By David Dennis 

The Combe Valley Countryside Park covers about 1,500 acres of countryside between Hastings and Bexhill. About half of the land is privately owned and farmed; the remainder belongs to Hastings, Rother or East Sussex councils. The area has two SSSIs (Sites of Special Scientific Interest) with a great diversity of wildlife and tranquil water meadows.

The Countryside Park was first suggested in 1993 as part of the North Bexhill Strategic Framework. Later renamed the Combe Valley Countryside Park this long-term project was designed, according to Rother District Council, “for public enjoyment and recreation… (and to) address the deficiency in green space for the towns of Hastings and Bexhill.”

Flooding at Bexhill Road playing fields 2014
PICTURE: David Dennis

The valley, including Orchid Field and Filsham Reed Beds, is drained by the Watermill and Powdermill streams which flow into the Combe Haven River  – previously called the Asten. Sea-lock gates near Bo Peep control winter flooding; water rising across the width of the valley, including the recreation ground area close to Bexhill Road, part of the ancient harbour of Bulverhythe. These floods are vital to the ecology of the valley. Government-backed reports on sea level rises show a clear picture of increasing coastal flooding. Sea-lock gates cannot stay open on a rising tide. The consequence of these mechanisms is that Combe Valley will often flood, attracting large numbers of wildlife.

The Effect of the Bexhill to Hastings Bypass
The controversial Bexhill to Hastings bypass, which opened three years ago at the northern end of the valley, was depicted by objectors as an ecological devastation. But, thanks to the inspirational work by the East Sussex County Council ecologist, for every one wildlife space taken away by the bypass builders, two have been provided. One hundred thousand trees have been planted. Wildlife is now on the increase. Birds of prey like hawks and falcons cannot survive without prey to eat, so the increasing numbers of buzzards, hobbies, barn owls, kestrels and red kites prove that the ecology of the valley is very healthy. Now we also have a top predator – the marsh harrier. Remarkable numbers of geese arrive in winter, one flock being 80-strong. Nineteen cattle egrets have been seen near one lake, little egrets and herons are encountered frequently, rare dragonflies and damselflies have been recently observed in the valley, specialised beetles and even the ruby-tailed jewel wasp have been recorded there. Cetti’s warblers, stonechats, yellowhammers, long-tailed tits, kingfishers, woodpeckers and many other birds now live in the park. Lapwings are nesting. Forty two cormorants nest in the trees at Pebsham Lake, the crater made by a World War II V1 flying bomb. Rare bitterns have been seen there. Throughout the park, nature is getting richer.

Home Building
But the human species is now threatening to encroach again from the other end of the valley. A proposal to build a sports village on what are currently playing fields off Bexhill Road (formerly known as Bulverhythe pitches) seems to have failed. However Hastings Borough Council (HBC) had tacked onto this proposal a plan to build 170 homes on what they call ‘the Lower Tier Site’, the section nearest the road, with an eye on a potential grant of £6.9 million pounds being offered by Homes England for flood remediation. Despite the land being entirely inside Combe Valley Countryside Park nature conservation area, they voted last month in closed session without discussion (using Rule 13.3) to take this plan forward, with a further recommendation that they buy some homes to rent out, to increase their income stream.

Landscape History
Combe Valley has a remarkable history. The Combe Haven River flows through the valley where millions of years ago, iguanodon dinosaurs roamed – their footprints can be seen on local beaches. 10,000 years ago, ancient peoples from all over southern England congregated below Adam’s Farm to knap flints, carried there in baskets. The Romans formed bell-pits when mining for iron ore. Bulverhythe harbour was a main port for the coast, then called Hastingas & Pevenisel, when the Normans invaded. Later military cannons were shipped out from Bulverhythe, and a ferry crossed the water there. There is a remarkable archaeological heritage to be preserved, not built on.

Flood remediation consequences
As set out above, the river was once a deep arm of the sea, with saltmarsh going up to Crowhurst, then a winter-flooded valley when the lock gates were put in because of rising sea levels. Now, with climate change, rainfall and sea levels are still rising. The risks of serious flooding are increasing. In 2014, the Lower Tier site was underwater for weeks (see photos), raising questions about building on a flood plain – with implications for household insurance. Why would Hastings Borough Council want to contravene government guidance on risky building of homes? Because it may be given £6.9 million flood remediation cash.

But altering the natural flood effects is also likely to adversely affect the water table higher up. Large flocks of winter geese and the summer dragonfly and damselfly populations may fail. To stop the regular flooding or to moderate the radical changes in annual water levels would be a disaster. There is a high risk to wildlife from totally covering the park frontage area in housing. There are also other consequences of increased human usage. Already the amount of fly-tipping is increasing. Chain fencing has been cut along the bypass, with bolt-cutters used to remove padlocks from gates at night. Washing machines, furniture, baths, sinks and car parts are fly-tipped at Adams Farm and on the greenway. Bat boxes are being smashed, the reed beds and bird hides set alight, graffiti scrawled over bridges, fences being pushed down, shopping trollies and burned-out cars being left in hedgerows.

All these detrimental activities are likely to increase. Hastings Borough Council may own the land but has done nothing to stop fly-tipping and vandalism – or even to ensure local schools educate children on the value of the Valley and its wonderful wildlife. The people of Bexhill will be adversely affected but won’t have a say in the matter. Traffic will once again increase along Bexhill Road, undermining the rationale for the bypass.

Hope for the future
Building so many more homes so close to the Sites of Special Scientific Interest and recovering nature is a very bad idea. We do need new homes, but those homes will be lived in by people who will want their children to inherit open spaces rich in wildlife. HBC should keep its promise to ensure a full and viable green space between Hastings and Bexhill, and should find other locations outside the specifically delineated Valley Park area for building on.

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