Nick Arthur – Waterstock Parish Meeting, Oxfordshire
We have learned over the years that it’s vital to keep an eye on proposed developments and make the council aware if they threaten the environment and wellbeing of both our human and wildlife populations. As a small Parish, our secret weapon has been the involvement of our villagers and neighbouring villages and towns, but key has been the interest of experts from wildlife charities who visit our patch to help us ensure all wildlife sightings are shared where they will be logged and noticed.
Thanks to their work, over the last decade, the increasing awareness of the diversity and importance of Waterstock's wildlife, wetlands, and green spaces has been recognised and in February 2019 it was designated as a protected Local Wildlife Site.
On the Waterstock stretch of the River Thame in South Oxfordshire, you can see otters and kingfishers hunting in the water; peregrine falcons and tawny owls flying through the trees; and bee orchids and the very rare great dodder plant blooming. However, Waterstock is perhaps best known for its population of curlews, one of the UK's most endangered bird species.
The Local Wildlife designation, awarded by the Thames Valley Environmental Records Centre (TVERC) and Berks Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust (BBOWT), recognises the site as having ‘high wildlife value’ or containing threatened species of county or national importance. You can find out more about LWS by visiting the TVERC website.
It was only possible to get this accolade thanks to the work of dedicated volunteers, and the hard work and expertise of local conservation organisations like the Freshwater Habitats Trust, the River Thame Conservation Trust, and Wild Oxfordshire, who have helped survey the flora, fauna, and wildlife, and provided practical conservation assistance. Particular thanks go to Nick Marriner (bird surveys), Roger Heath- Brown (plant surveys) and Peter Alfrey (moth surveys).
Unfortunately, like much of Oxfordshire, the attractiveness of Waterstock makes it a target for speculative residential and commercial development. Over the years, we’ve learned the hard way that it’s vital to stay informed about proposed developments. Unless you’re aware of what’s being proposed in your area, you will find it difficult to examine whether they’re in best interests of your community and the environment.
To stay on top of the process you need to know what’s being proposed. Local planning authorities, in our case South Oxfordshire District Council, allow you to sign up using your email address to automatically receive updates on planning applications, and you can also search the Central Government planning register.
It’s also valuable to build relationships with neighbouring parish councils, and to help each other stay informed about possible developments and other planning-related activities in your area. This will help you to influence decisions before a formal application is made, to coordinate against any unwelcome local developments, and to make sure that your communities’ voices are heard by those with authority over planning decisions. The Campaign To Protect Rural England has a useful website where you can find practical guidance about how to review and respond to planning applications.
In addition, you should also take proactive steps to protect your community’s environment and the wildlife that flourishes there. One of the best ways to do this is by recording all the wildlife and their habitats to a high standard, report this information to TVERC, and to your district council and regularly reviewing and updating your data.
Neighbourhood planning is a right for communities introduced through the Localism Act 2011. A Neighbourhood Plan (NP) is a legally binding planning document- a ‘child’ of the South Oxfordshire District Council Local Plan, so to speak. NPs must comply with both local and national, higher-level planning policies, and they are about allowing villages, towns, or neighbourhoods to shape development in that area. They set out policies related to land use, identifying what is best for the community, and what is needed to deliver tangible positive changes to that place.
Many NPs have been driven by a fear of development impacting communities through inappropriate scale and potentially overloading local infrastructure (e.g. where large housing schemes are proposed on the edge of a settlement). Many communities are also concerned about negative impacts on the historic character of their locality through ‘off the peg’ design templates of new housing. In addition, the adverse impact of development may threaten the loss of biodiversity, habitat, and green fields loved by local people. NP policies can positively address these issues.
However, while an NP cannot overrule any development already included in the SODC Local Plan, it can absolutely provide a framework to help the planning authority make better decisions, taking into account matters of importance established by the NP process. Those specific themes will emerge from local consultation and may focus on character, infrastructure, housing, environment, and sustainability. Plans are also becoming increasingly engaged with issues such nature recovery, biodiversity net gain, and addressing global heating. In essence, a NP is the strongest tool in the box for communities seeking to ensure the planning system works in the best interests of local residents.
Communities First Oxfordshire can help communities can produce a Neighbourhood Development Plan (NDP) using their own expertise and capacity, with support and guidance from CFO’s team of specialists, which include RTPI-accredited planning experts.
Oxfordshire’s wildlife and local environment are currently under threat from huge numbers of developments. To minimise the impact that they have on our cherished green spaces and the species that call them home, we must work together, stay informed, and ensure that our elected representatives recognise their importance.