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Under proposed new bylaws which comes before the Full Council on Wednesday, large swathes of Hastings Country Park will become off-limit to the public.

Under proposed new bylaws which come before the Full Council on Wednesday, large swathes of Hastings Country Park will become off-limit to the public whose park it is.

KEEP  OFF YOUR LAND: Council proposes to restrict use of the Country Park

Hastings Borough Council (HBC) is proposing to change the bylaws of the Hastings Country Park Nature Reserve regarding ‘Restriction of Access’.  The reason are unclear, and at best general. Bernard McGinley can’t choose between This Land Is Your Land and Don’t Fence Me In. Photos by Bernard McGinley.

At the HBC Cabinet meeting on 3 February, the Cabinet (all nine of them) approved with great haste (‘deemed adopted without discussion’) proposals to restrict access to large parts of Hastings Country Park Nature Reserve (HCPNR) (Item 4: Local Nature Reserves.)   

The matter now goes to Full Council on Wednesday 12 February, at 6pm at Muriel Matters House.  The recommendation is that the Council adopt new bylaws to replace the ones in use since 1974.

Similar new bylaws – though not incorporating restriction of access – have been drawn up for six other nature reserves: Filsham Reedbeds, Marline Valley, St Helens Wood, Church Wood and Robsack, Summerfields and Old Roar Gill. Details and maps for all can be seen in the report contained in the relevant Cabinet Agenda.

In the Cabinet meeting, mention was made of the Council’s commitment to openness and transparency. Even so, in making this proposed reform the Council has not asked the Friends of the Country Park.

Consultation

The Council (in both paras 11 and 14 of the Cabinet document) says there was ‘full public consultation’. This took place from December 2014 till February 2015. Elsewhere it mentions consultation with Natural England (NE) and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). While this second consultation involved writing to relevant parties, the first involved putting an advertisement in the press and asking for responses. (There were eight.) The inconsistency is marked.  

After delays of five years (even planning permission is only good for three), while the proposed bylaws reform sat on the desks in Defra and NE,  the proposed new version is now proceeding.  At a recent meeting of the Country Park Management Forum however, the matter was not even mentioned. Several other things are wrong with the procedure.

Fit for purpose? Map attached to Cabinet report supposedly showing areas of the HCPNR, outlined in gray, access to which is to be restricted (source: HBC).

Fit for purpose? Map attached to Cabinet report supposedly showing areas of the HCPNR, outlined in gray, to which access is to be restricted (source: HBC).

Maps not up to scratch

The Cabinet report had a map of Hastings Country Park Nature Reserve (HCPNR) dated July 2014. The supplementary document of Local Nature Reserve (LNR) maps had a Country Park one dated October 2014. This is unsatisfactory, as these are different maps with different shadings and features. The first map shows the affected area for Restriction of Access (roughly the north-central half of the Park) in grey-edged, smudgy definition. Unreadable and unusable, it does not even have a key.

The later map, submitted late, shows the affected areas for proposed Restriction of Access in solid grey — but is still difficult to use, being ambiguous on details of the Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), and not recording the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) all of the HCPNR.    

The later map (source: HBC).

The later map, showing proposed restricted areas shaded in gray (source: HBC).

In responding to questions about this before the next Full Council meeting, Cllr Colin Fitzgerald, Environment, Community Safety and Equalities portfolio holder, stated:

The latest map presented to Cabinet and to Full Council show the same restrictions [as before] but is in colour as required for final endorsement. There is no material difference in the consultation copy and the ‘latest’ copy.

This is not necessarily so, and again is not good process.  The Cabinet paper does not refer to a colour map but to ‘those parts of the reserve edged grey on the attached map’, emphatically monochrome (p.33 of the Cabinet Agenda). As a ‘consultation copy’ this cannot work. A better map is here.

Nor has it been explained why a large part of the HCPNR is being excluded from public access, nor why the 1974 bylaws need to be replaced. The display map used at the Cabinet meeting was presumably in ‘colour’ (largely monochrome), with greyed out areas. But which of these maps was used during the consultation period, showing ‘the same restrictions’? It is unclear, and the possibility of misrepresentation exists.  

In broad terms the restricted areas are fields, with no through pathways. Despite HBC’s assertion, not all the restricted fields are used for farming.

CP view2Stewardship

The reasons for restricting public access have not been adequately explained. HBC have given some vague reasons: protecting livestock and protecting nesting birds while also insisting ‘Restricting access is not confined to risk of harm to protected species’. Assurance is offered that 

The farm fields are managed for biodiversity, crop rotation and grazing by sheep and cattle under the terms of our Countryside Stewardship Agreement and are fenced for these purposes.  

