Not so Fine Shade (8) – perfectly Fineshade!

DSCF2971_2Yesterday evening’s decision by East Northants District Council was the right one, and was arrived at through a mixture of heart and head.

David Williamson, speaking for the Forestry Commission demonstrated no ecological understanding of the importance of this site and his message to the councillors was essentially ‘Don’t worry dears, it’s all OK really’.  I doubt whether this went down very well.

Parish Councillor, Sheila Hackett, spoke well and against the proposal. I thought her point that the objectivity of the FC was called into question was a very strong point.

Barrie Galpin pointed out that every ecological expert (except of course Natural England and the Woodland Trust) were against this proposal. He made a string of strong points about the weakness of the case for development.

And then we heard from all the district councillors attending the meeting.  Several of them said that they had not seen a single letter of support for the proposal and yet had been impressed by the strength of feeling and the articulacy of the case of those against the development. Some mentioned that Forest Holidays seemed to have made ‘little, if any, effort to address the concerns of residents’.  Some said that this development would go to the heart of what makes Fineshade special – and destroy it. Others said that the economic benefits of the scheme, which were acknowledged, were very low considering the area affected. There was quite a lot of concern about the road safety issues of increasing traffic into the site. Some mentioned letters from their constituents which were along the lines of this one ‘I walked there as a child and I want to walk there with my grandchildren’ – a perfectly respectable human aspiration, I thought. One said that it was wrong to cut down oak trees so that people could sit in hot tubs and drink beer.  Some pointed out that when so many ecological organisations were against such a development they couldn’t all be wrong – surely?

It felt like a mixture of nimby-ism and rationality.  When it came to the decision to reject the proposal, council officials helpfully, I think, focussed the refusal on the wildlife issues as being the strongest grounds for rejection.

Dormouse picI have to say, that’s what I thought would be true. Just because you don’t like something, it doesn’t mean that the planners can’t approve it. The safest grounds for refusal were wildlife grounds. It was the Dormice and their habitat (and fellow creatures) what won it. Even if the increased traffic might have led to more accidents, and even if rejecting the proposal has saved lives, since Northants County Council (the Highways Authority) had not objected (rightly or wrongly) this was not a strong ground, legally, to refuse the application. The impacts on wildlife were strong grounds – and they may have saved some lives as a result.

If any of the local inhabitants of east Northants are thinking of voting UKIP on 7 May then they should remember that the Dormouse helped save their local environment thanks to being an EU priority species.  [Personally, I hope the right wing vote is split as much as possible between UKIP and Tories in the Corby constituency, but that’s another issue].

Forest Holidays could appeal.  But I don’t think they will, and I don’t think they should. What they should do is learn from their mistakes here – their proposal was ecologically illiterate in my view. It was a bad business decision to pay so little respect to what would obviously be a major obstacle to the application.  You would have to bank on an inept council and a weak local population to get such a badly-supported proposal through the planning system. If I were a venture capitalist I would expect rather more professionalism for my investment.  Forest Holidays should do much, much better in future applications – and they should expect a tough time ahead having shown that they aren’t very good at this type of thing in this case.

The staff of East Northants District Council do not come out of this with much credit.  Why did they appear quite so keen on this proposal? They, too, should have spotted the glaring weaknesses in the proposal and not have recommended acceptance. Not their finest hour.

The Forestry Commission come out of this very badly indeed. Are our forests safe in their hands? Often, they are. In this case, FC seem to have lost their marbles. Once lost, trust is difficult to rebuild. How often, we now have to ask, are ecologically damaging proposals being facilitated by the FC? Are our forests safe in their hands? Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? In this case, it was, it seems to me, Barrie and Trish who were keeping an eye on the guardians of our forests.  How many more Forest Holidays schemes are equally or more damaging, and equally badly supported by ecological information?  Why has FC not been seen as a fair dealer in this matter?

Natural England, in the old days, would have put themselves about a lot more. They are sadly a bit of an irrelevance in protecting nature these days. It’s a shame, but it’s where we are.

Let’s hope that a future government creates a Forest and Wildlife Service out of the good bits of FC and the remaining bits of NE, to protect our natural environment, rather than letting the two organisations witter on about stakeholders and the like. Which stake does a Dormouse hold?

