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Part of the area affected by the landslips below Rocklands caravan park.

Part of the area affected by the landslips below Rocklands caravan park.

Ruling lets HBC keep landslip report secret

Hastings Borough Council’s appeal against the Information Commissioner’s ruling that the Coffey 2 geotechnical report should be put in the public domain has been upheld. The decision leaves questions unanswered, but perhaps more importantly, there appears to be no prospect of remedial action to re-open the closed parts of Ecclesbourne Glen to the public. Nick Terdre reports.

The Information Rights Tribunal has upheld the council’s appeal against the Information Commissioner’s decision that Coffey 2 – a second report by the geotechnical consultant into the landslips in Ecclesbourne Glen – should be made available under a Freedom of Information request.

The three-strong tribunal, which held three days of hearings in November, concluded that, “The public interest in the disclosure is small, the harm likely to be substantial.” The ruling, which had been expected in late January, was only given in late March, though no explanation for the delay was given.

The decision was welcomed by council spokesman Kevin Boorman, who said, “This has been a long and difficult case, and we are obviously delighted to have won it. We are all very disappointed that the landslide in Ecclesbourne Glen took place, and know that the subsequent closure of part of the glen has saddened local residents and visitors alike.”

Footpaths affected by the landslip remain closed, while the area continues to be unstable and at risk of further slippage, he said, adding that, “…it is regrettable that a small number of people are still continuing to challenge our decisions. This is time-consuming, costly and unproductive for us.”

Defending the decision of the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) was primarily the task of their own barrister, but he was left to contest the case alone when the complainant, Richard Heritage, who took the case to the ICO after the council had twice refused his Freedom of Information request for Coffey 2, withdrew from the appeal.

SEG dragged in

Although Save Ecclesbourne Glen group, which has led opposition to actions by the Rocklands caravan park owners and what they see as the council’s failure to police them properly, was not involved in the FoI, they were dragged into the case when the council alleged harrassment and intimidation on their part against the Rocklands owners. Mr Heritage withdrew after a disagreement with SEG about how their evidence was to be presented to the tribunal.

The landslip area looking towards the sea.

The landslip area looking towards the sea.

The tribunal then ruled that SEG should be excluded from the hearing, with the result that the allegations made about the group went uncontested. “We believe that had we had the chance to represent our position, many of the arguments put forward by HBC and Rocklands could have been refuted with solid evidence,” SEG spokesman Chris Hurrell told HOT.

In particular SEG was unable to inform the tribunal that an official complaint by the caravan park owners, alleging harrassment by SEG members, was dismissed by the police.

The case turned on whether the Oscus geotechnical report and the BdR drainage report produced for the Rocklands owners should be made public. An early version of Coffey 2 had been supplied to SEG which the group was told was a draft version. It was only during the hearing that it emerged that the report also contained input from the two Rocklands reports which had been edited out.

“The fact that there was an earlier document was hidden from us, and we were told that the edited report we held was the only copy,” Mr Hurrell said. “This deception was not considered by the tribunal.”

Heritage not part of SEG

Alongside its allegations against SEG, the council also attempted to associate Mr Heritage with the group, though as the judgement records the information officer eventually admitted that she “was not aware of specific links between Mr Heritage and SEG.”

“In the initial statements by HBC I was labelled as ‘vexatious’ and part of the SEG group,” Mr Heritage told HOT, whereas the tribunal had concluded that, “There was no evidence of unreasonable conduct by Mr Heritage.”

The tribunal also dismissed the argument that Mr Heritage’s request for information was “manifestly unreasonable” and reached no conclusion as to whether SEG’s information requests were also “manifestly unreasonable,” as claimed by the council, since “…we did not hear from the leaders of SEG in defence of their position.” The judgement does not explain however how SEG’s information requests could be considered relevant to the case, given that the group was not a party to the FoI request.

On the other hand the tribunal did accept the argument that the Rocklands owners had made their reports available to the council, and thus to Coffey, on condition of confidentiality. The claim of commercial confidentiality on the part of the council only emerged late in the day, according to Mr Heritage; when his first FoI request for Coffey 2 was refused, there was no mention of this, he said.

Drainage question

SEG questioned whether the information supplied by the Rocklands owners was covered by confidentiality. Part of it concerned drainage, information on which the owners are obliged to supply under the terms of their site licence, Mr Hurrell said.

This point appears not to have been brought to the tribunal’s attention. They concluded that, “Disclosure of the information remaining in dispute would cause harm to confidentiality without significantly advancing the public benefit beyond that already achieved.”

