Campaigners win backing for re-think on decision to sell Highbridge field for homes

Campaigning residents and local councillors have this week gained backing at Sedgemoor District Council for a re-think on the controversial sale of council land in Highbridge to make way for 110 new homes.


Lib Dem councillors ‘called-in’ the recent decision of the Council’s Executive to sell publicly owned land at Lakeside in Highbridge for housing.

This meant that the Council’s Corporate Scrutiny Committee had to consider whether to ask the Executive to look at the decision again.

The Committee met on Monday (July 13th) and heard presentations from Cllrs Phil Harvey (Burnham Central) and Mike Murphy (Burnham North) as well as evidence from local Highbridge resident Joy Russell plus Highbridge Cllr Janet Keen (Conservative) and several other residents, who urged the Committee to refer the decision back to the Executive.

Cllr Phil Harvey said: “The Committee considered what we had to say, and the passionate representations from the local people. Officers of the Council made their responses to the points raised and this helped to clarify some issues. At the end of the meeting, the Committee unanimously voted to refer the matter back to the Executive for re-consideration.”

He added: “The retention of this land, and its use as a natural greenspace, are supported by many people in Highbridge who feel that it is a vital resource for future generations.  The strength of feeling was very evident at the meeting. Whether this will be sufficient to sway the Executive remains to be seen. I would urge people to lobby Executive members between now and Wednesday 22nd, which is the date when I believe the Executive will consider the matter again.”

Hundreds of people had signed a petition against the sale of the field between Lakeside and Isleport amid concern about a loss of wildlife, public open land and over-development.

The developer Coln Residential had won outline planning permission earlier this year to develop the site, which is owned by five parties, including Sedgemoor District Council and some believe is public land.

During the meeting, Cllr Harvey spoke about the decision to sell this land acquired for Public Open Space and the failure to bring forward any such use over 20 years.

“This land was acquired in 1996 for Public Open Space but the allocation was not carried forward into the next Local Plan. However the district proposals map of 2004 did show part of the area committed for public open space and a policy protection RLT1 to retain recreational open space was applied.”

“In 2012 a S106 order was agreed with the developers of the Springfield Road housing specifically towards (and I quote) “the costs of improving and enhancing the Council’s public open space at Isleport ponds”. So although the land was no longer designated as such, reports to Committee still referred to it as public open space.”

“The confusion continues to this day. As recently as last month, a paper presented to the Planning Policy Group referred to the Council’s public open space at Lakeside. If our officers misreport it, is it any wonder that local  residents firmly believe it to be “public open space”? The distinction between “public open space” and “publicly owned open space” is not one which is obvious to the layperson. The people of Highbridge have accepted significant housing developments in recent years – with reservations about infrastructure provision – but now see this land, which was acquired to serve their needs, being sold. Is the only plan for Highbridge to build more houses?”

“By December 2016 the Executive agreed in principle to sell the land and in 2019 the land was designated as “white land”.  It was said that the S106 proposal had “proved impossible to bring forward”. This raises two questions: 1, What efforts were made in the sixteen years from 1996 to 2012 to bring into use the land acquired for public open space? 2, In 2012 why was a S106 agreement entered into which committed £400,000 to a project which only four years later was effectively abandoned?”

Cllr Harvey also spoke on the decision to sell green space in the Highbridge area which is deficient in this locality.

“Appendix E addresses this point in detail. It claims that there is no deficiency of accessible natural green space in the area and that, even if there were, the new development would provide a level 2 area. It says: ‘The existing Walrow ponds are identified as a local wildlife site (Level 1) providing ANGSt provision for the surrounding area including the land adjacent to Lakeside. It should also be noted that the provision of formal and informal open space is included within Natural England’s green space categories (Level 2) and therefore the additional public open space secured through the planning consent for the land adjoining Lakeside would be added to the ANGSt provision in this area.’

“Nature nearby gives a definition of accessible greenspace as “for general public use, free of charge and compliant with the requirements under the Disability Discrimination Act” and the definition of natural greenspace as one in which “human control and activities are not intensive”.”

“The reliance on the Walrow ponds as fulfilling the ANGSt provision is factually incorrect. The ponds are owned by the Bridgwater and Highbridge Angling Association and are only accessible to fee-paying members. Therefore they do not comply with the accessibility criterion of being “for general public use and free of charge” and should not be classified as a Level 1 area.  Approving the sale of the Lakeside land – which potentially does fit the criteria – would result in the loss of a level 1 facility and its replacement with a much smaller – one thirtieth of the size – level 2 area. However you look at it, this is a loss of natural open space to the people of Highbridge.”

Cllr Harvey also spoke on the threat to the biodiversity of this site during a climate change crisis: “The Committee will hear the evidence on this from Mrs Russell and has had the opportunity before the meeting to view the video she has produced. She has made the arguments far more eloquently than we can and her contributions establish that there is a wide variety of flora and fauna on the land. For many years this has been enjoyed by local residents. Indeed, Mrs Russell has previously said that she was taken on Nature walks there when in the Brownies!”

“Appendix D deals with this point and notes that Natural England raises no objections. However Natural England does make the point that there have been a number of recent medium-sized housing developments in the area and are concerned about a gradual cumulative increase in recreational pressures on designated sites as a result. They also say that their lack of objection does not imply that there are no effects on the natural environment.”

