I came in from walking on the coast to the north of Newcastle on Tuesday (15.11.11) to find a message from an old friend on my answer phone service. There was a meeting that night about the proposal to build six hundred new homes surrounding Gosforth Nature Reserve, that, should it go ahead would effectively end the needs of the increasingly diverse wildlife that has come to use the Reserve and through it, the green corridor down the Ouseburn to the foot of my own road here in central Newcastle. Was I coming along?
A hasty cup of tea and then out to South Gosforth. Collected a group of friends and walked the mile to Gosforth Civic Centre. Already very crowded by the time we arrived, we had to stand at the back of the hall. It was very hot inside and grew steadily hotter as the meeting went on. Before us on the stage was a panel of both presenters and spokes people. After a introduction and explanation of the reason for the meeting (polite, but hardly necessary; most of us were well primed) each of the four main speakers was introduced in turn and allowed a ten minute presentation.
The representatives from Newcastle City Council were first up to speak. This proved a sensible course, I suspect the packed meeting would have not been such passive listeners as the evening wore on. The Council case was presented in the linga franca of all such proposals and so laden with invented buzz words as to be opaque. It struck me early on I had yet to hear what these far reaching and over ambitious proposals were based upon and who had cooked them up. Were they like so much else today plucked from, er, thin air? One vague threat in this submission was that the current Coalition government were going ahead with measures to relax the planning laws so Newcastle "needed" to have a plan of its own ready for the day when this intention became a reality. Intellectually, that is on the level of "someone is coming to beat up Mother, so I must beat her up before they arrive".
The best presentations were, inevitably, from the opponents. David Byrne, an academic from Durham, once Labour councillor and now Green Party member, was impressive. He undermined the entire case for the 'Core One' strategy in that, as he demonstrated with expertise and recourse to respected available data, it does not address the current circumstances facing Newcastle; and, since the Core One strategy for growth is based on statistics that only go to 2008, it cannot cope with the present dire consequences of the Great Slump making themselves inceasingly felt day by day.
After this tour de force Head of Planning Harvey Emms and his colleague were not in a happy position. Their titular boss, Councillor Henri Murison however, decided not to show up at all.
James Littlewood's measured statement regarding the Reserve was a model of sticking to the issues. Read it (and view photographs of the event) in full here. I was impressed at the way Mr Littlewood refused to blame anyone in making his address. His hearers though were left in no doubt about where to look.
Opposition to the plan was far wider than simply the Northumberland Wildlife people. Golfers speaking from the floor of the meeting said that the development of the Great North Park (an earlier violation of the city's Green Belt to the north of Gosforth) had impacted on them due to increased surface water run off down the Ouseburn; greens flooded and play imposssible. Householders along the river, though few, also outlined their concerns over increased flood risk. Both groups claimed that they had not been consulted by the Council about the most recent plans to develop the Gosforth site.
All-in-all it turned out better than I feared. The meeting had been well disciplined and courteous. The Council was shown in a poor light though, not least when referring to having had exchanges of views with "English Nature", an organisation that ceased to exist three years ago.
Revised 6th December 2011