the actual Meads themselves and that any development would be sensitive to the natural environment and took into account the fact that the area is often underwater.
Campaigners contacted Cllr Brian Smedley (Westover) in his capacity as Chair of Corporate Scrutiny Committee to review the decision and to invoke the constitutional requirement that petitions can be presented to his committee.
Westover and Hamp councillors, along with County Councillor for Bridgwater South, Leigh Redman, met and agreed to meet with Sedgemoor Officers to clarify the position regarding the Eco Park in the light of the statements made within the Petition and it’s effect via Social Media as well as to review options for Scrutiny within the rules of the Council.
On 2.8.2013 Cllrs Brian Smedley & Kathy Pearce (Westover) and Leigh Redman (Bridgwater South) met with Sedgemoor officers Andrew Melhuish (Democratic Services) Nick Tait (Planning) Stuart Martin (Meads project officer) to review the process and address the concerns of campaigners.
Andrew Melhuish was asked whether the petition could be brought before a Corporate Scrutiny Committee. He said that when presented the petition had only 538 names and this needed to be 550. He was further asked whether the petition had not now in fact reached that number? He said that although it subsequently had there needed to be a cut-off point established and this was the date of submission 11 July. He continued to explain however, that even if the petition had been presented with 550 names its content was still beyond the remit of the Scrutiny Committee as the subject matter was ‘Planning’ which had a separate redress process via Judicial Review- which would involve challenging SDC on a point of law. He believed SDC’s process had been sufficiently robust and that campaigners had been written to twice, explaining the situation and their options.
Members had to accept that there was no constitutional role for Scrutiny at this stage in the process and so asked to address the points of the petition individually.
Sedgemoor District Council: Stop the proposed development of an ‘Eco Park’ on The Meads in Bridgwater
We, the people of Bridgwater and others, are opposed to the development of an ‘Eco Park’ which is to be built on prime wildlife habitat. We feel the so called ‘Eco Park’ is a guise in order for Sedgemoor District Council to allow the building of 120 houses by Summerfield Housing and 180 house by Haygrove Park Development.
Although many see the ‘Eco Park’ as a potentially good thing, many believe this is a smokescreen to soften up the people of Bridgwater who would oppose the building of housing estates within that contained area and the impact it would have on wildlife there.
The Meads in Bridgwater contains common ground which would have belonged to a Lord of the Manor. This land was used by ‘commoners’ to graze their livestock and is enjoyed today by many. The land is relatively untouched and is home to a diverse range of wildlife including Daubenton and Pipistrelle bats which are endangered species. There are also nesting birds of prey amongst other wildlife forms.
Summerfields Homes who has bought some of the land have pointed out the possibility of building 500 houses on the area. Taken from their Durleigh Road Information Leaflet; “It is still to be determined and will depend on the areas available and design approach adopted. However, it is anticipated that around 15 hectares could provide circa 500 new dwellings for the entire area, of which the Summerﬁeld site could contribute 100-150 new homes”.
Sedgemoor District Council themselves said in 2010 (page 4) on their Proposed Submission Core Strategy.
“The reasons previously quoted in the 1991-2011 Sedgemoor District Local Plan to keep The Meads and its flanking fields that comprise the green wedge completely free from developments have not changed and no justifications to the contrary have been nominated.
There can be no doubt that The Meads also contributes considerably to improving the air quality within the town centre with its attendant health benefits. To impede the flow of the prevailing winds and the availability of clean air through development of this area can only have a negative affect on these health benefits.To ensure this remains the case it is essential to maintain in full the green gap between Hamp and Durleigh”.
We believe that this land should remain untouched by any developments especially that of a housing estate that could contain up to 500 houses.
Officers answered each of the points and explained that the Petition was somewhat misleading picking out the following points:
- The area described as ‘prime wildlife habitat’ within the petition is actually designated as ‘degraded urban fringe’ and the aim of the establishment of an eco park is actually to upgrade this.
- The petition states that the Meads contains ‘common ground’, but this is in fact not the case. The only parts designated as common are the ‘public rights of way’. The aim of the eco park is in fact to upgrade and facilitate greater common access.
- Officers accepted that the area might well be home to endangered species, possibly as a foraging route on the fringes, nevertheless a survey would first need to be done to establish this.
