This article takes a closer look at the environmental track record of Basingstoke & Deane Borough Council and focuses on how recent, contemporary and impending planning decisions continue to bring about destruction of wildlife and loss of biodiversity. The article uses developments alongside Cufaude Lane, discussed in previous Toad Rage articles (blogs passim), to illustrate the point.
Look at map of Basingstoke and its peripheral villages and countryside and you might assume that all parishes would be required to share the misery of development equally. But with echoes of George Orwell’s Animal Farm it seems that all parishes are equal but some are more equal than others. The council would probably call this a ‘plan’ but the reality seems to be that selected parishes and villages are destined to be sacrificial while others remain sacrosanct. I don’t see the defiantly middle-class parishes and villages of Silchester and Monk Sherborne being subjected to plans for affordable 3- and 4-bedroom homes in their hundreds, for example. Sometime, when I can be bothered, it would an interesting exercise to find out where some of our elected representatives live, and the employed hierarchy too for that matter.
Focusing more closely on Basingstoke’s track record, let’s look at a byway called Cufaude Lane, in the Borough of Basingstoke and the Parish of Bramley. Readers of Toad Rage blogs will be familiar with the saga associated with it, but for newcomers let me set the scene. 50 or so years ago, when I was just discovering the wildlife wonders of north Hampshire, Cufaude Lane was an idyllically rural single-track lane that ran from Bramley to the Basingstoke-to-Reading Road (A33). It was lined with mature Elm trees, had farms that were ramshackle enough to support flocks of Tree Sparrows, and of course hosted a wonderful array of amphibians, which bred in ditches, farm ponds and (now drained and ruined) moats.
Several decades ago, half its length was destroyed by the Basingstoke-driven urban sprawl that is Chineham, and in its wake there followed the Razor’s Farm development. That left about three miles of the most rural lane you could imagine in this environmentally-forsaken part of north Hampshire. Surely, not even Basingstoke & Deane could fail to recognise the bucolic qualities of this byway and adjacent countryside? Think again. The tragedy for Cufaude Lane is that it links Bramley (once a village, now in essence a town in its own right) to the north with the industrialised and urbanised outskirts of northeast Basingstoke to the south. Predictably it has become a dangerous rat-run, a narrow lane but one where the national speed limit still applies; the inevitable massacre of amphibians on the lane led to the creation of a Toad Rescue Team and the genesis of the blog Toad Rage. To expand on the mention of amphibians in the context of Cufaude Lane, the area supports five of the seven native UK species including Schedule 1-protected Great Crested Newt and UK Biodiversity Action Plan Priority Species Common Toad.
The increase in traffic was an entirely predictable consequence of Basingstoke & Deane’s decisions to permit housing developments on a grand scale at either end. And what was their response to pleas to help stop the amphibian carnage? You guessed it: approve more housing at either end of Cufaude Lane – this time on an even more massive scale. A token toad tunnel was promised but has yet to be delivered as part of a pathetic mitigation package. And now it turns out that years of volunteers’ efforts to save the beleaguered amphibian populations may well have been in vain. There are worrying plans afoot that have the potential to entirely destroy the land over which amphibians migrate and spend their terrestrial lives.
We’ll come to that later but first let’s consider the fate of, and importance attached to, Great Crested Newts (which have nominal legal protection) in the planning process. In regard to this species, there’s an interesting comparison to be made between leafy Surrey and built-up Basingstoke. In the case of Surrey, a planning application was submitted to Elmbridge Borough Council for a house extension (planning application No. 2018/1533). It was refused and the subsequent appeal to the Secretary of State by the applicant (Planning Inspectorate Appeal ref: APP/K3605/D/18/3212292) was dismissed. Actually, it was it more a mansion than a house and a previous owner had been somebody called John Terry, apparently a footballer of note. Back to the matter in hand, both the application and the appeal failed and one of the main reasons given in both cases was Great Crested Newts. Interestingly, the presence of GCN did not need to be established for the purposes of refusing the application and dismissing the appeal. The proximity of a pond close to the site was a factor and the alleged existence of previous (considered out of date) ecology reports was not considered relevant. As I say, it is noteworthy that it was simply the prospect and potential for GCN presence that was enough to persuade the Appeal Inspector to dismiss the appeal. Reason 13 in the appeal stated: ‘Survey reports and mitigation plans are required for development projects that could affect protected species. Natural England’s Standing Advice is that it will be necessary to survey for great crested newts if there is a pond within 500 metres of a development.’
