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Unspoilt cliff walks, woodland and glens - is Hastings Country Park still the one celebrated in this 1974 plaque?

New blots, old landscape

What is it about the Country Park? On Wednesday 4 March Hastings Borough Council’s planning committee will consider again the notorious Rocklands case — and a couple of others. Bernard McGinley wonders if they’re linked.

Unusually, Hastings Borough Council (HBC) recently issued a press release to say that planning officers had recommended that members of the planning committee refuse the planning permission sought (HBC planning ref HS/FA/14/01036) for the existing building at Rocklands Caravan Park — essentially on the grounds that the proposals were so unsatisfactory. This is what hundreds of residents have been telling the council since the eyesore began to take shape. Hundreds objected to the application last June (ref HS/FA/14/00406). Even more have objected regarding the current case.

The Bunker - fate to be decided on Wednesday (photo: Bob Okines)..

Refusal is highly likely then — a near certainty. What happens next? The real heart of the matter is case HS/FA/12/00952, which was granted in 2013 under ‘delegated powers’ (by a planning officer, with no pesky planning committee to spoil things), after a previous application (HS/FA/12/00471) for ‘the same proposal’ was refused. Case 471 is not mentioned in the planning department’s report to the committee (except once in a list) and the reasons for the inconsistent treatments are not touched on.

The building that was built is different in many respects to the building that was given permission under application 952. A planning barrister (Christian Zwart of 39 Essex Chambers) explained the legal reasons for considering the old planning permission to have been abandoned. However, the report to the committee insists that the HBC barrister (unnamed) says that this is not so and that the permission remains extant. This threat will remain even if the committee rejects the application on Wednesday.

Whatever happens, the planning department continues to look bad. How did they get into this mess? The case was previously discussed in these pages. But there is a wider picture. Whatever happens regarding the Rocklands case this Wednesday, the rest of the Country Park is in play — and yet the Country Park belongs to Hastings. Two additional cases – also being heard on 4 March – show a pattern of development in the Country Park.

Warren Cottage.

Some way east of Rocklands and Ecclesbourne Glen (unfortunately inaccesssible now), Little Warren Cottage is deep in the middle of the park — but in 2014 it was sold, with minimal publicity and attention to the concept of the land as a public amenity, held in trust. Relevant council policies in play here, such as L2 (High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) and EN7 (Conservation and Enhancement of Landscape) are unobjectionable (so many of them are), even high-minded. Why though is the council selling off its assets, when last year the lead member for Leisure and Amenities was stating, rightly,  “Our Country Park is, rightly, one of the jewels in our crown”?

Usefully in this case (the application was HS/PD/13/00517), HBC granted itself permitted development rights for change of use at Warren Cottage (or rather, decided that approval was not required to change the use from offices to residential).  A related case (HS/FA/13/00685) involved the erection of a side extension (and alterations), designed by architects AJK (whose work is known around the borough).

Now there is a new planning application (HS/FA/14/00893) for significant  expansion there.

Among the reasons for objection have been the failure by HBC to protect the Country Park (also expressed as short-termism and lack of foresight), negative effects on biodiversity and the Nature Reserve, damage to a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and a High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), conflict with policies on trees, drainage, significant damage done by vehicular access to a priority habitat, and breaches of the National Planning Policy Framework, such as paragraph 115 on the importance of scenic beauty.

The lack of neighbour notification should also be noted: how were people supposed to know and comment on such a proposal? A tiny notice at the back of the Hastings Observer at Christmas time is not enough.

Supposedly there is method in this madness. The council’s plan is that the sale of Warren Cottage is to fund the proposed new visitor centre at the eastern end of the Country Park, an ‘interpretive centre’ (or function suite) near St Andrew’s Church in Fairlight (ref HS/FA/14/01033).

The existing visitor centre is basic and replaceable. But what is proposed instead is a commercial venture many times its size, designed for revenue-raising and late parties (where external revelling and litter is certain). An HBC cabinet paper of 6 October 2014 said:

“A new Centre would aim to enrich the visitor experience by providing                inspirational interpretation to showcase the unique habitats, spectacular scenery and landscape of Hastings Country Park Nature Reserve.”

Or you could just go there and enjoy it.

Self-defeatingly (or worse), the Planning, Design and Access Statement for the proposal has not a single illustration, and no distinction is made between Coastguard Lane and Lower Coastguard Lane, which are very different. An ‘interpretive centre’ built on the proposed site would obstruct the view. No consideration was given to using instead the space under the lip of a small promontory nearby, or the northerly car park, in order to maintain the unspoilt appearance of the Country Park, as celebrated in its inaugural plaque.

The existing situation is not a wilderness. Toilets and parking exist, and catering amenities are not lacking:  there are already good facilities at the Coastguard Tearooms in Coastguard Lane, which face ruinous competition from the new venture.

