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The landslip area below Rocklands caravan park.

The landslip area below Rocklands caravan park in late January.

Hands off, HBC – let Natural England form its own opinion!

Hastings Borough Council has asked Natural England for its comments on the proposed installation of solar farms in the Country Park and Crowhurst, in line with the motion approved by the Cabinet at its January meeting. However Chris Hurrell of Save Ecclesbourne Glen (SEG) has some concerns based upon a previous HBC consultation with NE, as he explains.

HBC Cabinet’s decision to consult with NE before commissioning feasibility studies into the solar farms proposal is to be welcomed. However the history of HBC consultations with NE concerning Rocklands caravan park and the landslip in Ecclesbourne Glen raises questions about whether the consultation process with NE will be objective, open and transparent.

It is to be hoped that all reports and correspondence concerning the consultation will be put in the public domain.

The Rocklands affair has shown that HBC prefer to keep key reports secret. HBC disputed an Information Commission decision to release the Coffey 2 geotechnical report and spent more than £30,000 in legal fees in keeping the report secret.  Nearly five years on, SEG are still fighting to get copies of HBC-commissioned reports into the landslip, while the council still refuse to release other reports it has commissioned into the landslip.

It is hoped that HBC will not attempt to predetermine the consultation report by telling NE what to say, as they did concerning land stability issues and restoration options in Ecclesbourne Glen.

The footpath to the landslip area is indefinitely closed off to the public.

The footpath to the landslip area is indefinitely closed off to the public.

In an email to NE dated 13 August 2014, obtained by a Freedom of Information request, Murray Davidson, HBC’s natural resource manager, asked NE to say that the landslip was a natural event and that they would not support any engineering interventions. This request from Mr Davidson conflicts with the findings of the Coffey reports into the landslip which identified man-made developments as a factor in the landslip.

Mr Davidson wrote:

I have just sent you an email that I need some assistance with. Here is what I need in reply…

I need NE to say that the landslip was mainly due to natural weather events and that the consequence was a landslip that now provides an additional active habitat. The landslip is active and will form additional natural habitats within the SSSI. Landslips are natural phenomena and you would not support as the statutory agency any measures aimed at endeavouring to stabilise the landslip or allow the council to undertake engineering works in the glen.

It would be helpful if you were to stress that the engineering interventions would alter the natural forms and the ecology of the area and would not be supported. Further helpful if you were to state that the SSSI/SAC [Site of Special Scientific Interest/Special Conservation Area] objectives are for natural erosion and landslips to take their course and their activity being part of the natural process of altering land formations and providing new and different habitats and ecosystems. This is a natural phenomena [sic] and you would not in any way support any engineering solutions. Indeed you would only support minor footpath realignment.

We need you to say no and to say that natural processes should take their course and footpaths and landforms will change and this is perfectly natural and no engineering interventions will be consented by NE.”

We cannot be sure to what extent NE were influenced by Mr Davidson’s pleadings. They did agree with the HBC line that the causes of the landslip were natural (in conflict with the findings of Coffey, though they would not have seen the Coffey reports) but did not support the claim that engineering interventions were not possible.

It is also to be hoped that HBC will not distort the opinion of NE to conform with their own predetermined position.

From May 2014 onwards HBC took the position that remedial works would not be allowed in the SSSI/SAC.

The first Coffey report into the landslide, which has been released to the public, also took this  position, and it was repeated by Cllr Peter Chowney in the Labour Newsletter of 28 July 2014:

Because the glen is a SSSI, no engineering works can be carried out to stabilise the land – nature will simply take its course, and the land will stabilise as new vegetation grows and new habitats are established.

Mr Davidson’s request to NE that NE should not agree to any works was in line with HBC’s predetermined position.

NE did not agree with Mr Davidson’s request to state that it would not agree to any works to stabilise the landslip on the lower slopes on the grounds that such works would violate the area’s SSSI/SAC status, but this did not stop HBC from claiming that NE had advised against stabilisation works.

As early as August 2014, on a site visit, NE officer Janet Whitman appears to have come under pressure to accede to HBC’s request. In an email dated 18 August 2014 responding to Mr Davidson’s email, Ms Whitman wrote:

Personally, I am reluctant to put in writing that Natural England would not consent any engineered footpath solutions [my emphasis] as at some point in time the Coastal route would go via this site. I certainly do not recall saying I would not consent the works….