- There was the suggestion that 500 homes ‘could’ be built on the area – this is correct. However,to date the only planning application to be received and given planning permission is for 120 and this solely in the agreed area of land on the higher fringes adjoining the Meads and not on the floodplain itself.
- The petition refers to the Core Strategy and the ‘need to preserve the green wedge of the Meads between Hamp and Durleigh free from development’, however officers confirmed that the Meads themselves were not to be developed on and would remain undeveloped for exactly this reason and therefore the petitions concern in this respect was erroneous.
Members accepted the explanations given but felt it was important to allay the fears and concerns of the community further by looking at some of the wider perceptions that had been expressed in the wake of the petition.
- “The housing development is not legal”. Members were assured that the process was totally legal and there had been sufficient opportunities for objection through the planning process. The final test of legality could at this stage only be a Judicial Review –but this would be a potentially costly option. The Council Officers were confident that they had followed procedures correctly, so campaigners would need to be confident that they had a strong case. It was also noted that whilst the petition had caused a delay in the Meads project a judicial review could be determined relatively quickly depending on the court’s decision.
- “The proposed road alongside the house on Fairfield is covered by a covenant and the grand-daughters of the lady that left that covenant are said to be opposed to the development”. Members were advised that any covenant runs with land not a person and that even if it were to be established that the relatives don’t want the proposed road this would have no relevance to the outcome. Council Officers confirmed that they had received no contact from any of the aforementioned relatives.
- “There was concern about possible buildings on the ‘Eco Park’ itself, particularly a ‘youth centre type of building’.“ It was explained that there were no such plans to build a youth centre. The only possibly similar structure which was being considered was an ‘outdoor classroom’ with a balcony type viewing platform built on stilts alongside Penrose School. It was noted, that Penrose School is currently having a major refurbishment, and that this would actually be a benefit to the children there, whilst not affecting the Meads.
- “People would not oppose the ‘Eco Park’ if they believed it to be genuine but many feel that this is just a sweetener to cover up the fact that a possible 500 houses are to be built around that area.”. Members were reminded that the Eco Park had in fact originated as a concept via the ‘Bridgwater Vision’ and could have been achieved through funding such as the Lottery but that this hadn’t been successful. The project and it’s aims were therefore historically genuine and desirable and were in fact a great opportunity to actually bring some much needed water-management into this area which had suffered recently because of the lack of this. The fear of housing being built on the actual floodplain was unfounded as this was never the plan and wouldn’t be acceptable. The most important aspect of assuring this is the existence of the SPD. This Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) was adopted in respect of the Meads following the consultation process .
- “There is an opinion that the Council targets green field sites instead of brown field because it is a cheaper option”. Officers assured members that both green AND brown field options are constantly being pursued and that whilst essentially correct about costs, there is a greater demand for housing and limited land available to build on.
Members had to accept that there is no role for Scrutiny at this stage in the process but agreed that this role needs now to an integral part of the next stages – ie the actual establishing of an Eco Park. Members therefore asked for a timescale and the Council policies and decision making structures that could be scrutinised.
- Officers said that ‘late autumn’ was a likely target date for the next stage of development.
- Officers welcomed an ongoing interest of the Scrutiny Committees as part of this next step.
- Members asked that community and member involvement be given a priority to ensure that the Eco Park development was what was wanted and didn’t exceed its remit.
- Officers agreed that the Council body with responsibilities for Meads development ‘The Meads Technical Working Group’, which included Cllr Pearce, was awaiting the next ‘trigger’ event – ie the commitment by a body such as the College to clarify its role along with a recently commissioned drainage survey, and would then be the route to take the project forward. Members asserted that this should be open to scrutiny and wider community involvement.
- It was important to bring the positive aspects of the Meads/Eco park to the fore, to welcome the next stage which would be the Management Agreement for land use. One of the problems was in fact that the area was not in common ownership and management had declined thus causing some of the recent problems in the rhynes therefore it was to be welcomed that this could be made more publically accessible and with an increased management for the area.
“Our position remains supportive of the Eco Park/ Meads project on the understanding that housing will not be built on the floodplain and that the project remains environmentally friendly, sustainable and involves the neighbouring communities. We will monitor the situation through the scrutiny process and review again when appropriate.”
Cllr Brian Smedley (SDC Westover)
Cllr Kath Pearce (SDC Westover)
Cllr Leigh Redman (SCC Bridgwater South)