There is no Countryside Stewardship Agreement (CSA) here but there is a Higher Level Environmental Stewardship Agreement (HLS). 

Analysis of the bylaw map for Hastings Country Park shows the total Nature Reserve area is about 847 acres (343 hectares). The only HLS options that seem to have management prescriptions and requirements restricting access are options concerning buffer strips and grass margins of the designated fields. That amounts to 2% of the LNR. For the other 823 acres there are no access restrictions. Why does the new proposed bylaw seek to block access to nearly half of the LNR when the Stewardship Agreement seems to require only 2%?

Information about field use has been unforthcoming so far. In the matter of protecting habitats and wildlife, closure all year round seems unnecessary. Some protected species will doubtless prefer the southern reaches of the Country Park to the restricted areas, and be none the worse for it. In addition, those parts of the restricted areas that are earmarked for solar farms are likely to cause more disturbance to the wildlife than any disturbance or antisocial behaviour by a few. Solar panels require short grass around them (and high fences), and so are incompatible with wildflower meadows and wildlife biodiversity in general.

Moreover, the proposal for solar farms constitutes a material change in circumstances since the consultation period ended, as does the landslide that has forced access to other areas in the Country Park to be restricted.

Legal background

The Country Park Nature Reserve is subject to the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949, which states in Section 76:

(4)  While land acquired by a local planning authority under this section is held by them for the purposes thereof, it shall be the duty of the [local planning] authority so to manage the [LNR] land as to give to the public access for open-air recreation to so much thereof as appears to the authority to be practicable . . . unless public access to the land or to adjoining land is restricted, and to all other relevant circumstances.

So what is the purpose of the Country Park?  

CP view3The Countryside & Rights of Way Act 2000 (‘the CRoW Act’) strengthened the provisions of the 1949 Act, notably in Sections 8285 about taking care of special places such as Areas of Outstanding Beauty (AONBs).   

In 2007 the government endorsed Natural England’s Coastal Access Scheme, which was finally approved in 2013 under the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009. 

The designated coastal path is different from open access land. HBC has been clear:

Hastings Borough Council supports right to roam on open access land but members of the public do not have automatic and unfettered rights to walk over agricultural and other private land.  

In the Cabinet report (p.28, para 2) the Council is clear that ‘the following acts are hereby prohibited:

Restriction of Access

(i)  In relation to Hastings Country Park

Entering at any times those parts of the reserve edged grey on the attached map unless using a public right of way or unless conspicuous signage indicates a permission footpath or definitive public right of way.

Full Council to consider on 12 February

If approval is given by Full Council, the new bylaws will be sealed and signed on Thursday 13 February.  The agenda for the meeting, though, is less than clear.  However, it is expected that more questions will be asked about what is happening and why. Whether there will be a full discussion based on adequate information is a different matter. There is a strong case for deferring a decision, as has been requested by the Friends of Hastings Country Park Nature Reserve. Deferral would allow the issues to be explored, so that the later decision can be meaningful and clear.

CP view4A better HCPNR

The ‘full public consultation’, so passive, was six years ago, and the Country Park has changed quite a lot since then: the gorse at the Fire Hills was ripped out, Little Warren Cottage was sold off to pay for the building of the new Visitor Centre, which then had its designs changed and its plot greatly expanded. The Bunker fiasco occurred, then went to appeal. The landslips at Rocklands were and remain longrunning causes of concern. Ecclesbourne Glen remains partially closed.  

It is proposed that the 1974 bylaws be superseded by new ones.   The official reason for the changes is

Local Authorities can create Local Nature Reserve bylaws to help stop people damaging the reserve and harming its wildlife. Adopting bylaws will help the council safeguard the reserves from damage.

No evidence of damage has been cited however.  Elsewhere the draft proposal is clear about:

Crime and Fear of Crime 

12.  The implementation of bylaws is intended to reduce anti-social behaviour and protect wildlife.

and

Environmental Issues 

13.  Bylaws for nature reserves are intended to reduce activities that could harm habitats and wildlife in our protected nature areas of the borough.

What are these activities? What wildlife is being protected and how? Have seasonal closures been considered instead of permanent ones?

Additionally, visitors picking blackberries in the Country Park now face a possible £500 fine under the new regime, and the same again if they wander off the paths in restricted areas.   

These reforms may be largely harmless but that is far from clear.  By not explaining the situation (and some information on the consultation is strangely unavailable), the Council are in danger of losing what sympathy they might have had.

