Thursday, July 3, 2014

Under mined

I spent this afternoon – hot and humid – in an air conditioned (well they opened a window) room at Gateshead Civic Centre to hear the proceedings of the Planning Inspector looking at matters arising from the (in)famous Core Strategy planning document for Tyneside's four local authorities. Hence matters concerning Newcastle were discussed in Gateshead, south of the river.

The room was packed. I stood at the back where I could both see and hear well.

Initially I struggled. There was a lengthy discussion of the proposals for a spine road in the Great Park. Apparently this conversation had been carried over from before lunch before I arrived. The details for the road to serve the sprawling sub-topian ghetto that is the Great Park turned out to have been incorrectly described and at variance with some of the plans as presented to the Inquiry. Newcastle City Council's own planning team appeared to either be woefully unprepared or plain baffled. "Have you run this past a lawyer?" asked the Inspector. (Laughter). Good start I thought.

Having decided the spine road question would have to be settled at a later date, the Inspector turned to the matter that brought me hither: Persimmon Home's desire to redefine the Green Belt to allow them to build a large estate of new houses next to Gosforth Nature Reserve, owned and managed by Northumberland Wildlife Trust. The land, that Persimmon bought ages ago, is currently farmed by a tenant. The Trust feared that the steady advances in the Reserve's biodiversity (including many rare and protected species today) would be terminally compromised. The driving force, however, comes from Save Gosforth Wildlife. They led the objector's who are numerous.

When I last attended one of the meetings the Save campaign called in Gosforth some time ago, the scheme Persimmon proposed was for circa 500 houses that would have completely sealed off one side of the Reserve boundary with housing. The Trust pointed out that certain species, albeit large and visible species, used this 'buffer land' to forage or commute; it also connected the reserve to sites lower down the Ouseburn river that housing would effectively block. Present tranquility (itself a selling point for developers ironically) has meant shy species including otters have returned to the Ouseburn and ventured down stream into Jesmond Dene. The Ouseburn river then, acts as a cord joining together the green lung that is Jesmond Dene, Armstrong Park, Heaton Park, and the Lower Ouseburn. The wildlife interest is growing. Because of its locality close to the city, recreation (a golf course nestles bedsides the Reserve forming another green boundary) the footpaths through the site attracts walkers exploring the long distance hikes out to the north of the city; joggers and cyclists and, of course, natural history buffs. It rates very high in terms of the 'amenity scale' drawn up by Newcastle City Council's own planners and has no equal within the city or adjacent Green Belt. In short, Gosforth Wildlife Reserve and its immediate surroundings are a gem in the city's none too shiny crown.

The developers kicked off representations and at once I was staggered to learn they were now proposing a scheme less than half the size of the original plan, located furtherest away from the Reserve as their land holding would allow, the direct result of public outcry over the first plan. This revised plan, itself a further revision, was submitted (electronically, I presume) to the parties in the matter at 7 o'clock the previous evening!

An early exchange between the developers and the Newcastle council planners revolved around the latest flood risk assessment. At least half the land looked to be inside an area now deemed as highest risk! In a remark that had me (alone among his listeners) laughing out loud, the developers spirited spokesperson advised the Inspector his company were no longer planning to build on an area of flood risk! Instead, they were proposing to site their scheme in that part of the site less exposed to flood risk. The Newcastle Council team demurred at this claim. They had a new, new flood assessment map ready to hand and the siting of the new, new housing proposed was betwixt and between the most and the next lowest as they saw it. After listening to this exchange quietly, the Inspector took representations from 'other interested parties' which let in the wildlife objector's spokespeople.

James lead for Save group. He spoke about the directives of the city council in regard to amenity; Gosforth Nature Reserve fitted these perfectly, perhaps better than any other single site in the city. This exceptional reserve could not possibly survive if the scheme were to be granted and was impossible to reproduce elsewhere. Then John, chair of the Save group spoke, wittily, querying the grounds for the scheme as announced in the Core Strategy and the likelihood that other land sited elsewhere in Gosforth of no wildlife interest was going to become available for re-development in the near short term. This was disputed by the Council's planners who quibbled over the meaning of 'short' term. The Inspector, a patient and thoughtful man, enquired if the land in question, currently used for industrial purposes, had been explored by the Council planners. They said they had 'looked' at it, but showed no great interest in going further. Their view was that this site would be a distant re-development prospect. John came back once again but the matter was left as, at best, undecidable.

So far, so not much. The flooding risk to the site, the variation in ecological advice the developers received, all seemed to get mixed up and I and one of my companions felt the decisive arguments were slipping away from sight.

Then came the bombshell. The ground beneath, as it is wont to do, shook. There exist very good reasons to support the presumption that coal mining in past centuries has occurred beneath the land in question. (Newcastle is, as is well known, riddled with old coal mines that everyone appears to have forgot until, in the dead of night, a distant boom announces another collapsed gallery somewhere below … This has happened to friends in South Gosforth.)

Amazingly, the developers had not had an assessment of old coal workings done for the site, though the Save spokespeople pointed out a survey completed close by had revealed such workings in what were termed 'shallow seams'. It is possible to find examples of mining subsidence quite close to the city and a sudden large collapse near Newcastle airport made the national news about ten years or so ago. The idea no discovery had been attempted here was astonishing. Oversight or worse?

The discussions had come to something of a successful conclusion after all. The newly appraised flood risk and the unknown mining subsidence issue factored together to paint a picture that was unfavourable for house building, to put matters mildly. By now, even the Newcastle City planners had reclined back into their chairs and the body language spelt trouble for Persimmon, who had run out of arguments and friends anywhere in the packed room. A bit about the suitability of the site from the sustainable transport view was neither here nor there, suddenly. The Green Belt looked secure.

Persimmon must clearly have felt they were sailing into choppy waters by changing their plans at the last minute, scaling back the scheme even further into a mere token sector of the site. Why do that if the scheme was no threat to the local ecology as they claimed English Nature had advised them? If a single brick is laid on this land it will be inexplicable as to reason. Fingers crossed!

[Edited 04.07.14 for clarity]

Do visit the links above to see what the Reserve and surroundings have to offer and, if you can, pay it a visit.

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