The fate of Betteshanger and all its wildlife hangs in the balance. A planning application to Dover District Council for a housing estate on the site is still under appeal, as residents try to protect this rewilded area for future generations.
Northbourne is a small mixed community in the Kentish downs, surrounded by open countryside, between Deal and Sandwich. Near the centre of the Parish was Betteshanger coal mine, opened in 1926 and closed in 1989. Miners were proud of the ‘steam coal’ cut from deep, narrow and hard to work seams.
After the closure, the South East England Development Agency (SEEDA) started an environmentally sensitive regeneration scheme that involved planting 130,000 trees and bushes and allowing small-scale leisure and learning enterprises in the old pit head area covering about 25 hectares. The concept was a mix of rewilding and small green start-ups. Large amounts of public money were invested.
But SEEDA was abolished by the Cameron/Clegg coalition in 2010. Since then the site has continued to rewild and now it is home to many protected species. There are badger setts and six species of bat, reptiles and amphibians, rare invertebrates, a whole suite of plants on the Kent rare plant register, including the endangered grass poly (found on only six other sites in the UK) and the critically endangered penny royal.
Over 100 bird species have been recorded visiting the site, including many red listed species such as cuckoo, linnet, mistle thrush, grey partridge and turtle dove. Turtle doves have declined by over 95% and now are on the edge of extinction in the UK. The site is loved by local people.
Betteshanger under threat
Then in September 2019 it was acquired by Quinn Estates from the education administrator after the interim owners, Hadlow College, went into administration. Quinn Estates submitted a planning application for 210 houses together with some retail and commercial properties. If the application is granted it will destroy the site as a functioning ecosystem.
Quinn also submitted an ecology appraisal, written by Aspect Ecology with their plans that stated that most of the site was of ‘low ecological interest’. Aspect work for many developers and specialise in ‘unlocking difficult sites’. After the initial shock, local people started work to defend this unique rewilded mine site.
Local people set up Friends of Betteshanger. We feel there is an influential and powerful building lobby but we will use whatever rights and powers that we have to put our case.
We have discovered a number of things: that the current local plan dating from 2010 explicitly stated that housing and retail developments were ruled out. A policy specific to the site said that ‘in locational terms the site is unsustainable’. Development should also have been ruled out by other local plan policies against building outside settlement boundaries, and the likely increases in greenhouse gas emissions due to the site’s distance from amenities such as shops, chemists, schools.
There are also safety issues related to building on an old coal mine as well as questions about drainage and sewage – it is a low lying area next to a wetlands site (under the Ramsar convention) which is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).
There were seven meetings between senior council officials and the developer in the year before the application was submitted and these started months before the site was sold. The DDC Head of Planning attended two of the meetings and the Cabinet Portfolio member for planning attended one. These meetings were classified as informal briefings and no minutes were taken.
Almost 200 local people objected, as well as environmental organisations such the CPRE, KWT, RSPB, Kent Plant Recording Group, and five local parish councils
Local naturalists conducted surveys. Aspect then agreed the site was an ‘open mosaic habitat’, that on the site were protected species and red-listed birds, some of which are near extinction.
The developer then came up with a ‘mitigation’ proposal which involved extending open mosaic habitat on what used to be the slag heap area of the mine – and moving some of the species. Just how ‘site faithful’ turtle doves are expected to pack their bags and move has not been explained. Even if some nesting habitat is ‘retained’ the foraging area will be covered by houses and noise; cats and human activity will ruin the site as a functioning ecosystem. Further, the area designated for the new ‘open mosaic habitat’ is home to lizard orchids, another protected species which would be put at risk.
A very important objection to the ‘mitigation’ has come from the Senior Natural Environment Officer at Dover District Council, Jane Smith. She has written four reports to object; unfortunately all except one were shared with the developer alone. This was only discovered because a member of the Friends of Betteshangar, a retired primary school teacher with a deep knowledge of the site, noticed a reference in an Aspect Ecology report. Finally, shortly before the council planning meeting discussing the application, the Council agreed to make these available to the public.
In late February, after almost a year, a proposal was brought before the planning committee. The Planning Officer identified ecology as being the primary unresolved issue and councillors also pointed to other unresolved issues. The result of a vote on the planning application was a 5:5 split but the resolution was passed with the Chair’s casting vote to be ‘minded to agree … in principle’, subject to a further ecology report.
The evident lack of understanding of the ecology issues, on the part of some councillors, was very concerning and throws doubt on a fair and reasoned outcome.
So the fate of Betteshanger and all its wildlife, hangs in the balance but local people won’t give up. We need to support each other and protect our natural heritage for future generations wherever it is threatened. Soon it will be too late. We welcome any support.
If you want more information about this, including about the species of birds and wildlife affected, please send an email to [email protected]
Please also consider registering your objection to the application on the Dover District Council website planning portal reference 20/00419.