The Green Party condemns threat to the Woolsington Woods from Cameron Hall development proposal
30 April 2015
A battle is brewing over the future of long established woodlands on the NW edge of Newcastle at Woolsington Hall. The owner, Cameron Hall Developments, has put forward a wholly unsustainable and socially regressive scheme. Despite the same old promises of ‘jobs and growth’, this development is the epitome of what the area does not need if we are to address the real challenges ahead. This is an unsustainable development by the few for the few, failing to serve the real common good.
- Woolsington Woods is one of the oldest woodlands in and near Newcastle.i Parts of it apparently can be traced back to the 17th century. It is not only aesthetically beautiful but provides home for many species of wildlife, including the iconic red squirrel. The land also acts as a ‘sponge’ in the Ouseburn area, reducing the risks of flooding downstream. The loss of such long established and co-evolved habitat cannot be ‘mitigated’ on reasonable timescales, with woods of this nature taking centuries to establish themselves.
- Woolsington Hall is a Grade 11 listed building,ii the upkeep of such buildings is the responsibility of the owners, in this case Cameron Hall (Sir John Hall’s company). This company has made a lot of money out of the area in past years (Newcastle United, the Metro Centre…). It is reasonable to expect that such people put monies back into the city.
- The development proposal from the Cameron Hall group would destroy 30 acres of mature woodland in the Green Belt in order to build 72 ultra-expensive luxury houses, plus cabins, and an expensive golf course, all with large-scale car parking (with attendant loss of permeable surfaces). The Hall itself will be turned into a luxury hotel. Essentially it is a car-based luxury development, one that would add more cars to local roads and require more provision of expensive infrastructure.
- Over the past 20 years, Newcastle has lost 25% of its Green Belt. The recently adopted Core Strategy threatens further loss of some 10% of the remaining Green Belt. Already there is a stampede by builders for land in the Callerton area. The proposal to build in Woolsington Woods would further diminish the Green Belt. This is a recipe for massively unsustainable sprawl, locally, regionally and nationally.iii
- The country’s wildlife is under severe threat. Small gains in populations of particular species should not disguise the overall parlous state of the UK’s flora and fauna.iv Its conservation, let alone rehabilitation, cannot be achieved by isolated postage stamp size reserves. It can only happen if there is a dense network of ‘nodes’ such as Gosforth Nature Reserve and Woolsington Woods with adequately sized and continuous corridors between them.v
- The prime human need in our area is for genuinely affordable and sustainably constructed housing within the existing built-up, not least for those at the ‘bottom’ of the housing ladder. We also need to cater for our ageing population, the bulk of whom will need to live close to friends and facilities, not out on the far edge of the city.
- The main beneficiaries of Green Belt grabs such as that proposed for Woolsington Woods, Callerton and many other green spaces will be the land-hoarding developersvi, who will obtain a very large increase in their share value owing to the uplift from agricultural land to permitted development. They will make massive paper profits without doing a single productive thing, with very little gain for the typical Newcastle citizen. A boutique hotel, expensive golfing and luxury housing will benefit only the privileged few.
- Such developments exacerbate what in America is called the 'doughnut effect', with enclaves for the rich out on the edges while other, more central, parts of the same city continue to decline. Such developments are as socially regressive as they are environmentally destructive.
- Part of human wellbeing is physical exercise and related recreational opportunities. This is central to the agenda of a ‘healthy city’. But all the evidence suggests that such provision must be cheap, if not free, and nearby.viiThe Woolsington Woods, combined with the lakes at Callerton and indeed the whole Ouseburn corridor, should be zoned as a woodland and waterside park, with enhanced wildlife habitat and, nearby, footpaths and cycle ways. Such developments have already occurred in cities: in Edinburgh, for example, there is the Leith Walk while around Paris are several woodlands that cater for both wildlife ad people.viii
- Some may recall that the low density sprawl that is Darras Hall was justified back in the 50s and 60s on the grounds that the top end executive housing thrown up there would attract wealth-creating entrepreneurs to the area who would bring thousands and thousands of new jobs with them. It did not happen, although a huge area of then rural land was indeed built over. Similarly all the new jobs promised to justify the removal of Green Belt land for the woefully misnamed Newcastle Great Park failed to materialise.
