A powerful group of landowners who are preparing to challenge Wealden District Council’s controversial seven kilometre rule say they have no wish to see the Ashdown Forest ‘concreted over.’
But they accuse Wealden of depriving local people of a new set of development rights enshrined in law.
Antony Weston from Eridge Estates is spokesman for Ashdown Forest Economic Development llp which has successfully sought a judicial review of the council’s Core Strategy - its blueprint for future development.
He explained: “This is not a question of being against preserving the Forest - it’s to do with protecting the urban and rural economy and the livelihood of local people.”
He believes Wealden is ignoring the Government’s new raft of permitted development rights introduced in May. These include re-using agricultural buildings and changing offices into homes without the need for planning permission where there is ‘little or no impact upon the environment.’ Local examples are changing an office in Crowborough High Street to a residence or allowing a barn to be let for storage.
“These are rights everyone can enjoy subject to certain criteria. The rule was introduced with very little prior notification and now the local authority is refusing these rights. You might think you have permitted developments rights but if you are near the Forest you do not. Government trumpeted the scheme as a way of helping the economy to grow; is the council saying ‘we are not interested in growing our economy?’ “ Antony asked. “Wealden have a planning seminar coming up and they cynically say: “We can help break down barriers, but evidence shows this is not happening.”
He stressed the action firstly targets the ruling which forbids any development within seven kilometres of the Forest but it could result in the District’s entire blueprint being buried. “We do not seek that, but if this is the outcome, so be it. They will just have to start again.”
Another legal argument is concerning housing numbers - a key legal issue according to Antony. “It’s not a question of concreting over the Ashdown Forest versus conserving it - but low-key farm conversion or economic activity in villages keeps communities alive. We seek the review to challenge Wealden’s failure to consider reasonable alternatives to enable a balance between the need to protect our fabulous local countryside and secure the economic vitality of the area.”
A council spokesman said the zone is needed to protect the Forest from further damage which would destroy rare heathland, protected under European law, and was arrived at on the advice of experts including Natural England and air quality consultants. “We ‘re confident we will successfully defend this challenge. In the meantime the Local Plan remains adopted and we work to implement it. We are committed to maintaining Wealden as a jewel of green space in the East Sussex crown. “