February 5, 2015 by combehavendefenders
10 minutes. That’s how much ‘debate’ Hastings council’s planning committee engaged in before passing the planning application for the Queensway Gateway road. In fact, ‘debate’ is far too strong a word for it: that part of the meeting consisted of 3 councillors (out of a panel of 10) saying it was a shame about the environment, but the road would be a jolly good thing.
That a proposal which will suck up probably £30m of public money (the road itself is £15m, and the ‘business park’ is likely to cost at least the same again), and will result in the complete destruction of an ‘invaulable and irreplaceable’ wildlife site, can be passed in such a short time, with almost no debate, no dissent, is shocking.
The planning committee
The planning committee consists of ten councillors, seven labour and three conservative. Not that their political affiliation made any difference: nobody was about to raise any serious objections to SeaChange’s latest job-creation scheme. The money for the road comes from central government, not Hastings council, and SeaChange claims it will create 1,370 jobs, What’s not to like?
Head of Planning wheeled in…
Although the application has been dealt with all along by a planning officer, the council wheeled out its big gun, Head of Planning, Ray Crawford, to face the meeting. He started out by saying that the main purpose of the road was to provide access to a site [Hollington Valley] that had been allocated as employment land. Traffic relief was mentioned too, but it was clear from what he said that the key reason for the road was jobs.
Level playing field?
The rules are that one person from each side can speak to the committee for five minutes. This might sound fair until you consider the huge amount of lobbying SeaChange has been able to do, not to mention the free publicity provided by the Hastings Observer. Those opposed to the road, by contrast, were not allowed to meet with councillors on the committee beforehand (despite this being well within the rules), and more or less frozen out of the local paper. There are doubtless many behind-the-scenes meetings too, which we never get to hear about. So the playing field is very far from level to begin with.
Objection (not) noted
That said, Dr Judy Clark, speaking against, the scheme, made some very important points. Most important were that the cumulative impact of the development (that is, the road plus the industrial estate) had not been considered, and the applicant had not shown the ‘local need’ which is necessary before the council can allow building on a local wildlife site. Either of these should have been enough to scupper the application.
John Shaw takes the stand
John Shaw, CEO of SeaChange, took the stand after Dr Clark. He claimed that the road was necessary for jobs and ‘connectivity’, whatever that is, and would contribute to the A21/A259 ‘growth corridor’. He also claimed that 84% of the local wildlife site lies outside the planning application boundary. This may be true but is utterly disingenuous, since the point of building the road is to build the industrial estate, which would wipe out virtually the entire site.
However, since – as already noted – he was holding all the cards, what he said at that point was completely irrelevant. He’d already won.
Councillors ask a few questions
Following John Shaw’s presentation, a few councillors asked questions about the application. A couple of them asked about existing vacant sites (why didn’t they ask John Shaw this? See here for one of his earlier fiascos) but were fobbed off by the head planner saying it was in the Local Plan (and therefore, was the implication, it must be agreed). Cllr Scott asked about the translocation of reptiles and was told that since it would take place on, rather than off, site, it should be ok.
Prejudging the issue?
Cllr Wincott was one of the few councillors who appeared to be paying attention. He raised the issue of future planning applications for the industrial units; if we didn’t know how many would be applied for, or what the level of need would be, how do we know the road is needed? Aren’t we, he asked, prejudging the issue? A good question, but answered by the head of planning with more platitudes about forecasts, employment growth, site delivery.
Most of the councillor’s comments (those that stirred themselves to say anything: three of them – Cllrs Beaney, Lee and Roberts – didn’t open their mouths throughout the meeting) were about traffic. Congestion on the Ridge, problems on access roads, roundabouts. All appeared to be more important than the massive destruction about to be wrought on Hollington Valley.
Environment manager sits on the fence
The council’s environment manager, who had previously issued a pretty damning report about the effect of the road on the wildlife site, was asked about the cumulative impact of the development. He said that it could result in ‘additional adverse effects’, but when asked by Cllr Wincott whether he thought the development was acceptable, said that it was not for him to say.
The actual discussion about the proposal lasted about 10 minutes. It consisted of Cllr Edwards (conservative councillor for the ward in question) talking about the frustration of sitting in traffic jams. He said that people often said to him that ‘Something has to be done’, and that this was an example of something being done. The implication appeared to be that doing something (even if that something is utterly wrong) is better than doing nothing. He said that it was ‘unfortunate’ that the road would run through ‘green space and scrubland’, but that there was no other option which wouldn’t involve knocking down houses and shops.
He also admitted that the ‘warehouses’ might not be built for some time to come, an explicit acknowledgment that we have more than enough ‘warehouses’ locally already. However, the main issue was traffic, he said, and on that basis he put forward the proposal to approve the planning application.
‘Compelling argument’ not compelling enough
Cllr Scott said that Dr Clark had put forward a ‘compelling argument’ about the environment, about which he felt passionately, but that he needed to be optimistic about jobs and growth and would on balance support the proposal, provided it could be done ‘sensitively’. How one can ‘sensitively’ build a road and a huge area of industrial units on top of a wildlife site remains to be seen.
The proposal to pass the application was seconded by Cllr Beaver, who said that people in his ward (West St Leonards) had been waiting 18 years for the ‘bypass’ (the link road) and didn’t want to see congestion just moved around. This was not the most cogent argument, since what are new roads other than means of moving traffic around – or, indeed, increasing it – rather than taking steps to reduce it?
Tellingly, he also acknowledged the oversupply of industrial areas locally, saying that planning applications for the business park might not come for years, even until the end of the current Local Plan (2028). To be passing a planning application for a road which you know will cause massive destruction, even though you think it may not be needed for 13 years (or indeed, ever), is beyond irresponsible.
And so to the vote
After that almost entirely unedifying display of democracy in action, we came to the vote. Nine councillors put their hands up immediately; Cllr Wincott hesitated for a moment then joined the flock. Passed unanimously.
So to summarise: the complete destruction of Hollington Valley and perhaps £30m of public money, in order to move some traffic around and possibly – but more likely not – create a few jobs way into the future. A good night’s work for the planning committee.