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Fears Christchurch park plan being 'rushed through' in council's final days

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Christchurch Borough Council civic offices
Christchurch Borough Council civic offices

A NEW country park in Christchurch will leave a legacy to residents in the “dying days” before the borough council’s abolition next spring, a meeting heard.

The 15-hectare park will be created on land incorporating Two Riversmeet Golf Course, Stanpit Recreation Ground and Ashtree Meadow.

The aim is to reduce pressure on environmentally protected sites such as Stanpit Marsh, increase biodiversity and wildlife corridors and encourage healthy living and volunteering activities.

But some community group members were concerned the plan was being “rushed through” without proper consultation.

They feared that if it was billed as an environmental project rather than visitor attraction – as stressed by the council’s strategic director David Barnes at the latest community services committee meeting – popular fundraising events by longstanding local groups, such as the annual bonfire and fireworks committee, could be jeopardized because they may not meet Natural England’s requirements.

There had also been cynicism from the public over the site’s SANG (Suitable Alternative Natural Green Space) capacity. This would mean the park could be cited as alternative green space by housing development applicants wanting to build on brownfield sites in the town centre.

The project will be funded through investment recouped through housing development land elsewhere in the borough.

Included in the plans are the conversion of the nine-hole golf course to general open space / recreation use with fencing, a paths network, benches, fitness and education trails and play sculptures.

Current enhancement works will continue at Stanpit recreation ground to retain an open landscape for people to explore, and vegetation will be managed to improve it for wildlife – involving reducing mowing and removing select vegetation in the old depot site.

The recreation ground’s existing visitor centre will act as an information and education facility for visitors, and works to Ashtree Meadows will include secure fencing and the creation of a pond and new benches.

Mr Barnes told committee members: “This is an opportunity for us to put on a wide range of activities, but the overriding theme is protecting the environment and wildlife. Just to make sure people don’t get the wrong end of the stick, Stanpit Marsh isn’t going to be part of the park as it already has a very high level of protection.

“The aim is to divert visitors away from Stanpit Marsh so they can enjoy the park and leave that area alone – it’s very important, the community cherishes Stanpit Marsh.”

He added there had been positive and constructive feedback from community groups such as Christchurch Citizens Association since the idea was made public.

Cllr Vicky Hallam asked whether community charities and groups would still be able to hire the recreation ground for their events, and Mr Barnes said efforts would be made to accommodate this while ensuring they did not clash with the environmental ethos. “It’s about getting the balance right” he said.

Cllr Peter Hall stressed local organisations needed to be consulted, saying: “I’ve had a lot of angry phone calls from people such as wildlife groups asking why are the council going ahead with this without consultation.

“I think it could be good for Christchurch to have a coastal country park but there are a lot of questions that haven’t been answered. We need to go out to public consultation before this goes to the full council for approval – at the moment people feel it’s being railroaded through at a rate of knots.

“We want to make sure in our dying days as a council we do things in line with the public.”

Cllr Colin Bungey expressed concerns about the lack of public toilet provision in the plan so far, with the suggestion being that people could use existing facilities at Two Riversmeet Leisure Centre – though Mr Barnes explained this would be under constant review, depending on usage figures.

“A lot of people use the leisure centre and it would be insufficient,” Cllr Bungey stated. “If someone is at one end of the park with children or grandchildren, it’s a damn long walk to get to Two Riversmeet. It’s not very user-friendly and it is an issue.

”There are too many unanswered questions. I would support it providing there’s more thought put into it.

“A lot of people are saying it’s an excuse to create a SANG so building can take place and that it’s not going to be of any benefit – I don’t think that’s the case but it could be a problem.”

His concerns were echoed by council leader Cllr David Flagg.

Mr Barnes assured members that with a SANG provision came a requirement from Natural England of a strategic access management in perpetuity, meaning the area would be protected and maintained for 80 years to ensure it did not fall into neglect in the future.

His report to members concluded this was an opportunity for the council to develop a legacy project for the benefit of residents in perpetuity, and an “innovative investment in a natural capital asset in a great location, using land which has until now not been utilized in a fully coordinated way.”

There would be benefits to health and wellbeing, biodiversity and environmental education, and the SANG would enable the delivery of housing in and around the town, reducing the pressure on the Green Belt and contributing to viability and the public purse, the report added.

Mr Barnes stressed the park was for local people and the input from the community into its creation and future maintenance was a priority. He described it as an “open-ended” project, with many components being under constant review.

Cllr Sally Derham-Wilkes urged members to push on with approving the proposal because the timeline was very tight – there will be a short community engagement exercise, submission of a formal planning application and approval gained from full council before work can begin in time for a launch event in March 2019.

“We are time constrained,” agreed committee chairman Cllr Margaret Phipps, and after some lengthy discussions about how the final recommendation should be worded, councilors voted unanimously in favour of approving the proposal.

This was subject to community engagement, confirmation of support from Natural England, and the submission of a planning application. The plan will go to full council this month for approval.

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