The Case For Speckled Wood as Community Woodland & Green Space
The Importance of Urban Green Spaces
In recent years there has been a marked change in the value attached to urban green spaces in recognition of their importance to communities who often live in heavily developed towns and cities. It can quite readily be argued that they are more important than woodland in the countryside as they directly affect the lives of many more people than the number of people who live in or are able to travel out of town to enjoy the natural environment of the countryside.
Urban green spaces provide attractive leisure settings and act as important buffers to traffic noise and the many pressures in built up areas.
In Ore Valley a great deal of green space has been lost to development but Speckled Wood remains as a woodland valley of sufficient size to provide a valuable community asset which is already very well used and has the potential to be very much enhanced and to provide a whole range of additional amenities for local people. Hastings Borough Council has accepted the case for all residents having reasonable access to public open space for informal recreation. A target was adopted of 90% of households having access to open space within 300 metres of their home by 2013. English Nature recommend a maximum distance of 280 metres from accessible open space. The residential area around Speckled Wood (Clive Vale and Ore) would be well outside this target if it were not for the potential for public open space that this woodland could provide if it were protected and opened up for public use.
Visual and Practical Value as a ‘Green Lung’ in a Densely Built Up Area
Speckled Wood provides visually attractive woodland views and exceptional far reaching vistas to Beachy Head and the South Downs from Victoria Avenue. Much more could be made of these views by creating view points at suitable locations around the valley. In fact the population density in Ore and Tressell wards is between 90 and 100 people per hectare compared to the Hastings average of 30.4 people per hectare and, according to East Sussex County Council, these wards have the highest urban density in the County. The positive environmental impact that Speckled Wood has on this densely built up area is recognised by many local people who were horrified to find out that much of the woodland had been designated for housing development. Even if they did not make use the woodland themselves they benefited from its existence and the visual effect and they could fully appreciate its value for local children and as a recreational area.
Meeting Community Needs
But for the work of Ore Community Land Trust and volunteers from other organisations, over the last 6 years, many of the footpaths and unregistered land would have remained inaccessible to all but the children who were prepared to find a way through the undergrowth. Now Speckled Wood is regularly used as a way of getting to Ore Village, the shops and local schools on foot and for a quiet leisure walks for recreation and health. Hastings residents from further afield come to Speckled Wood to enjoy the scenery and quiet tranquillity of the woodland ghyll setting. Guided walks have been arranged to respond to requests from many local people and the potential for the woodland and green spaces to be improved and made more accessible is now widely recognised by the local community and by local organisations and schools. This accounts for the unprecedented level of support for protecting as much of Speckled Wood as possible as urban green space for community use.
A representative from the local Disability Forum has visited Speckled Wood and is very enthusiastic about the realistic potential to create accessible paths for wheelchair users and mobility scooters into the centre of the valley and for access from other points. The Ore Community Land Trust – Village Green and Ore Valley Greenway projects will address this important ‘access for all’ aim, provided that Speckled Wood is given urban green space protection.
Another much need amenity is a children’s play area and an adventure play facility. There is no children’s play area near to the shops and the centre of Ore Village. One again the Village Green project will begin to address this deficit, while providing an attractive place for parents and child carers to sit. The Village Green project has also been designed to create an exciting outdoor performance space, within easy reach of the centre of Ore Village and to start the process of installing public art in Speckled Wood.
Equally the planned development of a community food growing project on the site of the old allotments would provide yet another community amenity and resource.
The above projects illustrate just how much Speckled Wood has to offer the local community if it is protected, enhanced and managed. A wide range of amenities can also be provided, while still safeguarding wildlife habitat and the wild areas of the woodland. Speckled Wood is large enough in its current form to meet all of these aims and that is why Ore Community Land Trust supports the maximum possible area of urban green space protection.
The operation and campaign work of Ore Community Land Trust and the forerunner organisations from which it was formed have adopted full community involvement as a core principle. Teams of local volunteers have carried out all of the rubbish clearance, cut back undergrowth, cleared the stream, opened up the footpath network and created steps to climb the valley sides. Fallen trees have been removed and a program of treating Japanese Knotweed was successful in clearing this invasive plant from an area of unregistered land next to Frederick Road. This form of community action will enable Speckled Wood to be well managed and maintained, as the realisation of community ownership has been shown in many other community land projects to galvanise even more local residents to get involved to benefit the whole community and themselves.