I am disappointed that the local Wildlife Trust, my local wildlife trust, did not do more. Their objection was a good one, and played a strong part in informing the Council decision, but they were rather absent in the public debate. As usual, the Wildlife Trusts appeared too timid. No, you shouldn’t say ‘Boo!’ to a goose, but you should say it loud and clear to a development which will damage the wildlife of your local area.

And the Woodland Trust were hopeless. This woodland was saved despite them rather than because of them.

And yet, this decision means that a walk in the woods by man, Dormouse and Adder is still very much on the cards in east Northants for the future. It’s a pity it’s tipping down with rain today – but it is still a glad confident morning thanks to the councillors of East Northants District Council




34 Replies to “Not so Fine Shade (8) – perfectly Fineshade!”

  1. Many planning authorities are now terrified of recommending refusal of applications in case they get embroiled in legal challenge and litigation that they simply can’t afford. It is unfortunate that this fear is taking them to a point where they seem reluctant to interpret planning law with respect to protected species. But when weaselly Government ministers promote a system where virtually all development is considered sustainable, and openly decry situations where protected habitats and species are seen as obstacles to growth, you can see why they’re so cowed. Well done to the councillors here. I hope East Northants DC legal team will stand behind their decision.

  2. Once again congratulations to all concerned, the local people and the Councillors for taking the right decision.
    This issue of Fine Shade Wood does however raise some important national issues for protecting our woodlands and its wildlife.
    I fully agree with you Mark that the Wildlife Trusts are far too timid in campaining on these types of issues. In addition they are too parochial and need to support each other by working together much more, (the management word is “networking” I believe).
    I would have thought this episode has been a disaster for Woodland Trust. To maintain any credibilty they need to back away from and rapidly disolve from their arangement with Forest Holidays.
    As far a Natural England are concerned, as you say Mark now days they seem to have been reduced to little more than a figure head.
    With regard to the Forestry Commission, their actions raise the whole issue of privatisation of our Forests and Woodlands by the back door. Do they have the right to put major commercial developments in OUR woodlands? I wonder and doubt if they do without some sort of national consensus or even legislation. Plus the fact that Fine Shade Wood has demonstrated there judgement and ecological/wildlife skills are very poor and lacking a great deal.
    Overall this case has demonstrated there are certainly national issues concerning our woodlands which need to be aired at the highest levels.

  3. This is good news Mark and you have certainly played a major role in raising the profile of this case.

    It does bear comparison though with the local council planning decisions at Medway and West Dorset District Councils, which both voted in favour of developments on Rampisham Down and Lodge Hill, both SSSIs. In both cases we will now have to fight to get them called in for a Public Inquiry (already done for Lodge Hill) and the win the PI. What a waste of time, effort and resources.

    I can’t help thinking that if this had been Fineshades Meadow, or the former military base Fineshades Camp, things would have turned out differently – ie there would not have been such a groundswell of objection and the Councillors would have taken much less care about their decision.

    In that respect, we do have the Woodland Trust to thank, for persauding people to put the protection of woodland and trees, arbritrarily, far above that of all other habitats in England.

  4. Very good news to see this has been rejected. Have you seen the similar proposals for Jack’s Green, near Kings Cliffe? Whilst not a formal woods/forest, very much an area of undisturbed wildlife – lot of deer and kites in the area.

  5. And what should the Forestry Commission do now to redeem themselves? For a start they could recognise the ecological richness of this piece of public woodland by joining, rather than opposing, calls for it to be declared SSSI. No, — they should take the leading role in proposing it. Come on you guardians of our forests – this is what we pay you for and expect you to do.

    PS MARK. THANK YOU SO VERY, VERY MUCH. It was a most timely intervention on your part and we are so grateful. Now… back to the Hen Harrier

    PPS Perhaps you could just tweak the spelling of Barry to BARRIE, as in barrier, harrier etc.

    1. Barrie – you’re right, that would be agood thing for FC to do.

      Your name has been tweaked – apologies. I will remember it as ‘Barrie the harrier’ from now on.

    2. Quangoes redeem themselves, we can dream? In Natural England’s case, where is the programme of SSSI Review (to notify or to denotify)? Environmental protection I fear is a spent force these days and the mainstream NGOs sadly little more than project managers.

