Last week I was supporting Torfaen Friends of the Earth at the developers’ Appeal against the refusal of the South Sebastopol planning application (some of the sessions at least), until the snow curtailed it on Friday. If you don’t know this, it is unnecessary vandalism of a large are of open countryside, a buffer between Cwmbran new town and the older Valley communities, with 1200 houses. After years of fighting, and recently losing a crucial Council motion to save it by ONE VOTE, we’ve probably lost the battle, the bad guys (Councillors and planners) have forced it through – ridiculously deciding to abandon the original Council decision to refuse the planning application.
What a dysfunctional Council process this has been –
• promoting unnecessary greenfield development (and abandoning the New Town plan)
• refusing to recognise the imminent WG legislation on the value of ecosystem services
• deciding to delete the development from the LDP
• then reinstating it
• refusing the application,
• then turning round and backing it

Who thinks this development is a great idea? The developers, for the profit; a few Councillors; a few planners; maybe a few WG officers promoting ‘growth’ anywhere, anytime.
Who is against it? All local residents who have expressed a view; almost half the Torfaen Council members; local Community Councils; all the local environmental groups; CCW; etc etc
So unless we have another reprieve, we lose
• a vital green buffer between two distinctly different existing communities
• a ‘green lung’ amenity for Cwmbran and Sebastopol
• the rural character of a rare canal-focussed conservation area
• a valuable ecological area and a vital species corridor
• any pretence that this Council has a policy based on sustainability, or that it listens to its residents
• one more area of non-renewable beautiful Welsh countryside
But of course there are also some gains:
• a large housing estate with mostly expensive houses for Bristol & Cardiff commuters, very little affordable housing, and no community facilities.
• regular gridlock on Cwmbran Drive and A4042
• rat-run roads through neighbouring communities
• substantial additional storm water run-off to who knows where
• a blot on the landscape
We at CPRW are very grateful for FoE instructing a consultant to represent the joint objectors at the Appeal. (They are FoE, CPRW, Pontypool Community Council, and ‘several hundred’ local residents – an under-estimate, I believe). Our stance at the Appeal has had to be damage limitation, arguing against some development areas and for retention of more green space. We hope that we have demonstrated to the Inspector, who seems most perceptive, that the proposal constitutes over-development, and should at the least be reduced.
There is one more day of the Appeal, yet to be announced; if you can, go along when it is reconvened, if only to observe the way countryside is still being attacked by those who think short-term growth is all-important, and ignore the consequences for our future generations. And if you have time, catch up with the WG Planning Bill consultation; I have responded to this, putting the case for a proper democratic planning process, instead of this ‘hole in the corner, secretive, development-friendly, growth-driven process.
But the fat lady hasn’t sung yet – we thought we had lost this war six years ago, but nothing happened and they had to start again. Do they really think they can sell houses in this recession? We live in hope for a miracle to save this large and vital area of countryside.

Given the difficulties that environmentalists have had over the years to get Torfaen County Borough to understand our concerns about sacrificing green fields to the gods of growth and ‘development’, it is quite a shock to find a Biodiversity Management System being proposed, as a pilot, for addressing strategic land-use issues (particularly the current Local Development Plan process). Perhaps it is a consequence of the authority’s shock at the decision by the Council to change its collective mind on the large-scale South Sebastopol development.

Whatever the reason, the draft Torfaen Biodiversity Action Plan is at first glance an exciting and innovative new way of bringing biodiversity in from the cold, to be a main consideration in planning strategy, rather than a minor issue which needs only lip service to sideline and ignore. At the same time, one can sense that there may be dangers in establishing formal Supplementary Planning Guidance (SPG) in this area, if that is the aim. We may gain protection for some valuable green areas, but at the expense of defining other green areas as developable – or so it will be claimed by speculators. At the time of the first South Sebastopol, the planner stated at the Council meeting that Countryside Council for Wales had not objected, so the planning application should be approved; ignoring the fact that CCW’s brief was limited to commenting on statutorily protected areas only (National Parks, AONBs etc) - or so the CCW Chairman told me. (The brief seems to have widened since then).

The gist of this new strategy for biodiversity is: -

1. The need for this was identified from review of the Torfaen Local Biodiversity Action Plan (LBAP) and conflict within the Local Development Plan (LDP) - I assume the LBAP was being pretty well ignored in the LDP process. The failure of WAG to hit its target to halt biodiversity decline by 2010 must have been due in part to the failure of local authorities to take it seriously.

2. But give someone in Torfaen their due, a consultant was instructed to do something about it, and here is the first step. The ‘Early Draft’ says that it is designed towards  ’mainstreaming biodiversity’ and ‘encouraging public engagement’. Also that ‘ … the value of ecosystem services has been undervalued …’   Most environmentalists would applaud the latter statement. We shall see if it suceeds – but in Torfaen there is hope, in the wake of this current Council’s conversion to enlightenment at South Sebastopol  

3. The points I took away from a recent meeting on the draft strategy were: -

a) Six ecosystem types considered; b) a database (GIS) of all green areas in Torfaen based on this classification to be produced; c) a framework to be established for each (presumably for conservation / enhancement); d) prioritising these areas into 4 ‘Tiers of Value’, defined as Tier 1 – protect, Tier 2 – trade, Tier 3 – ignore, Tier 4 – Enhance;          e)  then applying all this to potential development.

Tier 1 is the gold standard - if it works well, no Tier 1 classified land will be developed. The contentious element is of course the ‘trade’ proposal. Development of Tier 2 areas would be possible if the developer proposed a sufficiently attractive swop – enhancing another area to an equivalent value. I can see a number of concerns and foggy areas in this, for a start will Tier 1 turn out to be a minimum, Tier 3 most of the green areas? (What Tier would South Sebastopol achieve?) Who decides the classification, professionals only, or will there be a public consultation element? Can changes to area classification be accommodated? Amenity (lawn) grassland (Tier 3) is described as ecologically useless – that could be challenged. There are others, but that’s enough for now.

But perhaps I am too churlish – this is an exciting attempt at a really new way of valuing green spaces, and thereby combating unsustainable and irresponsible speculative development. We must hope it is successful, and leads to a transformation away from a planning process that regards green spaces as easy and natural growth of the built environment.  Local readers – GET INVOLVED! Contact TCBC and ask questions about your local green area.

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