Coffey 2 may throw light on whether construction on the lower slopes of the caravan park contributed to the landslips.

Coffey 2 may throw light on whether construction on the lower slopes of the caravan park contributed to the landslips.

A new site licence drawn up by the council was discussed at the hearing, with the council claiming that releasing Coffey 2 would compromise an appeal the Rocklands owners were making against the terms of the licence. The tribunal however turned down these grounds for appeal. It is understood that the two parties have now agreed a settlement on the licence, thus obviating the need for an appeal hearing.

However, Mr Hurrell takes issue with claims made by the council at the hearing that the site licence is a private document, citing the fact that HBC have previously released licences for all the caravan sites in town while Rother District Council has also released site licences under its jurisdiction.

In the run-up to the hearing the council put a number of FoI requests from SEG on hold. Hurrell believes this is a misuse of FoI regulations. “HBC should either have answered them or refused them,” he said. He has submitted a complaint to the ICO about the matter. With the Heritage appeal now concluded, there is no further reason for the council not to process the requests.

Natural or man-made causes?

Although the input of the Oscus and BdR reports into Coffey 2 remains hidden, the parts of the Coffey 2 which have been revealed are not unimportant, not least its conclusion that man-made developments were a factor in the landslips. The council however differs, maintaining that the landslips have natural causes, including coastal erosion.

None of this might matter if the council, which is in possession of all the knowledge that has been accumulated about the landslips, were minded to act effectively. According to SEG it has conducted further tests in the Country Park but has not released the information.

It has also proposed to the Rocklands owners the joint funding of a programme of remedial works costing £37,000, but following the owners’ refusal to contribute, the plan appears to have been shelved. No further geotechnical work is planned in Ecclesbourne Glen at the moment, Mr Boorman has told HOT.

The landslips in Ecclesbourne Glen, compounded by the council’s determination to keep the full Coffey 2 report private, have cost the council dear. According to Mr Heritage the two Coffey reports cost just under £24,000, and the cost of the appeal, not least the barrister’s bill, will also be in the tens of thousands of pounds. There is also the cost of officers’ time.

Meanwhile the prospect is that the closed parts of Ecclesbourne Glen will remain off-limits indefinitely. “There are no winners here,” Mr Hurrell says. “We, unlike HBC, are not prepared to sacrifice the glen to expediency, we will continue to campaign for the resolution of the landslip and the re-opening of the glen.”

 

Posted 11:41 Friday, May 11, 2018 In: Home Ground

7 Comments


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  1. jess

    “If the Rocklands caravan park company has played no part in the major landslips what is the big deal here? Why the determined efforts to conceal these geo technical reports?”

    Nail on head.

    Comment by jess — Thursday, May 17, 2018 @ 13:34

  2. Eye on the ball

    First the closure of Ecclesbourne Glen following the development of a caravan park – the interests of a few put above the pleasure of the many. Second, a proposal for pleasure boats and holiday homes and the destruction of a natural beauty spot and accelerated erosion of the cliffs. Left to its own devices, HBC will destroy the natural assets of the area in favour of profits for commercial interests. Secrecy, such as we have seen in the suppression of the geotechnical survey into Ecclesbourne Glen hide what this council is doing from the electorate. Had the report been made public – or even the outcome of the enquiry, before the recent council elections, I wonder if the results would have been the same.

    Comment by Eye on the ball — Wednesday, May 16, 2018 @ 22:35

  3. Chris Hurrell

    The Coffey 2 draft report confirm that:

    1.Terracing has been created using imported materials.
    2.Leakage from foul and fresh water services could contribute to slope stability problems
    3.Hardstandings on the lower slopes drain to the point where the landslip starts
    4.A foul pumping system was installed in 2012

    Coffey confirm that human influences (developments) could have influenced the landslip. The most likely being the construction of terraces for the 8 caravans.

    No permission was sought for any of these works and the works are in breach of planning conditions.

    HBC has taken no action and still persists in claiming the landslip is a natural event caused by rainfall and cliff erosion.

    Extracts from the draft Coffey 2 draft report follow:

    “3.1 Earthworks at Caravan Park

    From this inspection it was evident that material (volume unknown) has been imported relatively recently and placed as fill at the Caravan Park, inferred to have been to create/enhance the lowest terrace; from the recent inspection the existing terrace width is 14m; estimated to comprise 5m of width in cut and 9m width of fill. From the site observations, it appears that there would have been insufficient material generated during excavation for the caravan platform to create such a large terrace; hence a substantial volume of fill must have been imported and placed to create this area. The balance could be estimated from a detailed topographical survey of the terrace and adjacent slopes.

