Wednesday, 28 July 2010
Let’s look at some recent history first: The owners and their agent, Andres Duany, told the public repeatedly over the eight days of the ‘charrette’ that they were starting with a blank sheet and using the eight days to discover the views of local people, in order to arrive at a masterplan at the end of the process.
The truth is apparently rather different. The owners have a long record of trying to gain planning permission to build in these woodlands. One of the principal members of the design team let it slip, at one of the recent charrette drop-in sessions, that she had been working on the current plans for ten years. It seems that the owners have been working on their scheme for a very long time, and already had a pretty good idea of what their masterplan would look like well before the ‘charrette’ began.
Their current proposals represent merely their latest attempt to get the planning permission they are so eager for. Their eagerness is understandable (assuming they have no qualms about destroying woodland for profit): woodland is worth between £5000 and £10000 per acre, whereas development land with planning permission is worth between £200,000 and £500,000 per acre. With planning permission secured, the owners would become instantly a lot richer than they already are. This probably explains why they have spent hundreds of thousands of pounds so far on preparing and presenting their scheme (no need to pass the hat round for them – they can afford it!).
There are several obstacles in the way of their quest, however. Massive local opposition was predictable – people know and love these woodlands and don’t want to see them bulldozed for a flashy housing estate. The ‘charrette’ was a clever attempt to neutralise local opposition by presenting the whole thing as an opportunity for people to get involved and influence the future of the woodlands. Classic developer’s tactics were used, eg: painting a dismal picture of the site as it stands and emphasising how lovely it will be when they’ve finished.
Their ‘charrette’ brochure showed three pictures, presumably intended to cause readers to believe they depicted the land in question (please see page 3 of the ‘Belmore Park Charrette publicity document’ link under: ‘Find out more about:’ at top right of this blog page). However, they showed only one picture of the woodland (one of the few coniferous areas, with ugly plastic netting strung between the trees), and pictures of a field and a car park somewhere nearby. It is notable that, in the eight pages of their brochure words such as ‘woodland’, ‘trees’, ‘wildlife’ and ‘ecology’ were not used once.
They made a big deal of how much they have had to spend on managing the woodlands and how they need to make more money out of them (though it is clear that very little ‘management’ has taken place other than extraction of timber to be sold). They told us how generous they have been in not preventing public access, saying they could have put a ten foot fence all the way around the site if they’d wished (neglecting to mention that this would cost well over £100,000). They exaggerated the level of flytipping and other abuse that takes place in and around the woods, making it seem as if they are little more than an eyesore in places: in fact there is surprisingly little flytipping compared to many other local woods, eg: Ringland Hills).
At the ‘charrette’s final presentation, Andres Duany told us that the housing density would be 3.1 units per acre. This was very misleading: Mr Duany’s figure was derived by simply dividing the 200 acres (actually it is 205 acres, but let’s go by his figure for now) by 631. It took no account of the fact that the vast bulk of the houses would be built on Racecourse Plantation, or that some areas of woodland would be retained. If the housing density is calculated for the developed area of Racecourse plantation, the true figure would be somewhere between 12 and 16 units per acre, ie: no less than the density that is considered ‘normal’ by local planning authorities.
The fact that their land is long-established woodland is a big problem for the owners. Woodland is subject to a number of national and local government policies that seek to avoid loss of woodland. The Norfolk Biodiversity Partnership (of which Broadland District Council and the County Council are members) states that the aim should be to conserve 100% of existing woodlands, and to plant more.
These woodlands have also been identified as an area of landscape value. They have also been identified as a County Wildlife Site. In order to gain planning permission, the owners would have to convince Broadland District Council, as well as many other governmental and non-governmental organisations, that their proposals would either cause little harm to the landscape and ecological values of the site (very difficult in view of the facts), or that their housing estate is so desperately needed and would be so good, that these reasons should over-ride any objections.
They have been dealt something of a blow already. Norfolk Wildlife Trust has expressed very strong objections to the proposals, on the grounds that they would cause complete loss of large areas of valuable habitat, as well as significant habitat damage to land not directly affected by development.
