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Clive Vale local wildlife site after being cleared in November.

What is the point of Local Wildlife Sites?

The question is posed by Richard Price, who notes that many Local Wildlife Sites cannot be protected as they have private owners more interested in developing them than appreciating the flora and fauna. The history of the Clive Vale Local Wildlife Site is a case in point. The writer also took the photos.

Local Wildlife Sites (wildlife sites) are carefully identified and selected using scientifically-determined criteria and surveys. They bring ecosystem services to the public (open spaces and wildlife) and are corridors for wildlife. These form key components of ecological networks. These sites become less biodiverse when they are badly managed. Wildlife trusts offer free management for wildlife sites.

The Clive Vale wildlife site – H3 on the list of the borough’s wildlife sites – was designated in 1999 when Hastings Borough Council realised that it formed an interesting area of dense inaccessible scrub and woodland of value to wildlife. Birds from the Country Park enter the dense shrubland off Barley Lane as they move through into the area around the Clive Vale Reservoirs and the ghyll woodland between Boyne and Harold Roads. People in the gardens of Boyne and Harold Roads hear tawny owls, blackcaps and chiffchaffs. These are birds that prefer to travel through dense shrub and woodland rather than fly over houses.

Map showing the Clive Vale wildlife site colored yellow and outlined in red to the left of Barley Lane. The area cleared is circled in blue.

But what is the point of wildlife sites, I wondered, when as I walked past a few weeks ago I saw that part of it was being cleared.

I asked one of the contractors whether or not he knew that it was a local wildlife site. ‘No’, he said. ‘There’s not much wildlife here,’ adding: ‘We did an ecological assessment and checked and nothing’s listed. We do Southern Water’s sites with long grass and hoover up loads of mice in the mowers. None here. Not one. There’s not much biodiversity here.’

He offered to pass me the phone number of the owner who, he said, would be keen to tell me of his plans for the site. Cutting down the trees and shrubs took the contractors two weeks as they fed trees into the wood chipping machine.

I have passed the site every day for the last 10 years as it forms part of the route of my BTO – British Trust for Ornithology – bird track walk through the Country Park. I have a backlog of thousands of records which have not yet been submitted, some of which are from the wildlife site. I often see blackcaps, chiffchaffs and the occasional whitethroat, which nest in the shrubs.

The site before clearance.

The flora consists mainly of goat willow, beech, birch trees, hawthorn, holly, with some field maples and oak. The shrub is dogwood, blackthorn, gorse, brambles and ivy. To the north of the site there is some bracken and stinging nettles – the latter are very good for butterflies.

When it was mostly clear of vegetation. I saw more birds than I usually do. There were about five chiffchaffs that looked a little lost but made the best of it as they rooted around for insects amidst a felled willow tree. When it had been totally cleared, when there were two magpies picking amongst the remains. The clearance exposed an area of Japanese knotweed in the centre of the site, the only vegetation left standing.

Council powerless

I contacted the council to ask whether the contractors were allowed to clear the site without planning. They told me the council has no powers to stop the clearance as the site is privately owned land and not subject to any planning restrictions.

Feeding felled trees into the wood chipper.

Wildlife sites tend to be privately owned areas of land that have no direct legal protection. They are recognised in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) which gives them some protection from being developed but not from being cleared. The Clive Vale site is listed under a 2009 review as being one without a site management plan and with owners who had not taken management guidance or advice.

I was not alone in my anguish – there were a number of comments on the Save Ecclesbourne Glen Facebook group. Frances Crowley wrote: “So heart-broken to see the wildlife habitat being chain-sawed and levelled in the area of land at the end of Barley Avenue and between Barley Avenue and Barley Lane. The area contains mature trees and is the home to so many birds, butterflies, insects, badgers and foxes.”

Passers-by and neighbours spoke with me. Nearby resident Eva Watts said, “I couldn’t even get permission for a fence to protect my children because it’s not in keeping with the area. How are they able to clear that of all that of its wildlife? It’s vandalism! All the badgers and birds that they’ve affected. My friend lives down there in Boyne Road, she gets water running under her house because it flows down this slope.” She pointed at the site: “It’s saturated with water, you can’t build there.”

Judy Bentley of Boyne Road said, “It’s like the rainforest after the loggers have been through. It’s devoid of wildlife. How can anyone imagine that it’s a stable building site when the maximum flat piece is about seven feet wide? What are they going to be, six feet wide houses? Like little tunnels. There is no access and there is too much traffic here anyway. Someone built houses here back in the 80s and they fell down the hill because it is saturated with water.”