There are many specific sources of funding for community land projects and other grants focused on environmental activities, food growing, children’s play and other projects that Ore Community Land Trust would like to develop. Funding from local organisations and grant giving bodies will also be tapped. Funding for capital projects and land acquisition as well as woodland management and enhancement can be sought once the urban green space protection for Speckled Wood has been confirmed.
The recent successful grant applications to the Big Local fund for the Village Green and the Ore Valley Greenway design projects, even at this stage in the process of securing the future of speckled Wood, is an encouraging indication of the availability of funding.
Land Unsuitable For Development
Following the positive case, above, for protecting Speckled Wood as a community asset, there is also a strong case to be made against development for housing. It is important to point out that the decision to allocate significant areas of land for development in Speckled Wood was taken many years ago and probably well before the 2004 Local Plan was prepared. We understand that a recent short study by local authority planners concluded that most of the land allocation for development in Speckled Wood would not have been made under current planning guidance and good practice. This is based on topographical and access constraints and other land characteristics and infrastructure difficulties, in addition to the considerations about protecting urban green space. Some of the reasons for not developing housing in Speckled Wood include:
• Sloping sites and serious doubt about land stability, particularly at the Victoria Road end of the valley. There have been a number of development sites in the Borough that have been abandoned or disrupted by unstable ground and land slips.
• Damage to the local animal habitat and the extensive badger population
• The widespread growth of Japanese Knotweed particularly on the Northern side of the valley, which will damage foundations and roadways and is very difficult and costly to destroy (taking up to three years of treatment)
• Severe constraints on development on the Old London Road side of Speckled Wood due to Highway Authority opposition to vehicular access onto a very busy narrow and dangerous trunk road (A259). In fact this constraint was the reason that development was only seen as viable if vehicular access could be found from the Northern side of the valley. This would be vigorously opposed as it would destroy the whole of the woodland and would, in any case be prohibitively expensive and require a bridge across the valley.
• Inadequate drainage infrastructure and risk of flooding in the valley as the stream often gets blocked at the entrance to the culvert under Frederick Road
• A poor sewerage system on both sides of the valley that may well not have the capacity for any significant increase in usage.
Perhaps the most telling argument for redesignation of Speckled Wood, or at least the greater part of it, as protected urban green space is the fact that, in spite of the allocation of land for development for well over 10 years, no development has taken place. The only planning permission that has been given is for the area next to Victoria Avenue and that was renewed once and then another application made when the renewal expired.
There are a number of areas, some quite large, of unregistered; land and a network of long established footpaths running across and along the valley, which would also make land acquisition for development more difficult.
Given the high cost of developing land in Speckled Wood, due to difficulties such as those outlined above, and the low housing stock values in Hastings it is difficult to imagine that land in Speckled Wood is economically viable for development and easy to reach the conclusion that it is being held for land speculation purposes. This should not be allowed to effectively freeze any positive regeneration opportunities for Speckled Wood in the form of community woodland and green space and for provision of community amenities. There are numerous flat and accessible sites available for development in the Lower Ore Valley that show no signs of being taken up and could surely be made available to the development land owners in Speckled Wood as an alternative option.
Although not supported by Ore Community Land Trust, the Borough Council proposals for small development sites at the edges of Speckled Wood would be far less destructive to the woodland and its potential than the extensive areas in the 2004 Local Plan.
Absolutely no work has been undertaken to manage or fence off any areas of land by any of the small or large landowners in Speckled Wood in well over 10 years and quite probably over several decades since the allotments and smallholding were abandoned. The valley was full of rubbish, overgrown, choked and inaccessible prior to the community clear up work.
Speckled Wood was a wasted community asset, which has been brought back into limited use by local organisations and has huge potential provided that it is redesignated for use as urban green space. It is far too valuable an asset to be left sterile for years to come.