Andrew Bluett attended a meeting of Dean Forest Voice group at Berry Hill Rugby Club on Monday 8th April 2013 on behalf of GNS. The meeting, chaired by Keith Morgan had more than a dozen attendees including GNS members David Priddis (Bats), Simon Glover (Butterflies), Derek & Chris Foster. Also in attendance was Councillor Andrew Gardiner from Forest of Dean District Council, though in a personal capacity and not representing the local authority.
The main business of the evening was to hear from Inspector Richard Boyles of Gloucestershire Police regarding the current state of affairs in respect of a number of alleged wildlife crime related offences all connected to the Cinderford Northern Quarter development site and the activities going on there.
Inspector Boyles summarised the alleged offences and incidents he was aware of and where possible gave an update on progress or outcomes to date. The alleged incidents included the following:
- Disturbance of Bats (20th April 2012) – relating to the positioning of floodlights on a security cabin. The lights were repositioned after advice from the police, incident closed.
- Exploratory drilling on the route of the proposed spine road causing disturbance or harm to various species (including Great Crested Newts), the incident had resulted in some involvement by Dr Claire Dowding of Natural England – investigation ongoing.
- Erection of Amphibian & Reptile exclusion fencing – allegedly unlawfully – it was concluded that this had been perpetrated by persons unknown, at an indeterminate date in the past, the Crown Prosecution Service decided not to proceed due to lack of definite evidence and not being in the public interest. Case closed. (NB – some of this fencing remains in place though it appears to be semi derelict at best).
- Failure to maintain the buildings on the Northern United site in the interest of Bats and carrying out activities prejudicial to the well-being of the Bats utilising the buildings, no proper assessment in place, no management plan in place. It is the duty of the building owners to manage these matters in accordance with the law. Forest of Dean District Council own much of the site and are promoting the development. Insp. Boyles suggested that this was not a matter for the police to investigate, but should be dealt with by the licensing authority, i.e. Natural England.
- A pond containing Great Crested Newts unlawfully stocked with Carp, prejudicial to the well being of the Great Crested Newts. Investigation revealed that the pond was owned by the Forestry Commission, the fishing rights are leased to the Forest of Dean Angling Club and the stocking was carried out with the necessary permit in place and was therefore not unlawful. Crown Prosecution Service decided no further action required.
- Clay Extraction at Dams Green; Investigation revealed that this was carried out by Coleford Brick & Tile Company at a date in the past with the necessary permission granted by Gloucestershire County Council and was not unlawful. No further action.
- Demolition of buildings (allegedly containing Bats) on 22nd March 2013 on the Northern United site in breach of the licence and conditions imposed, the police have consulted Natural England who are investigating whether or not an offence may have been committed.
- Other similar activity that has disturbed or caused harm to Great Crested Newts, Dormice etc and disturbance of Bats in Northern United buildings “C & H” – again being investigated by Natural England, expert opinion is being sought – investigation ongoing.
- Other allegations have been made regarding the Homes and Communities Agency and it’s responsibilities to comply with licensing provisions and conditions which are being investigated by the Homes and Communities Agency & Natural England.
- The overall planning process as carried out by Forest of Dean District Council is being looked into. Other allegations regarding the planning process are being internally investigated by Forest of Dean District Council.
Inspector Boyles listened to a number of other comments and allegations regarding incidents which have taken place and have in some cases been witnessed. Whilst the mood of the meeting was not in any way hostile, he found that a considerable amount of further information from the meeting needed to be conveyed back to Sgt Simon Clement and PC John Palfrey who are the specialist Wildlife Crime Officers dealing with these matters and that feedback would be sought from those officers regarding some of the points made.
To be fair to the police, even the Wildlife Crime Officers are not expert in the way that special interest experts/recorders and GNS members are. They have to work on what they can discover, have to take advice from elsewhere and are limited in what they can investigate when, as is clearly shown above, there are matters that have to be investigated between the licensing authorities and other agencies.
Most of the meeting attendees voiced the opinion that they have no confidence in the way that the various agencies act between themselves, or that internal investigations will be carried out and concluded objectively and most importantly, that whilst some investigation is continuing, so is the work on site. It seems that no-one has the power to halt the works in spite of the whole web of offences alleged to have taken place.
It was also noted that whilst Natural England are supposed to be investigating a number of incidents, there has apparently been an official complaint lodged against Natural England on the grounds that they have not acted properly or have not acted at all in some respects. Similarly, the activities of the Homes and Communities Agency are being investigated on the grounds that they have acted improperly by not providing correct information to other agencies.
The attached items from the Forest of Dean & Wye Valley Review of 10th April 2013 explain fully how the questions originally proposed to be put to the council by Dean Forest Voice were amended on the instructions of the council’s solicitor. These changes were reluctantly accepted by Dean Forest Voice in order that the revised questions could be put forward, rather than lose the opportunity to question the council at all. The most important change was the removal of the word “heavy” before machinery, which as can be seen from the news article, is of some importance.
The questions to be put to the council are as follows:-
- Was the council aware of the urgent instructions concerning the use of machinery and equipment from the Homes and Communities Agency to their contractors to demolish buildings at the Northern United site, and the steps they had to take to respect the many rare Bats and their habitat which are protected by law?
- If the council were aware of this urgent action did they do anything to prevent it?
- If not, why not?
- Was pressure put upon Natural England to revoke an earlier hand demolish licence and replace it with a licence to “demolish quickly” by the use of machinery?
- Was all this urgent action the result of having to meet funding deadlines?
- Was Forest of Dean District Council involved in the reporting of these matters in the local Press and the threat of legal action?
- If Forest of Dean District Council are innocent of all this and are appalled by this, what action do they propose to take?
In summary, serious questions are being raised about the means and methods being pursued to drive the proposed development on the Cinderford Northern Quarter site in spite of the perceived damage to wildlife and habitats which is believed to be contrary to EU and UK legislation, there is a serious lack of confidence in the way that the investigations are being handled and there is a real fear that by the time these things are brought to a conclusion, irreparable damage will have been done.
When the minutes of the council meeting are published, the answers to the above questions will be revealed.
In the meanwhile, certain people known to GNS who have first hand knowledge and expertise relating to these incidents are helping the police with their enquiries. Unless any member of GNS has specific and clear evidence of any wrongdoing, any thoughts, comments or questions relating to the Cinderford Northern Quarter site should be directed to the Forest of Dean District Council which is the “Competent Authority”. In this context though, the word “competent” should not necessarily be taken as a measure of the council’s abilities…