They seemed to have won-over a small number of local people with their ‘charrette’ presentations, but it seems unlikely that many will continue to feel their concerns have been allayed when they find out they were not given anything like the full picture. Presenting the full picture is what the Save Thorpe Woodlands campaign is all about. When everyone in the area knows what an ecological gem they have on their doorstep, and what could become of it if the owners have their way, it will be very surprising if there isn’t even more of an outcry than there has been already. The owners know that, if they can gain strong public support for their plans, this will strengthen their case when it comes to seeking planning permission. Save Thorpe Woodlands campaign believes that they are flogging a dead horse in their attempt to achieve this, but it is vital that everyone who wants to save these woodlands stands up and says so – and says so to the right people at the right time.
Watch this blog for information on what you can do to Save Thorpe Woodlands!
Friday, 23 July 2010
The story so far
The three woodlands (Racecourse, Belmore and Brown’s Plantations) are in Thorpe St Andrew, just outside Norwich. Their total area is 205 acres (82 hectares), and together they form the largest area of woodland within several miles of Norwich. The woodlands are owned by the Thorpe & Felthorpe Trust, the Trustees of which are five members of the Gurney family. The Trust has made clear its intention to seek planning permission for 631 ‘units’ covering most of Racecourse Plantation and large parts of Belmore and Brown’s Plantations (see development Masterplan below).
The Trustees held a series of public events between 5th & 13th July 2010 under the name of the ‘Belmore Park Charrette’ http://www.belmorepark.info/ . During the ‘charrette’ the Trustees and their agent (Andres Duany of Duany Plater-Zyberk), made a number of important claims, including:
• That the woodlands shouldn’t be considered woodlands because they are merely commercial forestry plantations intended to be harvested, like an arable crop
• That the plantations were planted after World War II
• That the cost of managing the plantations is high, and continuing to manage them is becoming increasingly economically unviable
• That without continuing management the wildlife habitat value of the plantations, which they say is already not very high, would decline even further
• That they are faced with no alternative but to find alternative uses for the land which would enable them to make a profit
• That it is a legal obligation, under the terms of the Trust, that the land must make a profit for the benefit of the Trustees (ie: themselves)
However, these claims were ill-informed and highly misleading. The facts are:
• Contrary to the Trustees’ assertions, the woodlands were not planted after WWII but have been there for at least 130 years: they are shown with virtually identical boundaries on the 1882 Ordnance Survey map (see below)
• Rather than being coniferous plantation typical of commercial forestry, the woodlands are generally semi-natural broadleaved, with a wide range of native and naturalised species of a wide range of ages.
• The ecological value of the woodlands is actually very high. This fact is recognised by the Norfolk Wildlife Trust which designated the whole wooded area a County Wildlife Site (CWS) in 1997.
• There is no visible evidence of any management having taken place for many years, other than simple extraction of saleable timber. There are no signs of any replanting having taken place.
• Alternatives do exist which would generate income from the woodlands without destroying them. For example, woodfuel coppicing would not only be a profitable enterprise but would also benefit the woodlands’ ecosystems and provide carbon-neutral fuel to the local area on a permanently sustainable basis.
The Thorpe woodlands are an extremely important natural resource in their own right, as well as for their unique habitat value and their significance to local people. They are officially recognised as an area of special landscape value in the Broadland District Council (BDC) Local Plan. They are also listed as an area of ‘core biodiversity value’.
Building in the woodlands would completely destroy the ecological value of all of the habitat where houses, roads and gardens were to go. Outside land directly affected by built development, eg: retained fragments of woodland, the habitat quality would fall dramatically and become incapable of sustaining most of the important species currently to be found.
The development proposals are an outrage and everyone who values these woodlands, or woodlands and wildlife in general, should do what they can to oppose them. Look out on this blog for details of how you can get involved in the campaign; forthcoming meetings & events; details of who to write to / email / phone to make your voice heard, and for further information on the woodlands themselves.
We invite supporters of the campaign to submit their views using the comments link below.