The battle to Save Weekley Hall Wood enters its final phase
A David and Goliath battle is playing out in council offices in Thrapston, as thousands of nature lovers take on a landed Duke who wants to build a logistics park on a treasured green space
By Sarah Ward
After three years of protests and tens of thousands donated from locals’ purses, the battle by Kettering’s nature lovers to save a treasured meadow and woodland entered its final phase yesterday.
The legal teams for the Save Weekley Hall Meadow campaign group and the Duke of Buccleuch’s property company squared up on the first day of an eight-day planning inquiry being heard at council offices in Thrapston.
The Duke’s company Buccleuch Property had petitioned for the public inquiry in August claiming North Northamptonshire Council, as the planning authority, had failed to make a decision within statutory limits on its proposal to build a series of large warehouses on land owned by the Duke in the north of Kettering.
Now both sides, along with the planning authority, which wants the development refused, are aiming to convince planning inspector George Baird to rule in their favour. Over the course of the next two weeks he will hear arguments from all sides alongside evidence from transport, wildlife and planning experts as well as local users of the area.
The inquiry has also received 182 letters, mainly from people who want the popular nature reserve to be spared.
Buccleuch Property wants to build five large warehouses and a commercial unit on a 23 hectare site.
There will be 400 car park spaces, plus space for more than 40 HGVs and the developer claims that 2,400 jobs will be created over the first ten years.
The area, which belongs to the Duke - who owns nearby Boughton House - used to be quarry land and was replanted by the then Duke of Buccleuch in the 1950s. Since then it has become a popular place for walkers, cyclists and families.
The legal teams for all three parties - the developer, the campaigners and the council - outlined their case in a short 15 minute opening statement yesterday.
Zack Simons, the barrister acting for the property company, said the joint core strategy adopted in 2016, which marked the area out for storage or distribution development was supposed to be ‘flexible’ and not ‘overly prescriptive, saying:
“The plan is trying to avoid the micromanagement that the council now tries to crowbar into this appeal.”
He said the authority was behind in its employment targets and accused it of building a case that relied on ‘generic and outdated’ industry research.
The council in turn accused the developer of changing its original intentions from a campus style landscaped business park, which would have been in line with the planning policy, to a logistics park.
David Forsdick KC said:
“The buildings are very large in all dimensions and much closer together than even in the original application with limited internal landscaping. They present as a strip of intense development. Taken as a whole, the proposals are not of the scale or density or intensity which the allocation envisaged. They do not integrate with the countryside but significantly jar with it. All of this is simply inconsistent with the premise of the allocation – “high quality woodland setting”; “high quality landscape treatment”, “integrating into the wider countryside”.
He said during the course of the inquiry it would be demonstrated that the Buccleuch Property application ‘ticks none of the essential boxes’ which justified the allocation of land for development in the first place.
Former MP for Wellingborough Paul Stinchcombe KC, is representing the campaign group, who crowdfunded and hosted a series of events to pay for legal representation. He said the property developer was in breach of policy 36 of the JCS which had marked the site out for employment uses.
“In blatant breach of the of policy 36, the appeal proposals are for the wrong jobs; they come forward without any masterplan having been agreed in advance with the local planning authority; and the consequence will be severe and unnecessary environmental, ecological and amenity harm in a highly sensitive area.”
He said the site was home to a number of red listed birds (such as the Linnet and Grasshopper warbler) as well as priority listed species of butterflies, important bat species and protected newts. He praised the ‘efforts and diligence’ of concerned members of the public who had been carrying out observations to record the ecology of the area.
He said there would clearly be some ‘economic benefits’ from the development if permission was granted, but that these would not be of the type sought by the JCS policy ‘where the focus was always on making a contribution to the prosperity of North Northamptonshire through, predominantly higher quality jobs in a landscaped setting; not lower-quality, lower paid, warehouse jobs in bland and bulky buildings.’
The green space, which sits behind Northamptonshire Police’s northern base, has been used by thousands of people for many decades. During the pandemic it was a popular place to go for nearby residents when lockdown restrictions limited outdoor exercise to just one hour per day.
At the inquiry local residents explained what it means to them, citing the health and social benefits that the green space had given to them.
David Meagher, who has autism and depression, said the site should be designated as a suicide prevention unit ‘as it is one of the reasons why I am here today’.
Tessa Sellick said the ‘expansive skies’ of the meadowland had been a place where she had ‘sought solace’ for more than 30 years and Mr Geary had said it had helped him deal with high levels of stress caused by redundancy and having three autistic children.Teacher and historian John Padwick gave a history of the site which used to be common land until the 1800s and quoted Northamptonshire’s famous nature poet John Clare whose poem Remembrances was written during the time of the enclosures.
He said: “Inclosure like a Buonaparte let not a thing remain
It levelled every bush and tree and levelled every hill
And hung the moles for traitors – though the brook is running still.”
After hearing all the evidence the government-appointed planning inspector will make a ruling, which will be published.
Our story from yesterday about proposed new appointments to the police, fire and crime commissioner’s office has now had the paywall removed if you missed it yesterday.
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