Photographs of Thorpe woodlands, their varied habitats, plantlife and wildlife all taken by friends and supporters. most taken between 2010 and 2013

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Answer = 0.1 nanometre

The question we should all be asking is, how far can we trust the Trust?

From the moment the Thorpe & Felthorpe Trust embarked on their charette in early July, the Trustees sought to persuade everyone that they were genuine, sincere people who had found themselves lumbered with a difficult problem. Their problem, they told us, was that their woodlands - which consisted of conifers planted after the war - had grown to the point where they were due for 'harvesting'. They told us that the conifers had been planted for pit-props, a market that vanished with the closure of the coal mines, and that they were left with an area of land on which lots of commercially valueless conifers stood. Because of this, they desperately needed to find alternative uses for their site. They spun this tale so convincingly that a few people actually felt sorry for them.

Luckily, they had come up with a brilliant idea: they could build some houses in the woods and keep the rest for everyone to enjoy - not just as they are now (full of dodgy trees that could fall on people or burst into flames at any moment), but greatly improved, with proper paths, cycle tracks and a lot more wildlife than the existing overgrown Christmas trees (or was it pit-props?) could ever hope to harbour. They earnestly urged us to consider that although the woods might look superficially nice to the untrained eye they were in reality not very nice at all. Definitely in need of a good tidy-up, and building a few decent houses would enable them to do just that for the benefit of all.

Their idea would not only solve their dilemma but would also bring big benefits to the local community. They wanted to share it with us and find out what we thought about it. They were nothing like typical developers: they wanted to involve everyone with any interest in what happened to the woods right from the start, they told us. Time and again they declared - standing up at public meetings, speaking at their 'drop-in' sessions and through their printed material - that they really wanted to know what we all felt: How many houses would we consider acceptable? What should they look like? What about the layout? Would we like any other facilities?

They repeatedly told us that if the answers they received indicated that people didn't want any houses built in the woods, none would be built. Before the charette's final presentation many people imagined that T&FT were thinking in terms of a couple of dozen houses, but the overwhelming response was still a resounding NO! Despite this, at the final presentation the T&FT announced that - having considered everyone's views - precisely 631 houses would be the best number to build.

They went on to tell us that '50% of the woodland would be retained', and that this would be managed to maximise its wildlife habitat value. This would be an improvement because, they implied, if they simply left the woods alone and did nothing, they would soon deteriorate into a dark and sinister, lifeless place.

Friends of Thorpe Woodlands came into being around this time and researched T&FT's claims, to which the facts bore little resemblance. The woods were clearly not recent conifer plantations; they were even better wildlife habitats than anyone expected; the proposed housing would eradicate virtually all of the County Wildlife Site quality habitat and turn what little remained into ecologically unsustainable, fragmented pockets; and the '50%' figure for 'retained' woodland was hugely inflated. The only way the 50% figure could be arrived at turned out to be if virtually every garden, formal open space and patch of trees were included. The only part of the woodlands that might, according to their own masterplan, be retained in anything like its natural state would be a corner of Belmore Plantation, and this amounted to less than 15% of the 205 acre total. The truth of this will be demonstrated in further blog posts.

Throughout their 'consultation' the T&FT spun a web of misinformation, highly selective facts and distorted figures to support their case. Even when these tactics palpably failed, they maintained their butter-wouldn't-melt facade to the media and local council members. They told the press that they "welcomed the formation of Friends of Thorpe Woodlands and looked forward to a productive discussion on how to conserve and improve the woodlands". They told Thorpe St Andrew and Broadland District councillors thEy they would hold a public meeting where local people could raise their concerns. They told the press that they are "committed to the conservation of the environment". And they told everyone at their final presentation that they would make the video recording available within a few days.

Every one of these promises and assertions has proved false. The T&FT has failed to engage in any discussion with FTW, despite our repeated attempts to do so with them. They abandoned their public meeting, having first tried (and failed) to skew it to suit their agenda. They have clung doggedly to their development plans despite the obvious fact that these would obliterate an enormous area of the environment they say they're committed to conserving. They have stalled for four months on the video they promised to release directly after their final presentation.

But it gets worse. They have now let it slip that they want to build "the maximum number of houses that a site of this size in this location could accommodate". Justin Meath-Baker said as much to the Evening News on November 3rd, in response to FTW's revelation that they have surreptitiously increased their proposed housing numbers from 631 up to 800.

They offered no excuses for keeping this drastic change quiet, but they did try to justify it by saying that: "Low density with large house sizes is not necessarily what the local market needs, which is looking for a sizeable affordable housing provision". They can't even speak honestly on this - far from responding altruistically to 'local market needs', they are responding to a requirement of the GNDP's Joint Core Strategy, the Examination into which began on November 9th. The T&FT have strongly contested the JCS's stipulation that 40% of large developments should consist of 'affordable housing' (affordable housing isn't very profitable). They have apparently realised that it might help their case if they came up with a higher proportion of affordable housing and, rather than simply increase that proportion within the original number, they have tacked it on top. Where these extra 'affordable' houses would go is unclear - the T&FT have been characteristically reticent on this.

One thing we can be sure of is that the heavily greenwashed images shown during their charette were as meaningless as their housing numbers, and almost everything else they have uttered. It's a safe bet that, if T&FT ever get their way, the number of houses will creep ever upwards. At their charrette they assured everyone that their development wouldn't remotely resemble another Dussindale estate - but they have already shown that this is pretty much what they will create if given the chance. Unless we all make a concerted effort to speak out for the conservation of the woodlands in their entirety, there is a risk that they will get their collective foot in the door and, from that moment on, there'll be no stopping them.

T&FT's original strategy of trying to smooth-talk the public via their charette has severely backfired. They are working behind closed doors now, and will go over the local community's heads from now on. They are desperate to convince the planning authorities that the big area shown on the JCS maps as Green Infrastructure, Area of High Landscape Value, Area of Core Biodiversity and County Wildlife Site doesn't really add up to much, and that the benefits of their scheme will outweigh the environmental costs. The JCS Examination can't concede specifically to the woods being built on, but it might uphold the 'Growth Triangle' concept, the boundary of which encompasses the woods. Alternatively, it might throw out the Growth Triangle, or even the entire JCS, leaving Broadland District Council to come up with new development policies for its area. Either way, everything will ultimately depend upon BDC, which has the ultimate say on whether development can take place on the woods at all.

Whatever the results of the JCS Examination turn out to be, T&FT will undoubtedly put a great deal of effort into lobbying BDC councillors and planning officers. Unless we make an equally concerted effort, we run the risk that T&FT may wear BDC's resistance down.

We already have several important BDC councillors on our side: these should be encouraged to continue working to save the woods. But the time is approaching when we must tell the rest of BDC how we feel, especially the planning committee. As soon as we have a fair idea of the outcome of the JCS Examination, we will publish details of who to contact, with suggestions on key points to raise. Keep watching the blog!

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for keeping us informed John. The T&FT's true nature is gradually revealing itself after all their flannel and falsehoods.