Posted 17:24 Tuesday, Feb 11, 2020 In: Home Ground

11 Comments

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  1. Nora Charles

    Thank you to Bernard McGinley & Christopher Hurrell for your painstaking research explaining the situation, whilst HBC continue to avoid sharing detail.
    What very strange times we live in. I am surprised these plans have been treated in such a Brexit ‘ just get on with it’ ‘microwave ready’ Tory manner by our Labour HBC. What is this sudden rush & lack of attention to detail? After over 5 yrs what difference would a month make to check & share the small print.
    Does anyone know how much all of this project has & will cost HBC? Over on HOT’s Facebook page there is an interesting thread for this piece with comments from Councillor Paul Barnett & Councillor Andrew Batsford who remain economical with detail about any of this. Councillor Batsford rather brashly states “Why are you guys still running this story ? It is factually completely untrue.” A couple of people have requested Andrew Batsford to qualify this damning blanket statement with some evidence. To date he appears to be stonewalling any response. You have to wonder whether he bothered to actually read through this very long piece which covers numerous points or whether it was a knee jerk quick fire social media low attention span reaction just to the headline. You would seriously hope not …. especially as he is in the running for council leadership.
    As a Labour voter I expect far better of councillors than this. To prevent looking silly he needs to respond in full or apologise big time to HOT & Mr McGinley, or if he is not big enough to do so then ask someone else from HBC to comment on his behalf.
    If I were HOT I would be asking HBC’s press officer for their opinion on this. HBC should be more respectful of the local independent press. Honestly HBC stop digging yourself in any deeper & leading yourselves over the cliff edge when it comes to Hastings Country Park matters. You are unnecessarily creating more work for your over stretched resources & in turn alienating yourself from Labour voters.

    Comment by Nora Charles — Friday, Feb 14, 2020 @ 21:17

  2. Bolshie

    Gathering from Chris Hurrell’s account of the council meeting on the new by-laws, it went pretty much as you would expect. By the voting, would it be fair to say how it was all pre-arranged and this meeting was effectively just a rubber stamp exercise.
    And so much for that “Openness and Transparency” Michael you were hoping would take place. Something I could not see suddenly happening here all of a sudden. After my first foray in 2008 over a very controversial planning application and another in 2009, those two words with the councillors and council never existed. Why would it suddenly change its just another day in the office for them.
    Is the fact the governing cabal of this council have now been there far too long have any influence on this issue?
    And well noted said there Eye on The Ball.

    Comment by Bolshie — Friday, Feb 14, 2020 @ 12:27

  3. Eye on the ball

    Can i ask Ms Hunnisett if the natural balance of this area of the country park is so endangered by the chance of members of the public straying off the paths then can she confirm that the council will not allow the implanting of solar arrays and associated equipment in this extremely delicate and endangered area of outstanding natural beauty?

    Comment by Eye on the ball — Friday, Feb 14, 2020 @ 08:43

  4. Christopher Hurrell

    The new byelaws were approved at full council 28 to 3 (or thereabouts) last night. The full council failed to obtain evidence and approved without proper scrutiny and without sufficient information.

    Cllr Louise proposed deferral until full information was made available– there was 15 minutes of discussion.

    Cllr Fitzgerald claimed that the restrictions were not new and merely reflected what was already in place. Cllr Turner contradicted this by claiming the new byelaws were necessary to protect wild life and bio diversity.

    Christine Barkshire Jones the HBC Chief Legal Officer claimed that the only options available were approval or rejection (she claimed that rejection would lead to another 5 years delay). She failed to mention that deferral for a month until full information available was an option.

    Murray Davidson falsely claimed that full detailed information had been provided. This claim was accepted without question by most councillors.
    Mr Davidson was asked if the Country Park Management Board had been consulted . He said that he could not remember but “imagined” they must have been.

    This was a good example of HBC’s casual relationship with data and evidence. It would have taken little effort to check the minutes from 2014 to establish whether consultation had taken place. The Friends of the Country Park don’t believe that the matter was discussed.

    Neither officers nor Labour members addressed the issues raised about lack of documentation.

    A complete failure of scrutiny and proper process. The very same issues that led to the loss of Ecclesbourne Glen. Nothing changes.

    It’s a real shame that the decision was not deferred until full detailed information was provided by HBC. A months delay would have made little difference and release of full details would have hopefully allayed concerns about restricted access. We are now obliged to take our objections to DEFRA.

    It is sad that HBC remain reluctant to release information into the public domain. HBC claim to be “open and transparent” but are very reluctant to release documents. This leads to suspicions that they have something to hide.

    We have now lodged freedom of information requests with HBC,DEFRA and Natural England to obtain all available documents. This could have been avoided if HBC were prepared to release information voluntarily.

