East Suffolk: Wildlife fears put housing plans on hold
PLANS for thousands of homes in Suffolk have been put on hold because of fears the county’s protected nature sites could be swamped by an influx of new people, disturbing important wildlife.
Suffolk Coastal District Council has been forced to delay a major planning blueprint – which outlines the number of homes to be built over the next 20 years – because it had not properly assessed the impact on forests and heathland, and the threat of increasing numbers of ramblers and dog walkers disrupting ground-nesting birds.
It came after Suffolk Wildlife Trust (SWT) produced a visitor survey which showed that thousands of people travelled across the district and from Ipswich to use forests and nature conservation sites in the protected Sandlings area, including forests at Rendlesham and Tunstall.
It argued that with hundreds of new homes due to be built every year – Suffolk Coastal has earmarked 446 every year until 2027 – the impact on wildlife sites open to the public had not been properly considered.
One particular concern was a rise in the number of dog walkers, particularly with dogs off their leads, which could affect ground-nesting birds such as the nightjar, the woodlark and the Dartford warbler.
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Council bosses took legal advice upon receiving the survey and were told that they should consider its impact.
It means a special council meeting planned for next week, at which the council was due to approve its Reviewed Core Strategy (RCS) for its Local Development Framework, has been postponed until analysis of the visitor study has been carried out.
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The extra work is expected to take several weeks while the finalised strategy could be delayed for several months and possibly complicated by the local elections in May.
The knock-on effect means that planning for major housing developments – such as BT’s plans for 2,000 homes at Martlesham Heath – faces further delays.
Andy Smith, cabinet member for planning at Suffolk Coastal, said: “It will take a few weeks to complete the necessary independent appraisal of the study, so the special full council will now be held as soon as possible later this year but this will unfortunately further delay our RCS, which is such a key document in shaping and setting out the future of our district.
“It postpones the time when we can use it to protect our area from inappropriate development, and start to shape the district to meet the challenges we face.
“However, under UK regulations based on the European Habitats Directive, we do now have to take time to consider the possible relevance of this study and the potential effects on habitats.”
Suffolk Coastal said the RCS was based on protecting conservation areas but, under the European regulations, the “appropriate assessment” of potential effects on those habitats needed to be updated to take account of the SWT report.
James Meyer, conservation planner at the SWT, said the visitor survey report came out of work it had been doing with partners including the RSPB and the Suffolk Coast and Heaths Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
“It shows that people come from a wide area to use the conservation sites, including a lot of people walking their dogs. Our point was that the initial assessment hadn’t paid enough attention to what the impact of extra development and extra people would be.
“There is the potential for thousands more people coming through the conservation areas and disturbing the ground-nesting birds which the protection area is designated for.
“We are not saying that any development is terrible but more work needs to be done to ensure these areas are protected and the impact of an influx of more people is properly assessed.”
Ipswich Borough Council said its core strategy has already been submitted to the Government for independent examination but it would “consider the findings of the study in line with European regulations regarding the possible effects of plans and policies on habitats”.
THE GREAT FOREST INFLUX
Over 382 hours of surveys last winter and summer in Tunstall and Rendlesham forests, 3,252 people and 1,543 dogs were counted.
596 groups were interviewed, and 63% had dogs with them.
Dog walking was the most popular activity (52.8% of people interviewed), followed by walking (22%).
70% of people said they visited the sites all year round.
Half of all visitors arriving by car came from more than 8kilometres away
Source: South Sandlings Living Landscape Project - Visitor Survey Report