“A third party holds a possessory title to the land between the railway line and the lake which has 100 year old hedgerows. Are these threatened by the proposed development? It is acknowledged that the developer will be putting in place mitigation measures to deal with environmental effects but we maintain that these will never be able to provide the full range of habitats that are currently present and so biodiversity will suffer.  Does anyone seriously think that future generations of Brownies will be visiting a housing development to view and learn about the wildlife it contains?”

Cllr Mike Murphy then discussed the allocation of the S106 monies towards this site being transferred to the developer: “The rationale behind this is that this will fulfil the original agreement by providing a public open space in the new development which will serve the residents of the Springfield Road area. In addition it is argued that it should be done as the S106 agreement runs out in 2022. This again raises the question – why, 8 years after it was agreed, has the S106 agreement not been implemented? It is claimed that access is too difficult but there are existing footpaths into the site. Why are these so insufficient that the use of this field cannot be implemented? If the developers are able to gain foot access off the Bristol Bridge alongside the lakes into the field instead of using the railway level crossing why could the Council not have done the same?”

“Our position is that the S106 agreement from 2012 is drawn broadly enough that money can be spent on laying out the land and improving the footpaths into the site – both from Springfield Road and the Isleport business park – thereby providing a natural green space for both residents and employees to enjoy. We do not accept that one of the arguments in favour of the development is that it can utilise this £400,000 from a previous developer. This Council should be utilising it itself.”

Cllr Murphy also talked about the desirability of keeping open space for the health and well-being of local residents. “The benefits of open space for the health and well-being of people are well-documented e.g. in Natural England’s “Nature nearby” document; by the WHO; and in our own Health and Well-being strategy (P13). To quote from this: “Health outcomes and inequality in health due to lower incomes are less pronounced where people have access to green space. Green areas provide shared space which enhances a sense of belonging and reduces social isolation. Other positive benefits of access to green space include reduced levels of overweight and obesity, improved mental health and increased longevity. People also report better self -rated health.”

“Highbridge contains a significant proportion of low-income families. The current crisis has shown increased levels of mental health problems in the community but also that more people have discovered this green lung and have benefited from it. Losing this open space will remove this source of benefit.”

“We cannot have too many large green natural spaces for our developing population, locally and nationally. The establishment of a health lung for use by all present and future residents is an essential part of our global warming and climate change commitments.  Situated in the midst of Highbridge it can become a significant factor in attracting families to settle in the town because of this major natural leisure area. A direct result of the Covid-19 lockdown has resulted in families in crowded towns and cities seeking to move to the South West. We can no longer simply build houses – we need a full local masterplan which includes this natural park.”

“Covid-19 has caused many people and institutions to re-evaluate their priorities, values, and lifestyles. An increasing awareness and appreciation of the natural environment and our effects on it is a common feature. This Council needs to be part of this process and support its residents in their aspirations for the future.”

Cllr Murphy then spoke on what sufficient weight was given to the public consultation in making this decision:  “The public consultation carried out before the Executive meeting showed overwhelming opposition to the proposed sale of land. 30 written objections were received – some in great detail – together with a 700 signature local petition and a 500 person online petition – of which 319 signatories came from local addresses. The points raised are summarised in the report to the Executive and cover some which we have highlighted, as well as others. I am sure that members have read the report and had the opportunity to ponder on the points raised.”

“The officer’s response to the consultation does, we believe, miss the point. It maintains, essentially, that the objections are planning matters and, as planning permission was granted, they were addressed at that stage and do not need to be considered afresh.”

“However – planning is a quasi-legal process. It merely deals with what is an acceptable use of land. As we all know, anyone can apply for planning permission on any site but that does not mean the owner to implement any permission granted. So to respond that because planning permission has been granted the consultation responses have been dealt with, is to argue that because something can be done it should be.”

“The real question is – is the proposed sale of land in the best interests of the people of Sedgemoor, and, in particular, of Highbridge? The Executive decided that the need for new housing outweighed the need to retain this land – although there are 25 other urban “opportunity sites” in the Local Plan which can fulfil the housing need. The responses to the consultation show that local people disagree with the proposed use of this site. They believe that development in Highbridge has not been matched by parallel provision of facilities and that it is time that this was rectified. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to create a natural public space linked to the Walrow lakes which, although only accessible to Angling Association members, form a continuous habitat with this area.”

“SDC has declared itself ‘a business’. It risks being accused of taking an asymmetric blinkered business view,  and choosing to ignore this serious opportunity for long term health and leisure in a natural area.”

“By placing the emphasis to the responses on planning matters, the wider opinions and considerations of the needs of the local community have not been properly addressed and the matter should be re-considered.”

Resident Joy Russell, who has campaigned against the development of the site, spoke passionately during Monday’s meeting against the sell-off.

She told councillors at the meeting: “I believe with your help it wouldn’t take too much to make this field squeezed between railway line and industrial estate even better for the wildlife and our community. You should know what a treasure we have. This is your opportunity to promote a connection with nature, a simple, low cost solution to help address the challenges of a warming climate, wildlife loss and mental health.”

“At the Executive meeting Cllr Slocombe stated this development would benefit families desperately needing housing where their children could grow up in a nice area and learn about the species. With this proposal she said, “the nature will still be there…we also have to live in reality.””

“The reality is, the destruction of wildlife and nature that has taken years to evolve and ‘newsflash’ not only is there a housing crisis but a full scale Climate Emergency going on where our wildlife is in the frontline…that’s the reality. You’re missing the point of nature and the value it offers. If you build here that nature is lost forever and what about the children who already live here in Highbridge? Don’t they deserve this place to be opened up to explore, learn and enjoy?”

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