    3.2 Drainage and Water Supplies
    From inspection, foul and fresh water services for the lower terrace caravans are inferred to be along the northern (up-slope) margin of the terrace, i.e. outside of the current landslip area. Leakage from such could contribute to the slope stability problems.
    From inspection and discussions with the site owner there is no catchment surface water drainage for the hardstanding areas in the lower terraces of the site; the result is that surface discharges would concentrate in specific areas particularly at/beyond the end of the lowest concrete road.
    The lower site foul pumping station is sited outside of the current land-slipped area. However, if/when the slip extends to intercept the pumping station and/or associated drainage, it will cause problems to the operation of such; and the consequent leakage of foul water will increase the volume of water entering the landslip.
    The lower site foul pumping system was apparently installed ca. 2011-12. From information provided by HBC following discussions with Rocklands’ owners, this replaced an earlier pumped foul system. According to SEGCG, the earlier pumping station was located within area of landslip and may have included a large tank.

    5 UPDATED SUMMARY ASSESSMENT
    From the document review, presented above, together with the recent site visits and meeting, the following summary can be made, with regard to the main Ecclesbourne Glen landslip.
    1) Retrogressive land-sliding represents the general landslip mechanism in the wider site area, and has resulted in a meta-stable slope (that has previously experienced landslips) throughout the Country Park and local area. The resultant meta-stable slope profile is very sensitive, and very minor changes/variations in conditions can precipitate substantial ground movements. Such changes could comprise issues like:
    a. Surcharging “upslope” by the placement of fill to elevate ground levels;
    b. De-vegetating, thus permitting increased rainfall to intersect/penetrate the ground;
    c. Creating/extending/modifying impermeable surface cover, thus changing surface water infiltration patterns.
    2) From a review of all the available information the main landslip movement may have commenced in the Caravan Park as early as 2011, and then more significantly in December 2012-January 2013; by contrast the earliest recorded movements in the Country Park comprised tension cracks along the footpath bordering Rocklands in Jan 2013. Therefore, contrary to our earlier interpretation, it appears that landslip movements started in the Caravan Park, and then extended downslope into the Country Park.
    3) Material (volume unknown) has been imported relatively recently and placed as fill on the lower terrace at the Caravan Park, inferred to have been to create/enhance the lowest terrace; from the recent inspections the existing terrace width is 14m; comprising an estimated 5m of width in cut – 9m width of fill. Evidence for the import of fill to create the lowest terrace comprises:
    a. Reference to allegations of lorries importing fill by SEGCG during 2012/13;
    b. Inspection of the land-slipped material at the lower terrace of the Caravan Park, which indicates Made Ground material including artificial fragments (brick, asphalt, ash etc.) which do not appear to be site-won.

    4) Evidence has been provided which indicates that vegetation (tree) cover in the southern section of the Caravan Park has reduced in extent over the past 15 years.
    5) Evidence has also been provided to indicate that the extent of surface hardstanding cover in this section of the Caravan Park has increased (whether or not in accordance with the license arrangement) over a similar period.
    6) The foregoing “human” factors (i.e. surcharging by placement of fill, reduction in vegetation cover, variations in surface water patterns/infiltration/drainage resulting from changes in hardstanding cover) could all have influenced the occurrence of the main landslip, as could “natural” factors, such as exceptionally heavy rainfall over the winters of 2012-13 and 2013-14, groundwater level increases etc.
    7) Of the foregoing “human” influences, the one that is most likely to have destabilised the slope and catalysed the landslip is surcharging by the placement of fill to raise levels in the lower terrace of the Caravan Park. Having inspected the area in detail, there is clear evidence that a substantial amount of fill has been imported and emplaced to create this terrace; however, there is insufficient information to estimate or quantify the associated volume. In addition, there is insufficient current information to demonstrate the sensitivity of the meta-stable slope to such variations.
    8) As a result, it is still not feasible to determine appropriate remedial measures to stabilise the slope.
    9) Nevertheless, we are still of the opinion, as set out in our earlier report, that water is a significant factor causing/controlling the landslip, and hence needs to be addressed by whatever remedial measures are adopted.

    Comment by Chris Hurrell — Tuesday, May 15, 2018 @ 08:48

  4. Bolshie

    The location of this landslip coincides in the area where I believe some forty or so trees were felled. And the various works in that land area of the Rocklands Caravan Park where they put in the concrete slab to park up a row of these sheds on wheels.