Compare and contrast the significance placed on Great Crested Newts in Surrey with an outline planning application in the Borough of Basingstoke at Upper Cufaude Farm (planning application 19/00018/OUT) for a staggering 350 houses and a school to be built in open countryside. Read the documents associated with the application and you’ll find barely a mention of the species by Basingstoke’s Biodiversity Team. This is despite the fact that they are aware the Toad Rescue Team has recorded the species on immediately-adjacent Cufaude Lane on several occasions; and an outfit called Ecosulis, employed by the developers Croudace Homes, conducted a Great Crested Newt Population Monitoring Survey where they recorded GCN in a pond in the vicinity. With Surrey in mind, Ecosulis failed to survey three potential breeding ponds close to the scene of the proposed development site: two were just 50 metres away, and one was the main toad-breeding waterbody (450 metres away) which to my eyes looks eminently suitable for GCN. Furthermore, the site itself (planning application 19/00018/OUT) is clearly terrestrial habitat for Great Crested Newts.
Above: What hope for Great Crested Newts in the Borough of Basingstoke?
For the poor amphibians, things just go from bad to worse. Like councils everywhere government places a requirement on Basingstoke & Deane to produce a rather distasteful document called a SHELAA (Strategic Housing and Economic Land Availability Assessment) and the latest B&D incarnation makes depressing reading. In essence a SHELAA invites landowners motivated by profit and self-interest to suggest and promote parcels of land with potential for housing – a minimum of five residential units to be precise. Of course, not all the promoted sites are assessed as suitable for development. But the fact that a site has been proposed in the first place gives a clear indication of the motives of the landowner in question and their long-term aspirations. And in my experience, landowners with their eye on the prize, tend not to give up.
As a testament to the greed of many of Basingstoke’s landowners, there are literally hundreds of suggested sites listed on the latest SHELAA plan (many of them farmland sites) but two make potentially troubling reading if you happen to be a Cufaude Lane toad. On the basis that they assume the development at Upper Cufaude Farm is going ahead, aspirational landowners have proposed land for development on either side of Cufaude Lane, exactly where the main concentrations of toads and other amphibians cross on spring migration. Not only is the land in question the main amphibian migration route, it is also important terrestrial habitat during times spent away from water i.e. most of their lives. If developments on these sites were ever to be approved then it would in essence destroy Cufaude Lane’s embattled amphibians once and for all. The site references in question are BRAM008 (110 dwellings) and BRAM011 (500 dwellings) on Appendix 5 of the SHELAA. The conclusion in Appendix 5 in relation to both sites was ‘This site is available and likely to be achievable, however due to its location in the countryside its development would not be in line with the borough’s current planning framework.’ On the face of it that’s reassuring news, but anyone who takes on the dispiriting task of following local planning will know that this does not mean an application will not subsequently be made. Or approved.
To add to amphibian misery, under the heading Suitability and Constraints (policy restrictions/constraints; planning status; physical problems/ limitations; potential impacts; environmental conditions) the comments that were made against the application sites included the effects on ‘Grade 3 (Good to Moderate) quality agricultural land…heritage impacts on listed building…potential impacts on an SSSI Impact Risk Zone…and potential for impact on a SINC ancient Woodland’. Sadly, but predictably perhaps, no reference was made to the direct catastrophic impact that the developments would have on biodiversity generally, and amphibian populations in particular.