      The precautionary principle is detailed in Article 191 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (EU). It aims at ensuring a higher level of environmental protection through preventative decision-taking in the case of risk. However, in practice, the scope of this principle is far wider and also covers consumer policy, European legislation concerning food and human, animal and plant health.

      But as John Stone says, local authorities are fearful of costs and developers know this. NE now seek to ‘work with’ developers through their revenue stream aka Discretionary Advice Service, something of a dilemma for any conservationists left in the organisation.

      We have the powers, but who enforces when money is the key?

  6. Thanks for this informative piece Mark. I have one concern – you mention that “just because you don’t like something, it doesn’t mean the planners can’t approve it”. Are you saying that wanting to save a woodland for it’s own sake will never be enough? That ugly development destroying natural beauty is not a good reason, and that there will always have to be a stronger, more practical or logical reason (e.g. dangerous traffic increase or wildlife loss). I suppose wildlife will usually come hand in hand with the woodland in question, but my point is: surely we should have a right to protect what we love?

    I’m worried that this application will be taken elsewhere and accepted on grounds that a beautiful piece of woodland doesn’t hold that important a wildlife habitat, or that the development benefits will outweigh the loss of something people just ‘like’.

    1. Nicholas Allan – welcome! That is what I am saying. One needs grounds to reject a planning proposal – it can’t just be ‘arbitrary’. If it is, then the developer can appeal. Those grounds have to be based in government policies.

      We elect governments, so you’d better decide who you’d like to run the country and its planning policies framework for the five years following 7 May.

    2. NA – well said. Development destroying natural beauty should be a good enough reason to stop it IMHO – but as Mark says … .

      Who to vote for in the GE who do not support the monetisation of nature and the reduction of aesthetic values to “services”? Errr …

  7. You only have to look to Medway Council and the nightingales, or Shetland and whimbrel, etc etc to see where the presumption lies.
    If you want to stop development you have to prove something as you say.
    I approve of the precautionary principle, prove it’s safe or good before you do it, or use it. The money men are exactly opposite, prove it’s wrong or unsafe or we’ll do it anyway!
    Looking to the future……..not Westminster anyway!

  8. Not here to defend the Forestry Commission unequivocally but I wonder whether they have been pushed into this as a result of their own lack of funding – itself a political choice – and so some increasing desperation to raise needed funds somehow. I am led to believe that the FC has not received an increase in funding for years which is of course a cut in real terms even in non-inflationary times and will probably have had to incur additional expenses from resolving various unwanted widespread diseases.

    From the array of environmental charities to support I have never picked Woodland Trust. While it does a lot of good work I would prefer more focus on the proper management of woodlands and not just preservation which, while it may arrest development, does not always create a good habitat.

    1. Richard – I’m sure you are right, that lack of funding is part of the reason. But i suspect lack of backbone =may be another part. The FC has remained silent on this issue, as far as i can see. It hardly feels like an organisation, which is ‘ours’ remember, that feels proud and confident of its position.

      And the Woodland Trust has never tempted me to join either, for similar reasons to your own. But, everyone is different. I am told that the Woodland Trust materials for children are better than just about any other NGO’s.

    2. when I challenged FC over the national issue of the forest holiday deal I was told, quite strongly, that the FC were not being pushed into this because of lack of funding. They want to see this happen and believe in it very much.

      It is the FC that scope forests for forest holiday developments. It’s only after the FC have approved a site for development that FH can put in for planning.

      The FC have a lot of questions to answer on this. Fineshade should not have got this far.
      It’s not just FH developments FC are failing to protect our forests from. Check out what’s been happening in Cinderford, the Forest of Dean. Devastating to many protected species. You’ll have to google it if you’re interested as I’m on my phone, sorry!

      Great work to all involved!


  9. Underlying this is my continuing bafflement that the Government and the FC has any right to give away 125 year leases (without advert; open tenders; selection processes etc) and notably without any apparent enabling legislation? Councils and governents can broadly only take actions on which there are specific enabling powers and the last debate where they tried to get this was the rejection of the plan to privatise. So what has happened since to give rise to this apparent complacency ? — Eight or nine Forest Holidays already elsewhere? all on long leases now privately owned and no public information on terms, conditions, financial benefits to the public forests? Is it possible these endeavours are all ULTRA VIRES and could be subject to successful HIgh Court application for Injunction or Act of Mandamus to bring an immediate halt plus a Public Inquiry to investigate for any possible maladministration and need to reverse all? Legal comment from those more qualified than me would be welcome. Is it “only” lack of funds that prevents such a (national level) challenge to this whole strategy which so blatantly sabotages the promise not to privatise?

