Sedgemoor District Council has this week voted in favour of selling off one of Highbridge’s “last precious pockets of green land” – a piece of open public land – to make way for 110 new homes despite strong local opposition.
Over 700 people signed a petition against the sale of the field between Lakeside and Isleport amid concern about a loss of wildlife, public open land and over-development. But at a meeting of Sedgemoor’s Executive on Wednesday (June 24th), they approved the sale.
It comes after Burnham-On-Sea.com reported here that developer Coln Residential had won outline planning permission earlier this year to develop the site.
The field is currently owned by five parties, including Sedgemoor District Council, and the council’s Executive discussed the sale of the land during an online meeting. They heard the concerns of local people, but ultimately unanimously approved the sale.
Resident Joy Russell, pictured below, who campaigned against the development of the site, spoke passionately during the meeting against the sell-off, along with local councillors Phil Harvey and Janet Keen.
Joy told the meeting: “As a resident of Highbridge I wish to highlight the concern of our community about the lack of wild spaces within our area. Whilst collecting signatures for my petition I listened to how strongly everyone felt about the over-development of Highbridge and their passionate reactions to losing any more of our green space. Sadly, a large proportion of the hundreds of people I spoke to were disheartened and sceptical that any good will come out of my efforts and they were furious about £400,000 S106 public money being handed over to a private developer merely to make their development more viable. They are angry and feel sorely aggrieved by what they see as so many disgraceful recent planning decisions in our area. You were elected to serve us and to date we feel seriously let down.”
“The people are now sick of being reminded of your key priority for building more and more houses..it’s NOT all about money. Time and time again during the lockdown we have spoken to people searching for somewhere green to walk and ones that have ‘found’ the field were horrified to learn about the planning application.”
“The council that created the Apex park which is also a flood defence can be proud and hold their heads high. Are you the council who will be remembered for just saying ‘yes’ to more and more houses to the detriment of our environment and community?”
“Having signed up to the Climate Emergency make it your mission, show us you are forward looking and committed to your ecological responsibilities. Make the most of our natural assets and their inherent health and well being benefits. Capture the community energy created through the Covid crisis. Initiate climate mitigation now by tree planting and using sustainable flood defence and seriously consider biodiversity loss and gain. Increase the wildlife potential. You can achieve your green agenda by starting here and now.”
“We need to see you acting on this pledge and this is the ideal opportunity to prove to us you mean what you say. Let our children learn hands on how to re-wild and care for the planet. You have a head-start with the improvement of this ‘white land’ as the backbone is already in place.”
“Don’t be responsible for losing the creatures we already have here – protected species like the ten different species of bat: the rarest being Leisler, and the Greater and Lesser Horseshoe bat. Common and Soprano Pipistrelle, Serotine, Noctule, Brown Long-eared, Whiskered and Myotis species, Water Voles, Badgers, Otters and Hedgehogs or any of the ‘currently’ common animals such as Fox and Field Vole. Let’s not lose red species birds like the Grasshopper Warbler, Song Thrush and House Sparrow or the amber listed bird such as Bullfinch and Willow Warbler or any of the following, Blackcap, Chifchaff, Whitethroat, Kestrel, Sedge Warbler, Greenfinch,Wren, Robin, Long-tailed tits, Dunnock, Chaffinch. They are all here on this land!”
“Protect the flora and grassland for pollinators and butterflies here such as, Marbled White, Brown Argus, Common Blue, Large Skipper and the hedgerow for Commas, Peacock, Red Admiral. Save space for Damselflies and the Emporer Dragonfly, Scarce Chaser, Black Tailed Skimmer and Common Darter not forgetting our precious bees, Ladybirds, grasshopper, crickets, froghoppers, shieldbugs ants and hoverflies.”
Highbridge district councillor Janet Keen also spoke out against the sale of the land. She said: “The recommendation of this report refers to the Executive meeting in December 2016 at which I was present and I recall speaking then against disposal. The decision then was to refuse to sell the land as the price offered was insufficient.”
“Today’s report acknowledges the Council’s priority in increasing housing. However, the number of market homes proposed will not fulfill the shortfall in the Government’s estimated target for Sedgemoor, and there is already WIP on one large site at Brue Farm and permission has been granted for another 200 homes on the other side of Isleport Lane. The provision of homes is a laudable objective, but not at the cost of quality of life and an open space offers quality. If there is one thing we have learned during this pandemic, it is that people need open spaces for their physical health, psychological well being.”
“I oppose the disposal of that land and I ask you to retain it, for the following reason: That land is almost the last green open space at the edge of town. It is adjacent to the Walrow ponds which are well maintained and stocked by the angling club. It is small but being adjacent to the ponds is a refuge and foraging space for wildlife some species of which are endangered. The table on Page 8 offers a smaller better quality provision of green space within the proposed development. This is nonsense. A man made manicured weeded lawn does not replace the natural habitat which has become wild over the years, where the complex ecology lives.”
Cllr Keen added: “This council has made a commitment to the Climate Change Emergency, we have recruited a post graduate research officer to assist and advise of how we can contribute to and control our own local remedial actions to achieve our goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2030, we spend officer and member time in pursuing and implementing measures. Building over an open wild space, is a contradiction of our aims.”
“My wish list is that the Council retains that land and replace the covenant so recently lifted by the previous landowner, and allow the land to remain a refuge for all the complex organisms and creatures (fowl, animal, insect, reptilian) who live there and contribute to the fresh air we breathe. Future generations will thank us for that gift, when all around is concrete and tarmac.”
Town councillor Phil Harvey also spoke out against the proposed sale of the land during the meeting. He said: “I would ask the Executive to reject the recommendation in the report to sell this land for development. The report’s thrust is that all the objections are essentially planning matters and, as planning permission has been granted, then there is no reason why the Executive cannot approve the sale. I would contend that, just because approval can be given does not mean that it should.”