Shaping Hastings

The site was last cleared in 2012 when a rumour spread around town it was for fracking. However, the real reason was in preparation for Shaping Hastings, the planning consultation for Hastings and St Leonards-on-Sea. In 2013, during a week of meetings developers, the council and residents’ groups were given the opportunity to submit evidence. After the meetings the Planning Inspector would consider the evidence and ensure that in the Development Management Plan, areas would be clearly allocated either for wildlife or housing.

The owners of the Clive Vale LWS were keen to build on it. Prior to Shaping Hastings Keith Hollidge, their agent, presented a 45-page submission statement in which he outlined the planning history of the site and argued that it was suitable for development. He claimed that the land was cleared every year – having passed the site regularly in the preceding years, when I lived nearby, I knew this was untrue.

He also wrote that the council could not prove the land to be unstable. The landslide which took place in 1984 was caused by the council’s failure to maintain the retaining wall, he maintained, and moreover there was no wildlife on the site.

In fact the site had been allocated for housing in 1971 and given planning permission on and off from 1973 until 1984, when work started on the construction of a non-adoptable access road, drainage and site footpaths and layout of 16 plots. The planning permission came with a constraint: “You are advised that calculations for the proposed retaining walls should be submitted for approval before development commences.” It is likely that this was ignored. One local resident Jak O’Dowd said, “The moment they started work the land slid.”

The 1984 landslide called attention to the stability of the land.

Landslide

If that is so, it was brought to an abrupt halt by the landslip, which, as reported on the front page of the Hastings Observer, took away half of Barley Lane. As tons of mud slid downhill, the situation was so dire that the houses in Boyne Road were threatened. The council had to put it right and repair the road.

Local resident Valmer Selens said, “In 1983-84 Barley Lane collapsed where the site is. To repair the road and stabilise the site cost the council between £200,000 to £300,000. The road was closed for about six months – during the time all traffic was sent up Barley Lane past Fishponds cottages and out to the top of Fairlight Road.”

The site was again proposed for housing allocation in 2001-02, even though in 1999 it had been designated as a Site of Nature Conservation Importance (SNCI), as wildlife sites were then called. But by 2004 the council had decided that it should remain a SNCI and removed it from housing allocation. HBC’s position was, and remains, that there are other sites where the ground is stable and there would be less impact on ecology, and which are therefore more appropriate for development.

Mr Hollidge’s efforts to persuade the Planning Inspector to designate the site for development were unsuccessful. During the Shaping Hastings meeting David Phillips, head of the the council’s Planning Policy Team, said, “I have been concerned about contradictory statements and approached the member services of the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) and found that the agent [Mr Hollidge] is not a chartered surveyor as stated in his submissions.” It turned out he had once been a member, and is again now, but was not at this time.

Mr Phillips went on to spread out on the table photos of the site prior to clearance and afterwards. The Planning Inspector ruled that the site’s status should be maintained as a wildlife site.

In his submission and presentation to the Planning Inspector, Mr Hollidge failed to mention the existence of a contract with his clients. Andrew Lawson and Michael Conn of 85 Barley Lane agreed to sell the land to Mr Hollidge for £300,000 and a percentage of any profit from development. The money would be paid to the owners when the land obtained planning permission. The intention was that ownership would pass the East Mountain Trading Company Ltd, whose two directors were Keith Hollidge and Emma Fouracre.

Jane, another local resident who lives a few doors down from number 85, was taken aback at the sum. “£300,000, I thought because it’s unstable land it was worth a lot less,” she said. “We were thinking of getting a campaign together to buy it and manage it as a nature reserve.”

No planning permission, no deal

The deal however did not go through. No planning application was submitted, and anyway planning permission is often refused when a site is designated for wildlife.

East Mountain owned the purchase options until late 2012. They were then sold to The Big Cake Shop Ltd which has the same directors and, like East Mountain, assets of just £100. The Big Cake Company was nearly struck off in 2014 because Companies House noticed no business was taking place. Since that year the company has been categorised as dormant.

Mssrs Lawson and Conn, meanwhile, having sold the house in Barley Lane, have relocated to France, as Mr Hollidge, who is still acting as their agent in the UK, confirmed.

There has recently been a rumour that Optivo were interested in acquiring the site for development. However, when HOT contacted the housing association, the news came as a surprise to them.

When HOT spoke to Mr Hollidge on the phone, he confirmed that Mssrs Conn and Lawson still own the land and that he remains their agent.

He said he was unhappy with the way sites were designated as wildlife sites. “It is an odd system at the moment, with this site literally designated overnight without any consultation with the owners. I was speaking to an officer one day and the next went to the council offices and overnight it had changed. The problem is that once the designation is given it is difficult to remove.”

