Abney Woodland Edge Saved
the corporate propaganda machine fails
Ecology and biodiversity won the day at a packed and dramatic Planning Sub-Committee at Hackney Council Chamber last night.
How We Won
A mass campaign led by Stokey Local and supported by Sustainable Hackney resulted in over 5,000 objections to the insane Sainsbury's plan for Wilmer Place in Stoke Newington. The developer Newmark Properties wanted a massive building within 0.7m of Abney Park Nature Reserve and to cut back veteran trees inside the reserve in order to build it. In a staggeringly biased and poorly argued report Hackney planning officers recommended approval but against all the odds the planning committee threw it out voting 4:2 against.
It is extremely difficult to persuade the committee, made up of elected councillors but who act in an independent quasi judicial role, to go against their own officers' recommendation. However several members picked up on concerns about damage to Abney's woodland wildlife and questioned the scheme. Nick Perry, objecting on behalf of Stokey Local, Hackney Planning Watch and Stoke Newington Conservation Area Advisory Committee, demolished the purported benefits of the development pointing out that the new jobs Sainsbury's would bring were a poor substitute for the existing small businesses that currently occupy the site. He also challenged the scheme's housing (83% unaffordable) and its impact on adjacent heritage buildings. Two local councillors, Daniel Stevens and Louisa Thompson, made compelling speeches on behalf of constituents.
I spoke on behalf of SH, Tree Musketeers and Hackney Parks Forum but primarily as an expert tree consultant and ecologist. The planners admitted they had dismissed objections based on ecological arguments in favour of the evidence provided by the developers but that they had no independent way of evaluating the material since the LBH Biodiversity Officer left in February. Several members asked questions about details of the biodiversity impact and it became clear they were less satisfied with the developer's reassurances.
Why was this mad scheme ever considered?
This planning application should never have got anywhere near committee. The development was designed on the basis that all Abney's boundary trees would be felled. The developers pulled back from that suggestion when they realised it was politically dangerous for them but they did not pull back the building footprint. Wilmer Place contains Abney's eastern woodland edge and it is unique because there is no boundary wall and no building shading it. It also has a narrow 2m herbaceous border which compliments Abney's tree canopy providing an open, structured edge habitat. Consequently the boundary is a species rich wildlife haven that deserves the same protection as the rest of Abney. I found three protected species inside Wilmer Place in two very brief visits last summer yet the developer's ecologist found none. His report concluded Wilmer Place possessed no “significant ecological value” and therefore the “ecological impact from the proposed development is likely to be negligible”. When forced to do a proper bat survey the ecologist did find three different bat species using the woodland edge but he worded the report to imply the bats were off site and therefore not threatened. Similarly the arboricultural consultant condemned most of Abney's boundary trees as worthless and said they should be felled. There was not one word in his reports that mentioned biodiversity or even the fact that the trees were in a nature reserve.
Who is Hackney Council Working For?
That such self serving corporate garbage can be accepted by Hackney planning officers as gospel and yet detailed objections by less compromised and more informed experts can be dismissed (none of my comments were mentioned in the officer's report) illustrates how strongly profit orientated propaganda controls planners. Why Hackney should have ever supported a Sainsbury's on this site remains a bit of a mystery. Andrew Sissons, Head of Regeneration, is reported to have said they were 'desperate' for Sainsbury's to help Stoke Newington compete with Upper Street but, if true, this just illustrates how little the head of regeneration understands about economics. No one from Islington was ever going to cycle or get a bus to a Wilmer Place Sainsbury's and with no parking they weren't going to drive there either. The plan was a loser from the start.
This has not gone away. It will probably go to appeal and there are many battles still to come. However yesterday was a huge victory for local people, common sense and wildlife. It was won by the dedication and hard work of many local people.
Lessons to be Learnt
Local campaigns do succeed if they are broad based, well informed and backed by committed people.
Important parts of Hackney Council are deeply compromised by profit orientated corporate interests and are consequently completely dysfunctional as regards their true role in promoting and protecting local assets. Hackney's Labour administration is responsible for that corporate bias and no amount of winging about Tory government policy should hide that fact. However many local councillors can and do care about issues other than capitalist greed.
The environment in general and biodiversity in particular are issues that most people do care about.
We have a simple choice between: a future of climate change, extreme weather, mass extinctions, vast social inequality, a fake economy and corporate greed;
or a non-capitalist society based on need not greed, equality not power, love not fear.
Ultimately until we return to some form of democracy where people are free to select political representatives who will actually represent them, rather than powerful interest groups, we will continue to struggle against the tidal wave of corporate destruction. Recognising that the right to vote for anyone provided they are pro-capitalist is not democracy and that our choices are framed by propaganda and State repression is the beginning to creating a better world. It is down to us.
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