Fineshade Dormice Can Sleep Tight Tonight
On 18th Feb 2015 East Northamptonshire Council (ENC) Development Control Committee (quite a mouthful) met to discuss and vote on the Forest Holidays planning application for seventy luxury holiday cabins in Fineshade Wood. There was a full public gallery, a reflection of the last minute uptake in public interest of this application, partly aided by some visibility in the national press, regional TV and a few significant figures in the world of ecology and conservation.
The outcome was the best objectors could have hoped for on the night, with a unanimous vote to refuse this application, placing the ball firmly back in Forest Holidays court. The question now is whether Forest Holidays see any opportunity to appeal this decision or whether the case against this application is strong enough to hold back the tide of forestry commercialisation at Fineshade Wood.
The committee did themselves proud, resisting the pressure to vote through a proposal that clearly none of them had any real support for, and yet the planning process was making it hard for them to find strong enough reasons to reject it without ENC facing a potentially costly appeal. With Highways sticking to their "all clear" position, regarding safety issues at the A43 junction with the Fineshade Lodge access road, plus the Secretary Of State rejecting the need for an Environmental Impact Assessment, events seemed to playing into the hands of Forest Holidays.
However, there exists the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) where objectors can turn to for solace. For the non-planners amongst us, part of the guidelines it contains exclude the approval of "development resulting in the loss or deterioration of irreplaceable habitat", "unless the need for, or the benefits of, clearly outweigh the loss". It was on this basis that the committee were guided towards basing their objection upon. The guidance came from the ENC Head of Planning, who pointed out that a single strong reason for refusal was sufficient, indeed preferable, to citing a number of reasons, if many of those would be easily dismissed in appeal as groundless, thereby weakening the whole defence. The destruction of habitat was considered to be a strong case and there now is some doubt therefore whether Forest Holidays will pursue an appeal or move on to a more appropriate location.
A site visit has taken place since the last meeting, plus Forest Holidays have taken a number of councillors to their Sherwood Forest site, an established holiday park set amongst conifer forest. It was noted that each of these chalets had two or three vehicles parked outside, which in Fineshade's case would translate into a lot of extra vehicle movements. Where would these vehicles be heading? Not it was felt to local retailers or places of interest, but much more likely locations such as Rutland Water, Stamford and others, none of which lie within Northamptonshire. The economic return for this application was perceived as weak. More than one councillor was concerned that Fineshade Wood is already running at near to [human] capacity, and also that the strength of local opposition and feeling for this "special place" needed consideration.
It was commented on by one councillor that ten or more other sites for this application had been considered by the Forestry Commission, but dismissed because they were protected areas, or there was concern for habitat, yet somehow Fineshade Wood could accommodate their plans.
Perhaps the most revealing comment of the evening came from the speaker on behalf of Duddington With Fineshade Parish Council, Shenagh Hackett. She pointed out that the Forestry Commission (AKA Forest Holidays) has recently submitted comments on another planning application at nearby Jacks Green, for a very similar sized development of holiday cabins in a very similar type of location. The grounds for their concern? - a perceived loss of irreplaceable habitat, quoting the very same paragraph in the NPPF that is now being used against Forest Holidays (AKA Forestry Commission).
Their Governmental role of being responsible for forestry and trees, precludes the Forestry Commission from being either for or against such applications, but they are duty bound to highlight areas of concern. On the other hand they hold a significant commercial stake in Forest Holidays and there-in lies a conflict of interest, highlighting the seemingly untenable position they are in.
The underlying issue with the Fineshade Wood application is of course a national one and reaches far wider than East Northamptonshire, with other applications in process, and no doubt more in the pipeline, all intended to feed the coffers of both Forest Holidays and its partner the Forestry Commission. Fineshade Wood it appears is vulnerable to this type of development partly because it lacks any designated status to protect it, even though it is clearly a very significant habitat for a number of rare and endangered species of wildlife and fauna. There may be a lesson here for all of our County Councils, to be sure that as many of their forestry assets have a statutory designation to protect them as is possible. Clearly this is no longer a role we can rely on from the Forestry Commission, as the line between public interest and commercial enterprise seems to have become very hazy.
When the Dormice in Fineshade Wood begin to wake from their hibernation in late April or early May they will be blissfully unaware of the battle that has ensued to protect them and their habitat, not to mention the other cohabitees who share the forest with them. Hopefully the battle will have been won by then and Forest Holidays and the Forestry Commission will have re-considered their plans.
First Published: 19 February 2015
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