Unanswered questions as new coastal country park in Christchurch gets the green light
UNANSWERED questions and concerns about a proposed coastal country park in Christchurch did not stop councillors from carrying a majority vote to give the plan the green light.
The borough council’s own bid for the 15-hectare facility on land incorporating Two Riversmeet Golf Course, Stanpit Recreation Ground and Ashtree Meadow aims to reduce pressure on environmentally protected sites such as Stanpit Marsh adjoining the recreation ground, increase biodiversity and wildlife corridors and encourage healthy living and volunteering activities.
Recommended for approval by the community committee, the full council approved the plan on Tuesday with a 14 to three vote, despite voicing numerous doubts about issues including a lack of consultation with wildlife bodies and residents, the park’s SANG (Suitable Alternative Natural Greenspace) status, and the absence of concrete approval from Natural England.
Its SANG capacity 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.
But the council’s strategic director, David Barnes, said the amenity – which as a SANG space will be protected for 80 years – would leave a legacy for residents after the authority’s abolition to make way for the new unitary council in April 2019.
During debate Cllr David Jones labelled the scheme a “job creation scheme for officers”, saying: “I don’t think anybody can object to creating a new open space and preserving and safeguarding existing open spaces, but I have concerns about this proposal. This isn’t conventional public open space – it’s creating an artificial space called a SANG.
“We seem to be moving a lot more rapidly with the consultation process and have not consulted with the public. There may be objections, and one particular concern I have is that it’s stated in the report that Natural England is in favour of the scheme – yet I understand a definite final response has not been received.”
Cllr Jones said the council should be looking to protect, preserve and create public open space on its own merits, not to facilitate housing development.
Deputy mayor, Cllr Peter Hall, raised concerns about the “very short timetable” of the project – with the park due to be opened by April 2019 – and the lack of consultation with the public or wildlife bodies.
“The salt marshes contain over 140 different types of flora and fauna and attract hundreds of birds,” he said. “Can I remind members the marshes have taken 3,000 years to form. [The scheme] will be detrimental to this wonderful area.”
Missing from Mr Barnes’s report was the fact that community committee members had asked to see the officers’ correspondence with Natural England and had not received it, stated Cllr Colin Bungey.
“I would expect consultation with wildlife bodies such as Dorset Wildlife Trust and the RSPB,” he said. “To call it a country park in one breath and a SANG in another is not credible. There are restrictions on dogs in a country park but they are allowed to run free on a SANG. There’s a dichotomy between what is a park and what is a SANG.
“Toilets are an issue,” he continued. “It’s a long walk from one end of Stanpit to Two Riversmeet where the nearest facilities are. Toilets might be considered in the future but we won’t be here to consider that and we don’t know whether the new authority will.”
Ward councillor Ray Nottage said he would abstain from voting either way, and expressed concerns around the absence of details about the management of flora and fauna, control over usage management, and maintenance and protection necessary for Stanpit Marsh Local Nature Reserve.
“I have no argument in principle, however I’m concerned at the pace and progress of this project from concept to recommendation and completion by April 2019 without the checks and balances derived from public consultation,” Cllr Nottage said.
“I’ve not been able to gauge opinion from my community regarding the effects on the area of potential unintended consequence. Until the level of discussion with the community has been similar to that as with Natural England I will be less concerned.”
David Barnes told the meeting the SANG status would be a bonus.
“We’ve had extensive discussions with Natural England about the proposals and a draft of their support,” he confirmed. “Final written advice is expected in the next few days. As far as I’m concerned Natural England support and welcome the proposals.
“We are doing this to create a better public space for people than exists at the moment. There’s land being used by a small number of people that could be used for wider public use and enjoyment, as well as protecting the environment and hopefully improving biodiversity for people in the area.
“The community committee wants to leave a lasting legacy for the people of Christchurch when the borough council ceases to exist.”
Speaking in support, Cllr Sue Spittle argued the proposal meant one of the gems of Christchurch was going to be preserved for at least 80 years and beyond and she would be enjoying it with her family once it was opened to the public.
“With regard to the toilet facilities, those of us who have walked along here quite frequently realise it’s not a long walk,” she said. “There are other walks in the borough that haven’t got toilets nearer to the start.
“I’m surprised at the concerns raised concerning a SANG, because it’s known there are going to be other developments coming forward and the officers have had the foresight of dealing with that in advance.”
Cllr Spittle said Natural England would have raised any objection they had immediately “because they are there to protect beautiful areas of natural conservation”.
Also in favour, Cllr Claire Bath said: “The benefits [are] providing vital housing we need in the area with regard to making sure we have suitable SANGS and natural green spaces for people living in those houses to use, to protect our heathland.”
She was confident that measures would be put in place to address members’ concerns and urged the meeting to support it to facilitate housing and the protection of the area for residents.
Cllr Bernie Davis added: “This is a golden opportunity for this council in its current form to leave a legacy of open parkland for future generations of residents and visitors alike to use and enjoy in perpetuity, thus protecting its heritage and environment, so I have no hesitation in supporting the proposal.”
A request by Cllr Jones to defer the matter to the next meeting was lost with a 13 to two vote. Mr Barnes pointed out any delay would impact on the project and there were no guarantees the new BCP authority would continue with the proposal.
“No one is trying to railroad members but this is the situation we’re in,” he added. “We are waiting for the council to give permission and then we can go ahead with community engagement.”
The recommendation of approval was subject to conditions of community engagement, confirmation of support from Natural England, and the submission of a planning application.