By David EP Dennis

A series of unfortunate events is taking place inside the Combe Valley Countryside Park boundary. Because Combe Valley was a countryside park with multiple landowners, rather than country park with one owner, it was understood that freedom to walk and enjoy the landscape and wildlife was dependent on the goodwill of the landowners. This goodwill is fast-diminishing and there are other problems to do with maintenance, and construction.

Wildlife Sensitivity

In one of the most wildlife-sensitive area of the park, Pebsham Lake and Woods, landowners have banned walkers from the beautiful bluebell woods above the lake, where redwings and spotted flycatchers can be seen – and from the sloping field south of the lake directly behind the large cormorant colony, next to the lake where greater crested grebes and kingfishers can often be seen. This field has been sold to a developer – Trafalgar. 

Bee orchids; Bluebells in Pebsham Woods
CREDIT: David EP Dennis

A parcel of land at Pebsham Farm appears to have been sold off last summer by land agents Lambert & Foster for potential development – see www.lambertandfoster.co.uk/property/lf002630. The basic price stated was £75,000, not the likely £3m value, but with an overage agreement that might transform the land’s value if it proves capable of development. 

Effluent

The next concern is evil-smelling effluent water (said not to be leachate) emerging from the side of the Pebsham Tip. The adjacent footpath, has been turned into something of a morass because the lake is unusually high, and the effluent is flowing via a side path into the lake. An ESCC manager has advised that there is a leak from a burst pipe from the Southern Water site. Southern Water will be attending to this. Walkers are advised not to walk through the boggy area until fixed.

Scouring of the ex-Biffa Site

Lastly, but most concerning, is the sale by Biffa of their derelict site next to the lake area. Although the site seems to be derelict from a construction point of view, it was certainly not ‘derelict’ from an ecological point of view. It has plants, trees, birds, and insects and, because it is inside a countryside park right next to a huge site of special scientific interest, common sense suggests that careful handling of any construction or site clearance work is required.

Unfortunately, Biffa did not advise of the sale to the controller of the Countryside Park – the Community Interest Company (CIC). The Park is managed on their behalf by Groundwork South. A senior member of Groundwork was told that the landowner has contracted with Greenweld Steel to erect ‘light industrial units’. However, no planning application has yet been presented to Rother DC. Site fencing has been erected and warning notices to parents of small children have been posted telling them to keep their children away from the ‘construction site’.

CREDIT: David EP Dennis

On the Facebook page ‘Save Our Bexhill Greenspace’, the landowner’s representative identified himself as Christian Burton, a director of Greenweld Steel. It has not been possible to ascertain the specific ownership of the land since the Land Registry is running around 10 months late in its registration processes.

Rother DC Directorate of Place and Climate Change explained that although it is of course legal to buy the ex-Biffa site, it is “…not on our Local Plan as a suitable site, in fact it is within the Strategic Gap and Countryside Park designations, both of which restrict most forms of development, including commercial use. We are not expecting this position to change.”

Controversy

The subject of land usage inside the Countryside Park has caused deep controversy with passionate arguments on both sides – the landowner’s relatives on one side, and the park users on the other. The language used on Facebook has now received a warning notice from a councillor at Rother DC to prevent overt aggression. 

CREDIT: David EP Dennis

A wildlife conservationist visited the site and reported on social media later:  “We were up there a few weeks ago watching them destroy the bushes around the edges with heavy machinery, when I tried to speak to one of them about the nesting birds we were told to f*** off and mind our own business – lovely with my son there.” 

Sussex Police have asked that anyone threatened verbally by site workers should report the matter on 101.

Following the series of altercations on Facebook, the next day it was reported that the ex-Biffa construction site gates had been damaged and flattened (see photos).

Causes for Concern

Why are people so angry about this incident? There are several reasons.

Firstly, the site owner’s representative explained on the public-facing Facebook page:  “I represent the Company that owns the land, we have just cleared some of the area to find the boundary. We may in future apply for planning permission on part of the land that is in the current Rother development area. We have not dumped anything on the site, just moved some earth after calling in a badger expert to confirm there were no sets. We are aware many people use the lane to walk their dogs and would like to assure them that we intend to improve the lane so we can safely co-habit. I have been in contact with Ben Coles from Combe Valley CIC to communicate our intentions. Just to clarify we are not going to try to build anything without the correct planning permission.”

However, it is the casual phrase, “cleared some of the area to find the boundary” that has deeply upset people because it is the bird nesting season, and the area is right next to Pebsham Lake – an extremely sensitive wildlife area as explained above. In the UK, Natural England defines the nesting season as starting in February and running through to August. The busiest period is from March to July. Some birds start earlier than February, and others nest all year round. 

Secondly, although a badger survey has been carried out, no full pre-construction biodiversity surveys required by law have been completed and published. It would be logical to think that if you intend to apply for planning permission inside such a sensitive wildlife conservation area, you will first read the Wildlife Act 1981 and find your duties as a developer set out in the Act and its associated legislation and advice. They would need to conduct the Section 41 priority species survey (see box text)  

However, alarmingly, one Facebook user on a public-facing site said: “They destroyed a long-established colony of 20-30 bee orchids including several Ophrys apifera var. chlorantha plants, not to mention many common spotted orchids as well. It was a lovely plant and animal rich re-wilded area. Was gutted when we saw the devastation at the ex-Biffa site you mention.”

And the future?

Hundreds of people who enjoy and value the Combe Haven Country-side Park are upset by these developments. In the case of the water leak, it will soon be repaired. In the case of Trafalgar, we await any development in that field with trepidation. In the case of the ex-Biffa site, we wait to see what the Sussex Police Rural Crime Team and the Rother District Council Planning Enforcement Team will say about the scouring of this site in the bird-nesting season and the possible destruction of conserved orchids.

Any planning applications in the Trafalgar or ex-Biffa sites would undoubtedly be opposed by hundreds of people.


Section 41 priority species surveys and how to conduct them

Many plants, fungi and lichens are listed as rare and most threatened species under Section 41 of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act (2006). You must have regard for the conservation of Section 41 species as part of your planning decision. Find out more about your biodiversity duty.

You should ask for a survey if distribution, habitat assessments and historical records suggest they may be present on your proposed development site. You can search the National Biodiversity Network Atlas by species and location.

You must check if the ecologist is qualified and experienced to carry out surveys for plants, fungi and lichens. For EPS, the ecologist must hold an EPS mitigation licence if surveys cause any harm to protected plants.

The ecologist should also follow the Biodiversity code of practice for planning and development (BS 42020:2013) available on the British Standards Institute website www.gov.uk/guidance/construction-near-protected-areas-and-wildlife


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