Sunday, 30 November 2014

Fineshade Wood update...

Hello again everyone

East Northants Council Development Control Committee met to consider the Forest Holidays application on 27th Nov and came within an inch of rejecting it completely. In the end they decided to defer a decision.

It was quite a meeting as councillor after councillor spoke up - referring to the letters, emails and phone calls that they had all received from us all. Thank you so much to everyone who played a part in this over the last week. It really was a most important factor in drawing Councillors' attention to the value of this piece of woodland that is treasured by so many people.

Here's an account of what happened.

Tension was already high as the Committee began to discuss Fineshade - previously they had granted approval to a contentious application for a new supermarket in Rushden and vocal irate protestors in the public gallery had forced the chair to temporally adjourn the meeting. Once our application got under way the Case Officer gave a surprisingly brief introduction - we had expected a long spiel in which he would repeat his view that there was "overwhelming" support for the proposal from planning policy and explain his recommendation to grant planning approval. In fact he said only a few sentences, but did manage to get one key fact wrong: he said that the applicants were proposing a new route from the A43. There was a challenge to this from the public gallery and again the chair adjourned the meeting.

3 minute addresses were next: one from me representing objectors, from Shenagh Hackett representing our parish council and then from the applicants represented by David Williamson, Head of Recreation etc for Forestry Commission (FC) England. Two Forest Holidays planners were in the gallery. Some councillors' body language was already looking encouraging and we could also see them looking through the booklet we had sent them, with pictures showing heavy traffic at the A43 junction. The address from Mr Williamson stressing FC experience and expertise did not go down at all well, and was almost immediately undermined by one Councillor who expressed his distrust and disapproval of the FC.

Before that Councillor Glithero, acting as our Ward Councillor, with carefully judged words, made a strong case against approval. This was quickly followed by two or three others from nearby Wards who had clearly been primed to follow his line. We were still expecting to hear support for the plan from Councillors  further south but this is when the weight of your support really began to come through, as one after another spoke of the volume and quality of letters that they had received. Others stressed how much they were influenced by the detailed lengthy objection from the Wildlife Trust - unique in their experience. Not one Councillor spoke in favour of the the application and by now Mr Williamson's head was often in his hands and the FH guys were stony-faced.  We had been expecting and hoping that Councillors would vote to defer a decision until the ruling by the Secretary of Stately about our legal challenge concerning Environmental Impact Assessments was known, but realisation gradually came that there was a chance they would actually reject the application. A deferral was moved by Councillor Glithero but then there was also a move to reject by Councillor Mercer and there was much nodding of heads and words of support.

There then followed a lengthy debate about the merits of straight refusal now and whether the council might then face a costly appeal from the applicants. Here the road situation was crucial. Northants Highways had previously supplied a wishy-washy "no objection" comment and because of that, the Planning Officers and legal advisor warned that an appeal might be possible. It was decided to press Highways for a clearer statement and defer a decision which would also give more Councillors a chance for a site visit.  A vote on deferral was almost unanimous - though it's not clear at the moment how long that deferral will be. What was quite clear was that, had there been a vote on rejection, Fineshade would have won last night.  My neighbour said it was a case of snatching a draw from the jaws of victory!  Certainly we came away very encouraged indeed and Forest Holidays must have had a nasty long journey home through the fog.

So, we have a reprieve. What will Forest Holidays do now? We still are pretty certain that council officials want the development to go ahead, but now they must realise that elected Councillors, as well as local people, have different ideas.

Once again, thank you so much for your support so far. We'll keep in touch and may well need to ask for your help again.

The battle for Fineshade continues.

Barrie Galpin
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