“Doing nothing wrong”

He pointed out that, “We are not doing anything wrong. He said the owners had notified him that they would like the site cleared annually and ongoing ecological surveys carried out. Mr Hollidge said, “We are going to report on the ecology of the land annually and make sure that it is cleared annually. We are probably going to fence off the site or board it off to stop flytipping. The site should have a designation as housing which it was for 30 years with numerous planning permissions.”

Mr Hollidge said he wanted the site to be reallocated for housing and planning permission to go through. “It has been tagged as an ecological site but that is for political reasons. It should be redesignated. We will be hoping to get the site redesignated and have it reverted back as housing allocation which it was before politics came into play.”

The UK is one of the most depleted countries for nature in the world and this is mainly due to the lack of effective legislation. One out of every 10 wildlife sites have been lost or damaged since 2007.

Advice for owners of wildlife sites is available on Hastings Borough Council’s website. “Local Planning authorities are responsible for ensuring that the potential impacts of planning decisions on our biodiversity are fully considered. Hastings Borough Council are keen to ensure that planning decisions prevent harm to biodiversity and aim to maintain, enhance, restore and add to our local biodiversity.”

Survivor – Japanese knotweed.

If the landowner clears a site every year it not only loses its wildlife value but is at risk of becoming unstable. We have learnt from the Rocklands debacle that when trees are removed from sloping land, landslides may result. Additionally, where the Clive Vale site is concerned, the Japanese knotweed will increase its range without competition from other vegetation.

Clearing the site once every 10 to 15 years is ideal. Such a schedule would mean that the landowner is coppicing the site, which is one of the very best management strategies. It creates just the type of dense shrub and tree cover that is enjoyed by birds like the chiffchaff and blackcap.

Unfortunately, in this instance the land owners have decided on a management plan to remove the biodiversity value from their land and compile evidence of its absence. The legal framework that exists to protect biodiversity is flawed. The system created by government fails to protect biodiversity and sets developers, residents and councils who want to increase biodiversity against each other.

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Posted 15:44 Wednesday, Dec 15, 2021 In: Nature

6 Comments

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  1. Tom

    Since clearance, the site is also becoming choked with litter, a hazard for remaining wildlife, and contributing to making this site a local eyesore. What an insult to the designation of a local wildlife site. The knotweed situation should, surely, be a catalyst for action to be taken? But even there, I believe the legislation is fuzzy at best when it comes to privately owned land.

    Comment by Tom — Tuesday, Jan 11, 2022 @ 20:57

  2. chris hurrell

    Good well researched article – designation as a LWS clearly offers no protection whatsoever. Sadly here in Hastings sites protected by Tree Preservation Orders or other means such as planning conditions fare no better. A few examples will suffice – witness the loss of around 50 trees at Rocklands protected by Planning conditions, unauthorised works on around 120 trees at Shearbarn protected by a section 106 agreement. No enforcement action was taken by HBC. Tree Preservation Orders offer little protection as HBC Planning Enforcement rarely if ever find fault. Works on TPO protected trees at Rocklands have not led to any enforcement action being taken. Here in Mugsborough developers have carte blanche to do whatever they like without any fear of action from the Tree Officer or Planning Enforcement.

    Comment by chris hurrell — Wednesday, Dec 22, 2021 @ 11:11

  3. Keith Piggott

    Deja vu,regard the clearances of Gillsmans Hill’s ancient woodlands/buffer zones the LPA granted or Stone Court and Spyways developments.

    Comment by Keith Piggott — Sunday, Dec 19, 2021 @ 22:45

  4. Anton

    Thank you for doing this well-researched and informative article. We have to fight to protect every bit of land which provides us with vital ecosystem services which, in this case and others, include rainwater management and stabilisation of sloping sites.

    Comment by Anton — Thursday, Dec 16, 2021 @ 11:38

  5. Tim Barton

    Great piece, Richard.
    I’d add to the list of biodiversity apocalypse the wooded land behind Stalkhurst caravan park. It is a very rich complex young ecology, I have heard reports of various rare wildflowers, fungi and birds up there, & believe there is a registry of the diversity there. It is up for sale for ‘commercial development with employment opportunities’ – in a town with significant empty commercial property, this is absurd. One councillor confirmed there is no need to prove a development is in any way needed, and that the planning advice would be that the council has no grounds to object – the advice was ‘start a crowdfunder’, which may work in a rich borough, but hardly likely to reach even a few grand here.

    Comment by Tim Barton — Thursday, Dec 16, 2021 @ 11:18

  6. Penny

    Is it possible for the council or another statutory body to purchase the site and designate it once and for all as a natural space on the grounds that it is inadvisable to build on an area noted for land-slides? As the Planning Authority, this should be an option, surely?

    Comment by Penny — Thursday, Dec 16, 2021 @ 08:53

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