    As I understand the concrete slab and sheds lined up there did not have planning permission and had been in situ for a few years unnoticed by the council in respect of the Site License. It would appear to me the council don’t want us to see this full report as it would probably indicate the entire landslip emanated as a result of these two activities by the owners. And as I said where was the council licensing officer / planning department bods in all of this.

    The issue raised by a comment here about “openness and transparency” well that has hardly ever been practised by this council and generally the only way to get information out of them is the hard way, the long way if it does not wear you down.

    Comment by Bolshie — Monday, May 14, 2018 @ 16:05

  5. Ms.Doubtfire

    This is a murky and questionable situation. Why are reports on the possible cause of the landslip kept under wraps from the very people who have lost the pleasure of walking through Eccelsbourne Glen? The Country Park is a notable national asset and this landslip has caused catastrophic damage to this notable Glen. Hastings Borough Council are custodians of this important park and should be accountable to their electorate.
    If the Rocklands caravan park company has played no part in the major landslips what is the big deal here? Why the determined efforts to conceal these geo technical reports?
    Why did the Coffey 2 report suggest that the landslip was caused by man made developments? Which man made developments?
    So many questions and no answers. And a great deal of our money spent on legal costs in an endeavour to keep everything top secret. Not good enough Hastings Council…not good enough at all.

    Comment by Ms.Doubtfire — Saturday, May 12, 2018 @ 09:12

  6. Spiny Norman

    Recommendations from the ‘draft’ Coffey 2 geotechnical report paid for by HBC (all recommendations ignored by HBC as far as I know):

    1) We strongly recommend that a stability assessment and hazard zonation of the main landslip is undertaken, in order to understand in more detail its characteristics and mechanism of movement. In order to undertake this the following information will be required:
    a. Topographical survey information (relating to the current profile and that which existed, say 10 years ago – it should be possible to determine the latter from the Environment Agency 2m survey database). However, we recommend that a specific physical topographical survey is carried out at to determine current features; this should include the area of the landslip and lower part of the Caravan Park, as well as adjacent slopes.
    b. Information on ground and groundwater conditions; ideally from a ground investigation (borehole formation) if possible, or utilising existing soil/rock parameters from previous work for the Council and British Geological Survey (BGS) records.

    2) As part of the stability assessment, a sensitivity analysis can be carried out, assessing the stability of the slope and landslip to factors such as surcharging, variations in groundwater etc.

    3) From the results of the stability assessment, it should then be feasible to develop outline remedial options to stabilise the landslip, taking account of restrictions arising from the Country Park being a SSSI/SAC and the local Coastal Management Plan. As indicated above, it is not feasible to determine such options at this stage, but it is considered very likely that the most appropriate measures will involve installation of drainage measures to control surface and groundwater and take such out of the land-slipped zone, subject to identifying appropriate outfalls, downslope.

    4) As indicated in our meeting, the landslip affects both HBC and Rocklands’ land; therefore, we strongly recommend that both parties work together to enable investigation, assessment and stabilisation of the landslip, to the benefit of both, rather than get involved in protracted disputes/disagreement over the cause(s) of the landslip.

    Comment by Spiny Norman — Saturday, May 12, 2018 @ 00:38

  7. Michael Madden

    A very good article, showing how Hastings Borough Council favours “commercial confidentiality” over the “openness and transparency” that they claim to offer Hastings taxpayers.

    People who choose to work for the council sign up as servants of the taxpayers, whose tax pays their wages. Yet they soon find they have joined an organisation which seems to protect the interests of private companies and developers, rather than those taxpayers.

    Although the council invites these taxpayers to “Hold us to account”, when they do – as in this case and in the case of the proposed Marina deveolpment – they label them “vexatious”; the chair of the Labour Party even calls them liars. So although senior members of the Labour Party and Labour councillors claim to be in favour of a “socialist” alternative to this dreadful government, they are so complaint with private interests that they aid the implementation of the very Tory policies they profess to hate.

    There is now a path slightly to the right of the old one, running from the east hill to the base of the Glen. It has been made by walkers and runners, determined to forge an alternative route. The action of their footsteps has formed a usable path. IF the council had monitored the landslip, they might have found by now that the landslip has stabilised and they could announce the re-opening of a Saxon Shore Way path.

    Perhaps someone from the council would like to reply to these two quick questions. 1. How can the council claim that the landslip area is still unstable when it has never monitored it?, and 2. Why has the council never monitored the movement of the landslip?

    Comment by Michael Madden — Friday, May 11, 2018 @ 15:34

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