    1. Sue – do you know whether ’38 degrees’ are up to speed on what is happening?
      The forest sell-off was perhaps their first big campaign success, and from your comment, you sound like you might be just the person to get them moving on this.

    2. Lack of funds to challenge is a sad reality, the Wildlife Trusts used to have a fund to take up select cases (like the RSPB took on Wuthering Moors for example). But these days maybe they are too worried about losing corporate sponsors perhaps?

      Irrespective, look how effective the various blog networks and social media have been so let’s collectively keep raising the many cases that are ‘bad practice’?

      I recall many years ago developers complaining at a Public Inquiry how the internet helped objectors assist other embryonic groups in terms of understanding planning systems and pitfalls etc. and that it helped community campaigners spread the word, so long may we continue to champion and challenge? ‘

      Community right to buy’ …. could the ‘conservation party’ receive the Defra budget to deliver protection perhaps? Independence has to be more effective and there should not be any opportunity to confuse any issues or action through availability of mitigation funding. This would be another independent remit. Bring on reform ….

    3. The enabling legislation is the Regulatory Reform (Forestry) Order 2005 which was passed to enable the Forestry Commission to enter into public private partnerships (PPP).

      The original 2006 PPP, also known as Forest Holidays, did go to competitive tender – a very extensive one – and allowed for 75 year leases. The partnership then set up was between the Forestry Commission and the Camping and Caravanning Club to run 21 cabin sites and 3 cabin sites.

      In 2012 the 2006 PPP was terminated and the Forestry Commission then signed up to two new ones. One is Camping in the Forest which is still between the FC and CCC and runs the remaining campsites – now down to just 16, 2 of which are actually owned by Forest Holidays. The other one is Forest Holidays and is between FC, Lloyds Development Capital and the management team of Forest Holidays.

      However, unlike 2006, there was no competitive tender- the FC have confirmed this to me in writing. The FC are of the opinion that they didn’t need one.

      The leases were actually extended before 2012, by option agreements entered into to extend the leases by 50 years, because the longer lease length was needed to persuade investors to invest in the business. The first one to do so was Evans Property Group who funded the Forest Of Dean and Sherwood Pines cabin developments with sale and leaseback agreements.

  10. The Forestry Commission in Hornchurch, close to my parents house and within the Thames Chase Community Forest have just planted 30 acres of ‘amenity woodland’ with sycamore and Italian alders, and other strange species. This is adjacent to a wonderful area of natural fen and wet woodland, which will no doubt be colonised by these invasive species. I pointed out to them their error and asked for their removal. This was refused so I asked for a mitigation plan and an action plan for when colonisation inevitably happens; they haven’t got one and now refuse to answer my emails. They have done much good work locally for access and some more sensitive woodland creation but it is a real shame that their ecological knowledge is so poor on the ground and they are behaving so irresponsibly.

    1. Shocking Barry and absolute folly. “No responsible person should plant sycamore without first considering the consequences”: that man Rackham again. (I like sycamore by the way but it doesn’t need any help from the FC or anyone else).

      And presumably they’ve never heard of alder disease, a phytophthara which may have killed c.10-15 % of Alders in SE England in the last 20-30 years. For details, here’s a link to a leaflet by the, er, Forestry Commission – In no way is planting a uniform stand of a vulnerable species going to be a recipe for future trouble or anything. While they’re about it why don’t they ship in some ash sourced from Denmark, or maybe some English elm (but they should just make sure they import some elm zigzag flies to go with it)?

      Seriously, couldn’t we just bloody well stop planting trees – and leave them alone to grow where they’re already growing?

  11. Better Version!

    No NGO has limitless resources. The Woodland Trust has decided to prioritise protecting ancient woodland and planting new woodlands. It is transparent about this, does the job pretty well, and it is an important job needing to be done. But don’t expect the Woodland Trust to be there for every wood, or for it to worry about all the rare and endangered species in the woods that it manages.