    Comment by Christopher Hurrell — Thursday, Feb 13, 2020 @ 12:55

  5. Martin Newbold

    Residents in Ore are furious at the Council and their Council Councillors . Our team heard this week . Many residents in the area have voiced concern that the council is breaking promises made in 2012 in which it was promised in cabinet meeting that Speckled Wood would be considered as soon as it was possible to be considered as a Nature Reserve. This was either forgotten or purposely ignored read more here : http://friendsofspeckledwoodmanagementtrust.blogspot.com/2020/02/goverment-fails-to-meet-its-cabinet.html and here http://friendsofspeckledwoodmanagementtrust.blogspot.com/2012/11/friends-hand-over-thier-petition-to.html and recording https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g9zarVjCm4g

    A meeting at cabinet was conducted 3rd February 2020 which is believed to have ignored this previous decision. Can this Council be trusted to make this right?

    FOSMT

    Comment by Martin Newbold — Wednesday, Feb 12, 2020 @ 17:48

  6. Ms.Doubtfire

    Sad to say but Val Hunnisett has fallen victim to the ways of this council….everything so complicated but seemingly all so innocent…read between the lines Val Hunnisett and maybe then you will see what is going on here…..
    It was a very sad day when councillor John Hodges departed this planet – an honest and upright man who would have quickly seen through the true meaning of these Bye Law proposals ….there is not one council representative with the calibre of this lovely man…this council is not only losing sympathy, it is losing all credibility and there was not much there to start with…yet again a sad sad day for Hastings.

    Comment by Ms.Doubtfire — Wednesday, Feb 12, 2020 @ 16:37

  7. Bolshie

    Brilliant piece of copy there Bernard and as said – well researched. When this goes to whatever council meeting I have to wonder how many councillors will have a grip on all of this and what the ramifications are.
    On Michael’s comment about “Openness and Transparency,” well on the track record there and looking at the Rocklands issue ( that you know so well about Michael ) those two words might be a bit Utopian in thinking. Rocklands was the opposite.
    A suspicion I have here and only just that, would this at all be connected to HBC’s desires to have this ten acre solar farm in the Country Park.
    I also see there is a reference to this council not getting the mapping correct and all the years they have had to do it. This is a parallel to another site Robsack meadow where it was ordered to become an Local Nature Reserve (LNR) by the Planning Inspector at the Local Plan hearings. As I write HBC have not got this small simple site sorted out and it still remains to be ratified as an LNR. They have not got the mapping correct but have conveniently blamed DEFRA and Natural England for this.
    Why has this Country Park issue taken five years to get this far. What does it tell you about the Organisation & Management capabilities ?

    Comment by Bolshie — Wednesday, Feb 12, 2020 @ 16:34

  8. Wellington

    The devil is in the detail. Thank you Mr McGinley for yet another excellent piece with painstaking research. Your attention to well researched detail is much appreciated & sits in stark contrast with HBC’s grey vagueness on these proposals. Like Mr Madden I also hope that councillors remain committed to ‘Openness and Transparency’: that they postpone the decision, review procedure & invest time communicating with the public on the detail of HBC’s future vision for Hastings Country Park.

    Comment by Wellington — Wednesday, Feb 12, 2020 @ 15:05

  9. Michael Madden

    Well done for bringing this to readers attention, Bernard. Let’s hope the council heeds your opposition to this proposal tonight, and also the Friends of Hastings’ Country Park and many others who probably have no idea about these proposed restrictions in their enjoyment of what Cllr John Hodges used to call: “The Jewel in the Crown” of Hastings’ natural assets. As you say, this plan has been kept under wraps for so long and the “public” have not been “consulted” for over five years. It seems only too obvious that this is not in their interest and could set a dangerous precedent. The Park should remain “For the Many, not the FEW.” So let’s hope that councillors remain committed to “Openness and Transparency”, and agree, in a properly democratic manner, to defer a decision on the byelaws until there can be as wide a public debate as possible.

    Comment by Michael Madden — Wednesday, Feb 12, 2020 @ 08:40

  10. Lesley Turnbull

    Thank you for another well researched investigation into the typically slipshod practises of this council. As usual ‘openness and transparency’ is a meaningless phrase when used by council officials. As a daily user of the Country Park I can’t remember the last time I saw any evidence of vandalism, fly tipping or any other antisocial activity. When seeking to change the status quo it is advisable to give evidence of the problem that needs to be solved, otherwise awkward questions will be asked – yet again!

    Comment by Lesley Turnbull — Tuesday, Feb 11, 2020 @ 19:39

  11. VAL HUNNISETT

    The restriction of access applies only to a part of Hastings Countryside Park – and does not stop anyone going into that part of the park – you are asked to keep to footpaths. Is this terrible? Check the link to the council meeting agenda (it is a bit long) but the detail is there and it is clearly an attempt to prevent vandalism/fire raising etc.

    Comment by VAL HUNNISETT — Tuesday, Feb 11, 2020 @ 18:59

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