- The Woolsington Woods development, like its cousins in Callerton, Ponteland, Hexham and Morpeth respect the mantra that ‘growth is good and the more of it the better’. However all the evidence, not least regarding potentially calamitous climate change, suggests that the future will be very different to the past, with an overriding need to reduce our ecological ‘footprint’. That includes action to conserve green spaces and curb the tide of road traffic.
- Overall, we need a sustainable redevelopment of the existing built-up area. We need to concentrate on the recovery of derelict brownfield sites and empty / under-used properties. Properties. The proposal to create 400 flats in vacant office space right next to the Metro station at the Regent Centre in Gosforth illustrates what needs to be done. Indeed it might be remembered the noted sociologist Professor Danny Dorling claims that Britain has no shortage of buildings such is the scale of non-use/mis-use. It might be further noted that there is plenty of evidence that land will become free as edge-of-town retail parks go into decline.ix
- Farmland in areas such as Woolsington and Callerton may seem of no great significance. Yet, as someone once said, “every little helps”. The loss of food-producing land is, like wildlife habitat loss, is largely the cumulative consequence of lots and lots of little losses. In the short term, it increases the trade deficit in agricultural produce. But in the not-too-distant future we face dire threats regarding food security. We need to conserve all agricultural land now.x
- Housing on the Green Belt in places such as Woolsington Woods will trigger yet more car journeys. Yet, already Newcastle is one of the most congested cities in Britain.xi Its air quality is very poor largely due to vehicle exhaust emissions.xii The UK Supreme Court recently condemned government failure to improve air quality, while there is an imminent threat of fines from the EU.xiiiMore roads will not solve the problem. Indeed they tend to exacerbate it.xiv Contrary to ‘petrolhead’ mythology, the motorist is heavily subsidised.xv
- Such developments of course depend on cheap and readily available supplies of fuel. Those days are coming to an end as we begin to hit ‘peak oil’ and its aftermath xvi. There may be short-term falls in prices at the petrol pump but they should not disguise the longer term and unavoidable trend.xvii 10 years ago the UK had a trade surplus in oil. Now there is an annual deficit of ten billion pounds, one likely to grow worse and worse unless we radically change direction in transport planning and associated land use choice.
- The route forward is to focus on the development of ‘compact cities’, sometimes called the ’20 minute city’,xviii with new housing provision based around well-integrated and attractive public transport, with plenty of safe space for cyclists and pedestrians. Developments such as that planned at Woolsington are the very opposite. Indeed we should scrap development plans such as the Core Strategy and to start thinking in terms of a whole new urbanism.xix
- It ought to be noted that in 2002 Newcastle planners argued that building round Woolsington Hall was “problematic”. Then the proposed development was just around the building. Now it is for millionaire housing carved out of mature woodlands, some distance from the hall itself. Part of the letter from Brian Ham, then Director of Enterprise, Environment and Culture, said:
“The construction of new residential development within the Green belt is however inappropriate and is by definition harmful. …The fundamental aim of Green Belt Policy is to prevent urban sprawl by keeping land permanently open. For this reason the most important attribute of the Green Belt is its openness”
In conclusion the Green Party proposes an alternative. It is an opportunity for Sir John Hall and his associates to provide a real service to the city from which they have derived so much personal benefit. Sir John’s vision of a new rose garden at his Wynyard Park estate might be harnessed. Cameron Hall in association with the city council could offer a prize for a visionary plan to restore Woolsington Hall and the grounds as a public amenity. The land should be set aside for wildlife and compatible recreational opportunities. The Hall itself might be used for facilities to meet some genuine social need, be it in the field of education, health or social care. But the point is to tap fresh thinking as well as fresh monies from expansive private purses.
The lesson of the battle for Woolsington Woods is that we need to transform development plans for cities such as Newcastle and, indeed, start thinking in terms of a whole new urbanism.xix
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