He added: “The National Planning Policy Framework sets out that open spaces should not be built on except in very special circumstances – either where they are surplus or can be replaced by equivalent or better facilities. Note that it does not restrict this injunction to PUBLIC open spaces. Although it is argued in the report that the NPPF does not apply, I would assert that a good local authority should still consider these two principles when considering sale of land.”
“I would further submit that, contrary to the report, this space is not surplus – it is a valuable natural green space and our own Accessible Natural Green Space survey of 2017 identifies this area of Highbridge as having a deficiency of such space. The report disagrees with this, saying that the site is within 300m of the Walrow ponds. But these are not ACCESSIBLE – they are privately owned by the local angling association and kept locked.”
“Also, the 750 m2 of additional open space in the proposed development is not “equivalent or better” than the 5.7 acres of green space being lost (approximately 30 times larger). It is also doubtful if it will be used by residents of the Springfield Road development as it is now planned to close the access over the railway line. The new access route means that the proposed space is further from Springfield Road than the existing Southwell Gardens which have a play area, a football field and tennis courts which are planned to be converted into a MUGA. I believe that most Springfield Road residents will choose to go to Southwell Gardens and the new open space will end up largely serving the new housing only.”
“The benefits of open space for the health and well-being of people are well-documented e.g. in Natural England’s “Nature nearby” document; by the WHO; and in our own Health and Well-being strategy (P13). I quote: “Health outcomes and inequality in health due to lower incomes is less pronounced where people have access to green space. Green areas provide shared space which enhances a sense of belonging and reduces social isolation. Other positive benefits of access to green space include reduced levels of overweight and obesity, improved mental health and increased longevity. People also report better self -rated health.”
Cllr Harvey continued: “Highbridge contains a significant proportion of low-income families. The current crisis has shown increased levels of mental health problems in the community but also that more people have benefited from discovering this green space, Despite its limited access (partly due to this Council’s decision to lock the gate) it remains accessible via footpaths, including one from the adjacent industrial estate. Losing this open space will remove this source of benefit to both residents and workers – and Mrs. Russell’s statement has stressed its value to the community. Working with organisations such as the Somerset Wildlife Trust and utilising the £400,000 S106 money from the Springfield Road development, significant improvements to this space can be made and a new green lung established for the people of Highbridge – rather than yet another housing development – for which there is no over-riding need. This is just one of 177 “opportunity sites” identified in the local plan process – but the only one which can give the opportunity for establishing and enhancing a new green lung for the people of Highbridge. Not building on this site would still leave 176 other sites available for consideration.”
“I would urge the Executive to reject the recommendation and do what is best for the local people who, for too long, have – rightly or wrongly – felt their wishes have been ignored. You’ve seen the strength of opposition – I would ask you to please take note of it and not proceed with the sale but work instead to provide a new valuable natural green space in which local people can relax and enjoy the flora and fauna.”
Sedgemoor District Council’s Property Management Team Leader Tim Mander told the meeting that 30 objections had been received along with a small number of letters supporting the sale of the land. After running through the objections, he said: “We feel that all the objections can be addressed or have been addressed through the planning process and we are recommending the disposal of the land.”
Sedgemoor District Council Policy Planning Manager Nick Tate added that a lot of the objections raised by the residents had already been addressed in the separate planning process. He added: “The status of the land has been mentioned in a number of the objections. Originally going back 20-25 years, it was allocated but never actually implemented as public open space and in fact the existing Lakeside development of 31 houses formed part of that original allocation so in some ways going back 20-odd years the president of some of that land being disposed of had already being set.”
“In terms of the current local plan, it has no formal identification – it is just undeveloped land within the settlement boundary where our policies seek to maximise housing opportunities to meet housing needs of the district, so it’s not formally allocated or designated as public open space.”
He added that concerns about biodiversity “have been looked at in detail” and that the county ecologist has made a number of recommendations and several conditions.
Sedgemoor District Council’s Leader Cllr Duncan McGinty proposed the sale of the land and Cllr Gill Slocombe seconded the proposal. The members of the Executive then voted unanimously to approve the sale of the land.
Sedgemoor spokeswoman Claire Faun said after the meeting: “Sedgemoor District Council has approved the disposal of land adjoining Lakeside, Isleport, Highbridge. In an hour-long debate, the members of the Executive listened to representations from members of the public who were passionately against the disposal of the land versus the need to provide additional housing to meet Government targets.”
“There is a balance needed between the clear need for new homes in response to the national housing crisis and local need; as well as making sure that people have access to important green spaces. There are currently 2,452 households looking for homes across Sedgemoor an increase of 24% from this time a year ago.”
“The disposal of the undeveloped land will pave the way for the delivery of up to 121 new homes in the area in accordance with the Council’s adopted Local Plan (2019). In addition, to providing a range of new housing, the proposal will also provide large areas of equipped play space, further public open space and an attractive landscaped water course and improved walking and cycling links.”
“More importantly, a dangerous surface-level crossing of the main railway line will be blocked off and replaced with a new cycle link from the A38 providing easy and safe access to the new play facilities from the nearby Springfield Road development. Network Rail had designated this crossing as ‘unsafe’.”
“There have been a number of objections including two petitions to this disposal and the Council fully understands and recognises these. The majority of these concerns have been discussed and debated through the planning process that has taken over four years, reflecting the level of concerns and complex issues that needed to be resolved.”
“This area offers the opportunity to deliver housing in a sustainable location close to local facilities and employment and will encourage walking and cycling. This is an important element of reducing CO2 emissions as part of Sedgemoor’s climate change strategy. It also provides high quality public open space that will include areas for children to play, something that is missing in this wider area and that will support wider health and wellbeing.”