With regards to sites BRAM008 and BRAM011 the Borough and County councils, and those who prepared the SHELAA, can hardly claim ignorance of the presence of toads and other amphibians, or their statutory significance. Letters of comment and objection were submitted in connection for planning application 19/00018/OUT. Toads and amphibians in general featured in face-to-face discussions between the Toad Rescue Team, the Borough Council and representatives of developers Croudace Homes relating to the adjacent Upper Cufaude Farm development. One Hampshire County Councillor helped with the installation by Hampshire Highways of Toad Crossing signs on Cufaude Lane; and another paid a flying visit to the toad patrol site last March.
Returning to the subject of landowners, I wonder who stands to benefit financially from the sale of land for development? Guess who owns Upper Cafaude Farm and the land defined by SHELAA application site BRAM008? That would be Hampshire County Council, not exactly strapped for cash (or yet-to-be liquidated land assets) if their predictably upbeat latest accounts are anything to go by. It is interesting to speculate just how much money HCC will receive from the sale of Upper Cufaude Farm, and would stand to make if site BRAM008 is sold. And what about that other beneficiary, Basingstoke & Deane Borough Council who stand to earn considerable income from Council Tax? Like HCC they seem to be rather well-off already, judging by their latest Statement of Accounts. I must remember to ask them both cui bono, and by how much.
Above: Amphibians, including Common Toads and Great Crested Newts are site-faithful creatures, both when it comes to their breeding ponds and wintering quarters. Hence their fixed migration route. The above maps show Cufaude Lane, its amphibians and the rapacious aspirations of developers and landowners, including Hampshire County Council. Left map: Cufaude Lane as it stands; right map: the devastating encroachment of housing and its potential for catastrophic destruction of countryside and wildlife, amphibians in particular.
It’s all very well to criticise you might say, but do I have an answer? No, but I do have a few suggestions. The problems caused by our impacts on the Planet are so global and linked to human nature that the most obvious solutions are as unpalatable as they are unrealistic. And here in the UK as elsewhere, the problems of industrial farming and woeful nature conservation are so systemic they are better left for another time. Concentrating on urbanisation, perhaps it is best to ‘think local’ to begin with what might be done closer to home in the Borough of Basingstoke. I was struck by a comment somebody made to me recently, drawing a comparison between towns in the UK and comparable developments in Spain, Italy and France. There, blocks of flats are very much a feature – not stigmatised tenements for the urban poor but tiers of well-appointed dwellings. Here in England, houses with gardens are very much the norm but compare and contrast the per capita urban land footprints of the two options. So why not build upwards (and downwards for parking) not outwards more in UK – just as Basingstoke does in its centre? I am not a fan of high-rise but I’d rather see a vista interrupted by tower blocks than countryside destroyed by bricks and mortar.
If Basingstoke really has to be expanded (and that’s a big ‘if’ in my books) make better use of existing low-grade urbanised sites; and prioritise industrialised land, replacing failing businesses, and the spreading anti-social dereliction that goes with them, with houses or better still blocks of flats. But above all, leave our dwindling, embattled countryside alone, however biodiversity-rich or -challenged it might be. Oh, and going back to basics, it wouldn’t hurt to challenge the validity of ‘housing need’ figures not to mention their distribution and allocation, both nationally and locally. What seems to happen in Basingstoke to my eyes looks more like an attempt at population redistribution driven by housing greed, rather than an effort to satisfy genuine need.
But back to reality. With the planet burning, wildlife and biodiversity in crisis, and calls from the next generation set to inherit the Earth for us take action, what is Basingstoke’s answer? Build yet more houses and in the process destroy wildlife and the countryside. The approach is certainly consistent with the last 50 years of environmental devastation in the borough I’ll grant you. But surely that’s not a legacy to be proud of. While elected representatives are unwilling or unable to grasp the significance of lingering biodiversity or recognise land that has strategic importance for wildlife (i.e. Cufaude Lane) there’s little hope. It’s hard to see this as anything other than environmental contempt. For all the vision and focus that science and history has given humans, we remain a remarkably short-sighted species. And if Basingstoke is truly a microcosm of England, and England is representative of our collective attitude towards the global environment, then God help the Planet. Not that I see any evidence for a Deity at work in all of this. Quite the contrary.