As Richard Price pointed out in a recent HOT article: “The management of the new venture will involve Groundwork South. They will be part of a Project Board of Councillors and others, listed in the Cabinet agenda paper of 6 October 2014 (p.44, para 10). Groundwork South are collaborators with AmicusHorizon, active locally, and also involved in a fishing boat restoration project in Hastings, supported by Hastings Fisheries Local Action Group (FLAG), and the Hastings Fishermen’s Protection Society.”

However these green credentials do not extend to leaving well alone. Again the objections to the proposed newbuild in the Country Park have been strong — for instance, on the clear conflict of interest regarding council property  (were planning officers likely to recommend against?). Additionally, weddings and night-time functions, with lots of drinks and parties, are a threat to the location in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, with guaranteed traffic problems, noise and lighting nuisance and damage to habitats. One of the longstanding weaknesses of the HBC planners – indulgence of bad design – has also been pointed out.

Nor is the council’s wish to make money a valid planning reason for this development. Repeatedly the council has manifested a failure to understand the countryside or the park, or the reasons people come to appreciate this place, such as its remoteness, wildlife and calm – its sheer specialness. Instead there is talk of the nearness of car parks, and burble about “envisioning an open-air theatre, weddings and parties, plus language students and geo-coaching activities.” It is not clear how this would benefit or enhance the Country Park Nature Reserve.

The Country Park is being steadily suburbanised — gratuitously so. Though it belongs to the people of Hastings, the council appears to regard it as its own private fiefdom, beyond accountability. (Another troubling symptom of these trends is the mechanical removal of gorse in villa-sized plots at the Fire Hills: ‘Heathland restoration scrub clearance’ is part of a 10-year ‘Higher Level Stewardship Agreement’ with Natural England, though they seem to do things differently in Dorset and the New Forest.)

Additionally there are questions of barbed wire and rights of way – in short, the future of public access – and persistent anxieties about the future of Ecclesbourne Glen and the extraordinary sense of place hereabouts.

Given their long track-record, it’s a reasonable bet that HBC planners don’t quote Sir Walter Scott to one another much:

Breathes there the man, with soul so dead,

Who never to himself hath said,

This is my own, my native land

Wednesday evening’s committee meeting is likely to be lively. Many people – whether they know the Country Park is already theirs or not – want the council to manage it as it has traditionally been enjoyed and appreciated: spectacular, unspoilt, wild, a unique place where the High Weald meets the sea.

Only Hastings has such a glory. Only Hastings would want to piss on its chips.

 

Posted 14:32 Tuesday, Mar 3, 2015 In: Home Ground

4 Comments


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  1. Richard Heritage

    Despite the refusal on the “Bunker” it appears HBC are still looking for away to dig themselves out of the hole as one can see by the conflicting legal opinions. Hence why Enforcement never slapped any legal orders on the owners.
    The two other applications imply HBC’s desire to start nibbling at the Country Park just to make a buck. A question I fear of “watch this space” for their next daft idea.
    As for not forgiving them for destroying the town’s heritage as David Woolf has said. Well looking over the past thirteen years I have known the borough, many planning permissions have been “perverse.” Many of them forgotten now. If you take a look at the planning committee members alone – most of these have been around for years – the voters just re-elect the same old ones and consequently it is business as usual.
    When the planning officers say tick the “Yes” box it is an historic occasion for the committee to defy them. And remember the officer are paid members of staff here to stay no matter how big a mistake(s) they make – as we see with Rocklands

    Comment by Richard Heritage — Thursday, Mar 5, 2015 @ 09:29

  2. David Woolf

    It seems that Council leadership expects that we tree-huggers will get bored and give up. Let us make it perfectly clear that we will not, nor will we forgive them for their underhand attempts to destroy the Town’s heritage. The pattern of perverse decisions is such that it is hard to avoid the suspicion of corruption and the ‘piss on the chips’ will be as nothing compared with the stench that may yet erupt.

    Comment by David Woolf — Wednesday, Mar 4, 2015 @ 21:51

  3. keith and margaret piggott

    We concur with efforts to preserve the Hastings Country Park, but experience at Gillsmans Hill suggests planners’ private fiefdom extends right across the borough regardless of property boundaries, tree protection orders, recorded bat roosts, wildlife/ecology legislation. History is being repeated. Good Luck!

    Comment by keith and margaret piggott — Wednesday, Mar 4, 2015 @ 16:29

  4. paddy stephenson

    Why is this council permitted to withold the name of their barrister? This is of particular concern when you consider that we, the ‘ratepayers’ are no doubt financing all costs related to this fiasco? There is something very unsavoury about the entire processes relating to this application.

    Comment by paddy stephenson — Wednesday, Mar 4, 2015 @ 10:27

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