In other words, NE said they would either allow works or allow HBC to take no action. 

In plain sight: despite the strictures of the planning inspector, Rocklands' Bunker is impossible to miss.

In plain sight: despite the strictures of the planning inspector, Rocklands’ Bunker remains impossible to miss (photo from late January).

Despite this, HBC persisted until early 2016 in claiming that NE would not allow works. In a meeting with Mr Davidson on 20 October 2014 Bob Okines and Michael Madden of SEG were informed by Mr Davidson that NE would not allow works. Again in a meeting with HBC in June 2015 SEG were told by officers that NE would not allow works.

A letter sent to Mr Davidson by NE officer Kristoffer Hewett on 7 October 2015 suggests that HBC persisted in its attempt to get NE to say works would not be allowed. The letter stated:

If the Council chooses to allow cliffs to erode at Ecclesbourne Glen, Natural England can support this position as a general principle regarding natural process but it isn’t a requirement under the SSSI [my emphasis]...

If the Council wishes to investigate further the stabilisation and drainage issues with significant input from Natural England, this will require significant technical understanding and Natural England can only offer our Discretionary Advice Service (DAS) to assist with a possible planning application and Habitats Regulation Assessment…

In other words NE was offering to assist in the investigation of stabilisation and drainage works. But HBC never took this offer up.

For the Local Government Ombudsman who was asked to look into a complaint over HBC’s handling of Rocklands matters, officers were putting spin on NE’s responses. The LGO decision report dated 25 November 2016 stated:

[The Local Government Ombudsman] also highlighted emails disclosed by Natural England. These suggested Council officers had put a certain ‘spin’ on responses from that organisation when referring to consultation on restoring the country park following the landslip [my emphasis].

The claim that NE had recommended that there be no physical intervention is repeated in an email which Cllr Chowney sent me on 9 February 2016, in which he wrote with respect to the landslip area:

“The emphasis seems to be that there should be no physical intervention, and that stabilisation of the land is not recommended. But we’ll need to talk to Natural England about this more, I think.”

Then HBC changed its line. The first indication of this came the very next day, 10 February 2016, at a full council meeting, when in response to a question from SEG Cllr Chowney recognised that NE would allow works and said that HBC would investigate if Ecclesbourne Glen could  be made accessible through an engineered solution. Regrettably no works have ever been carried out, HBC claiming that the instability of the landslip and costs make any remedial works prohibitive.

To recap: we hope all correspondence between HBC and NE on the proposed solar farms will be put in the public domain, and that there will be no attempt on HBC’s part to predetermine NE’s response, or in the aftermath to distort or spin it.

Posted 00:20 Friday, Feb 8, 2019 In: Energy

4 Comments


Please read our comment guidelines before posting on HOT
  1. Richard

    All residents of our town need to read this article. A rare insight into how things really work at HBC.

    Comment by Richard — Thursday, Feb 14, 2019 @ 10:18

  2. David Stevenson

    This is all so depressing. Can the Council get any worse? Hopefully, at the next local election we get the opportunity to choose representatives who themselves are prepared to work for us not their egos / personal ambitions and who are also able and willing to hold the officers to account, some of whom seem to think they are outside the law.

    Comment by David Stevenson — Monday, Feb 11, 2019 @ 12:14

  3. Bernard McGinley

    What an extraordinary article, revealing the extent of our local misgovernment. HBC should be very ashamed of themselves in this matter.
    The England Coastal Path is to be completed soon. Will it include Ecclesbourne Glen?
    Why does the Council do so little about this problem, and misrepresent or disregard it? It’s there and needs attention. Restore Hastings Country Park.

    Comment by Bernard McGinley — Friday, Feb 8, 2019 @ 14:35

  4. Ms.Doubtfire

    Hang on a moment!!! Hastings council telling Natural England what to say???? Unbelievable, and if Natural England allow their organisation to be swayed by dissatisfied councils where does that leave Natural England’s declaration that their role is to protect the natural environment and wildlife? Are they going to ‘back off’ when a local authority doesn’t agree with their findings?
    This article discloses some shocking revelations which clearly are with evidence and foundation. Natural England need to be challenged on this as does the council’s Natural Resource Manager.

    Comment by Ms.Doubtfire — Friday, Feb 8, 2019 @ 09:24

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