A group of Meon Valley residents are planning legal action over what they say is a “deeply flawed” planning proposal to create an artificial wetland using water from the River Meon.
The group is seeking a judicial review over a scheme to create an artificial “wetland” near the source of the Meon by digging out in the region of 30,000 tonnes of earth and planting reed beds to filter poisonous nitrate run-off from cattle.
They say the plan has no guarantee of success and poses a severe and immediate threat to the River Meon’s ecology with consequences for the flow in perpetuity, according to a newly-formed action group which includes council leaders, farmers and riparian owners.
“A failure by the South Downs National Parks planning committee to respond in a meaningful way to widespread concerns over the future of the river we are having to resort to legal means in an attempt to halt their plans until proper consultation procedures have been followed,” Mark Rogers, Chairman of Warnford Parish Meeting said.
“We have no objection to such schemes in existing wetlands downstream where there is adequate flow, but Whitewool entails the digging out of a 19-acre site without any guarantee of adequate water supply, which is why planning permission is required,” Mr Rogers said.
An independent hydrologist has been appointed by the group to review reports submitted by Whitewool Farm to support its original planning application on July 9th.
The applicant’s river flow measurements were taken in winter months when the Meon flows are invariably much higher compared to the spring, summer and autumn months when it is said it habitually dries up.
Mr Rogers said members of the SDNP planning committee to whom he had written expressing residents’ concerns had been ignored. He said a response from Tim Slaney, SDNP Director of Planning, had been “wholly inadequate.”
He said Richard Ferguson, SDNP Development Management Officer, had failed to respond to repeated emails over several weeks from the action group which was baffled by the SDNPs “arrogance” in not even having the grace to respond to its emails.
Upper Meon Valley Councillor Hugh Lumby said there had been a fundamental “failure to consult” by the SDNP and other bodies that have left local residents no option but to take legal action.
Campaigners say attempts to discover the background to the funding of the Whitewool Farm, which submitted a planning scheme that is estimated to have cost more than £30,000, have proved difficult.
“It would appear that villages in the upper reaches of the Meon are to be deprived of river flow for the private profit of Whitewool Farm and for a remote construction project of no benefit to the area,” Mr Rogers said.
The idea behind the Whitewool Farm plans is to offset nitrate run-off. It is part of a scheme being pioneered by SDNPA to enable wetland reed bed owners to sell “credits” to housing projects which have been on hold for several years because of an EU directive that poisonous nitrate emissions perhaps add here “from the housing project sites” have to be reduced before more construction can go ahead.
Credits are rewarded by construction pay-outs to wetland owners at a rate of £2,000 per credit where a house will need an amend to “average of up to credits” per building.
The campaigners claim Whitewool Farm could profit from the scheme by using the natural resources of the Meon to the tune of more than £8 million.
“The real issue, apart from a failure to explain how this scheme will work in practice, is that once it has been implemented on Whitewool Farm and the farm has received the credit payments, there will be no going back,” Mr Rogers said.
“If, as we believe, it will severely impact the wildlife and fauna along the upper reaches of the Meon along with the enjoyment of fishermen and riparian residents, there is no going back. The river flow will be compromised for some 125 years before there is any chance of a review.”
Ruth Childs, SDNP landscape officer, objected to the scheme on the grounds that there were serious doubts as to its viability, but her “objection”, later changed to “neutral”, were ignored with no certainty as to how the artificial “wetland” will be watered in the long, dry summer months.
A recent stormy meeting of the West Meon parish council heard villagers accuse the council of failing to publicise the planning application by Whitewool Farm when it passed the scheme without objections. The council claimed it was “too late” to respond to villagers’ concerns following growing anxiety over the feasibility of the scheme.
Keith Jacobs, a West Meon resident, asked chairwoman Angie Trenchard to explain why no one in the village had even known the application was up for approval “compared with the amount of publicity habitually given to other planning proposals.”
Others at the meeting questioned why Ms Trenchard had failed to respond to requests to review the planning application. Ms Trenchard claimed that her emails had not worked and the council did not have the retrospective ability to pass on villager’s widespread concerns over the scheme.
In a statement the South Downs National Park Authority said: “An application for the proposed development at Whitewool Farm, East Meon, was considered at the Authority’s Planning Committee on 9 July.
“Planning permission has not yet been granted. The outcome of the Planning Committee meeting was a resolution to grant planning permission, subject to the completion of a legal agreement to secure the use of the site as a wetland for the purpose of removing nitrates from the watercourse and its long term management, and the completion of further ecological survey work.
“Subject to these being satisfactory, planning permission would be issued and include planning conditions requiring a landscape and ecological management plan for the scheme. This would aim to secure its long-term future.
“The application was publicised and consulted upon in accordance with the Authority’s procedures and national planning legislation. This consultation included the local Parish Council (West Meon), which raised no objection, as well as statutory bodies such as Natural England, the Environment Agency, and the County Council, as Lead Flood Authority – all of which were content with the proposals.
“The scheme underwent changes through the application process to address the views of consultees and SDNPA officers. This included achieving a better functioning wetland for removing nitrates and an appropriate flow of water through it to maintain it during summer months, which are typically drier and when water flows are lower.
“Subject to formal planning permission, the improved scheme will greatly enhance the biodiversity and habitats of the area and improve the water quality of the River Meon. Improving biodiversity, water quality, and conserving and enhancing eco-systems are key planning policies in the adopted South Downs Local Plan.
“We are in correspondence with a number of interested parties and are in the process of responding individually to any concerns.”