Can Weekley Hall Wood become another Stanwick Lakes?
The leading activist behind yesterday’s defeat of the Duke of Buccleuch’s plan to turn a valuable meadow into a warehouse park, hopes to see the area become a country park
By Sarah Ward
After an almost four-year battle, the campaign group Save Weekley Hall Wood has seen off plans by a local duke to build a warehouse park on a beloved grassland meadow - and now thoughts are turning straight away about how to protect the site permanently.
Planning Inspector George Laird’s decision was published yesterday, dismissing the planning application made by the Buccleuch Group to build a series of five warehouses on green land close to Northamptonshire Police’s northern control centre off the A6003.
Former common land, the site has been in ownership of the duke of Buccleuch’s family since the 1800s, and was the subject of an eight day planning enquiry last month. The enquiry was brought by the developer after it said planning authority North Northamptonshire Council had failed to decide on its planning application in legal timescales.
After hearing evidence from both sides as well as dozens of local users, and with the argument centred around the overall masterplan for the site as set out by the local authority, the planning inspector decided that the economic benefits of the development did not outweigh the damage that would be done to the ecology of the site.
In his 12-page judgement he said the grassland meadow, which would have been completely lost to the five warehouses, was a ‘habitat of very high distinctiveness’ which is rare in Northamptonshire, located in small pockets ‘dangerously reducing species’ population sizes’.
Concluding he said:
“I consider the harms to biodiversity, the landscape and visual harm and, the fundamental conflict with Policy 36 are not outweighed by the benefits of the scheme.”
Much of the argument between the two sides centred on policy 36 of the Joint Core Strategy, which was adopted by the local authority in 2016 and sets out the vision for the Kettering area within which the woodland is situated until 2031. The policy had outlined the site for industry and distribution and said a comprehensive masterplan needed to be agreed to layout details such as vehicle access, landscaping and protection of local wildlife sites. The necessary masterplan had not been completed, which left what could be developed as a grey area.
It was during the first lockdown of 2020 that plans first came to light of the duke’s intentions for the land and Green Party activist Dez Dell led a band of local residents in a campaign that would go on to amass thousands of supporters. The area had been used for decades as a local spot for walkers and nature lovers and during the lockdown amid restricted leisure time it became a balm to many who were struggling with the uncertain times. When it came under threat people realised its value more than ever.
The Save Weekley Hall Wood campaign became so successful, that the following year Dez and two other Green party members (Emily Fedorowycz and Sarah Tubbs) were elected as unitary councillors for the local ward, as residents recognised the efforts that were being gone to to save the woodland and meadow from destruction.
Dez and his team, which included Labour party member John Padwick, sustainable transport expert Allison Holland, photographer Adam Riley and retired lawyer Robert Dixon, ensured the campaign was highly visible, mounting demonstrations outside the former Kettering Borough Council and carrying out marches and fundraising events to pull together the £35,000 needed for a legal team to challenge the Duke’s plans.
In the end the planning authority also joined their side, arguing that the proposed development did not meet the expectations for the area.
Speaking after the win yesterday Dell was typically modest and rather than basking in the triumph, his mind was turned to what can happen next.
“I have kept it going over the years, but there has been a whole team of people dedicated to saving the area. This shows people power versus the entrenched money of the duke and his millions.”
The developer now has options of an appeal against the decision, which it would need to move in the next few weeks.
“I suspect they will probably make a master plan but they will have to adjust it a lot to keep most of the meadow. They could well try and take it to the high court and get it quashed if they don’t like the inspector’s decision. And then we will have to take it all up again.”
Asked if he was up for the fight if the Duke’s firm came up with another warehousing plan he said:
“Oh yeah. That area of land is very important to me and to the people of Kettering and we are not just giving it up.”
A move now is to get the area deallocated as a site for development. A new local plan for the North Northants area is in its early stages but will take years to come to fruition.
Dez’s overall dream is for the area to become a country park. In the early days the group did have talks with Buccleuch’s people about how much the land was worth in order to attempt a community buy out, but a land value was not put forward. Dez is now hopeful talks could begin again.
The developer told the Northants Telegraph yesterday it was disappointed with the decision and would ‘reflect on the comments made as we look to the future of the area.”