    The Tangled Bank of wildlife NGOs may be a bit complicated, but so are people. In the end it is up to individuals to pay for what they want, we have a mix and match approach to wildlife conservation activity, increasingly so as government funds drop away, so the British public gets what it pays for.

    1. Matt – thanks. I’d much rather pay for my Buglife membership than for a Woodland Trust membership. The NGOs have to be very clear about what they do stand for. It will (has) surprised many that an NGO called the Woodland Trust was one of very few wildlife NGOs not opposing the Fineshade development which was so damaging. By the way, good to see you at Thrapston yesterday evening at the Council meeting.

  12. Mark
    Yes or no, should we have bitten the bullet and let the sell-off go ahead back in 2011? (you seem at the time to implicitly agreed with it – albeit in a different guise)

    The fact that we need to make money from our woodland via timber or other leisure uses is always going to be a thorny one.

    For the record – yes I believe we should have been braver back then – the FC has fallen apart since then, all expertise gone and missed years of private ownership bringing mismanaged woodlands back into better state (for either timber or biodiversity, mountain biking or whatever the best ecosystem service (jargon – try nature’s services?! Bit rose tinted)

    Busy planting my 1 acre mixed woodland in the hills, yours etc

    1. rob – yes or no, have you stopped beating your wife yet?

      ‘The sell off’ – which sell off?

      The future of our forest estate is a bit more complicated than that, but I thought i might revisit the subject in a proper blog fairly soon because, as you have noted, it is somewhat topical.

  13. Maybe there’ll be an appeal but look out for a fresh application with an attempt to mollify opponents this time. It should be a red letter day – but then that’s what we thought about Oxleas Wood defeating a road scheme in the eighties, and they’re now back with a vengeance Developers emboldened by our esteemed Chancellor of the Exchequer are getting cheeky.

    That takes nothing away from today’s achievement in resisting this development though.

  14. Excellent result. Fantastic news. Thanks to you Mark and Barrie for all your hard work and dedication to this cause. I agree, as I am a member of our local Wildlife Trust, they have not been very helpful. I have asked the question why that was and as yet, have had no response my wife and I will keep supporting you all the way. Please keep us informed and if we can be of any assistance, please let us know. Trevor and Daisy Alcock. Market Harborough.

  15. Excellent result! But as pointed out in the contributions it was despite, not because of, the official bodies. And it is only one victory in a string of detrimental decisions: nuclear waste, housing development encroaching on nature reserve, waste facilities under an eco-cloak … it is clear that it is up to the communities to stand up and protect their own environment.

    So the battle goes on – next one on the list is Jack’s Green Caravan Park. 64 holiday accommodation, the application hidden under Jack’s Green Rockingham Forest Park name, (14/02225/FUL) – two miles from Fine Shade. The reasons for objecting Jack’s Green application could be taken verbatim from Fine Shade objections and doubled: the traffic congestion will be bigger (smaller roads), it is an attack on area and nature so far undisturbed, in addition to dormice there are two extremely rare butterflies (purple emperor and black hairstreak) and the violet click beetle (only one of three sites in the whole of the UK). A number of residents have objected, a number of official bodies have objected … but ENDC is wavering, King’s Cliffe Parish Council did not raise objections (unlike Apethorpe, Nassington and Wansford).

    So the fight continues – keep Fine Shade fine, and Jack’s Green green.

  16. Doubt many people will read this on an old thread, but isn’t it time for some positive thinking on this issue? While this site may be less from ideal for a Forest Holidays site, aren’t these forest holidays a really good way of reconnecting people with nature? As long as they’re affordable. I think this is worthy of a blog from you, Mark. Time for some solutions… Too much conflict in conservation nowadays…

  17. It was only a few years ago that FC said that they were not going to sell off Woodland
    and make sure it was managed in a proper and environmentaly sensitive way. There has been for a while a fight between leisure companies and conservation. I am not too sure why it is that important to have that many log cabins if at all in areas such as East Northants any way.We have got to be really sure what we are doing and for the right reasons if a large area of woodland is torn apart. I am also sick and tired of both local authorities and governmental detartments or certain senior employers of either, acting in an arrogant, misguided, narrow minded, greedy and selfish way.

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