PAUL LUSHION, our environment correspondent, reports on how a 6,000-signature petition is about to be handed to a council leader demanding that they do their job to protect south London’s biggest nature reserve
The Beddington Farmlands nature reserve, just the other side of the borough boundary with Sutton, was once a jewel in London’s ecological crown.
Yet Sutton Council is now using the existence of the Viridor incinerator – which the LibDem-run council allowed to be built on Metropolitan Open Land (MOL) next to the nature reserve – as an excuse to allow even more industrial development and encroachment into the nature reserve.
Some 10 acres of the nature reserve along the Beddington Lane frontage have recently been de-designated as MOL – which is supposed to have the same protections as Green Belt. It has been handed over for industrial development as part of the New Sutton Plan. In the past year or so, another 10 acres have also been lost to industry, while there has also been losses to the incinerator development, the “Incinerator Academy” primary school at Hackbridge, and an extension of waste management facilities.
At the current rate of loss of approximately 20 acres a year, the entire nature reserve could be gone within 20 years, according to local conservationists.
The wildlife in Beddington Farmlands is in shocking and rapid decline. The latest breeding birds survey shows eight species now extinct, failed or in drastic decline. The tree sparrow population has collapsed from a thousand birds to a single breeding pair in just a decade.
The latest piecemeal industrialisation of the area is being undertaken by Prologis, with plans for “industrial and distribution facilities”. Its development scheme includes taking a chunk of wetland, important for wetland bird species.
There are immense financial rewards for the developers in destroying this habitat. The land to the north of the Prologis site is still under investigation for the largest environmental crime in Sutton Council history, when more than 20 large mature oak trees were felled illegally. This wetland area (now under Prologis control) is called Oak Field Beds – named after the oak copse that was illegally felled.
According to Peter Alfrey, a local conservationist, “Developers have been scrambling for this land for years, and some have gone to extreme measures to achieve their objectives.” Alfrey says he has no doubts that some of the activity in the area has broken wildlife and planning laws, in an effort to degrade the habitat and therefore make justification for the land’s development all the easier.
The Viridor incinerator was granted planning permission for the site on the edge of the Framlands in a highly contentious decision in 2013.
Built at a cost of £210million, it was due to be fully operational by the middle of last year, part of a 25-year deal which will see four south London boroughs, including Croydon, paying Viridor £1billion to burn their rubbish. Despite test burning going on for six months, the incinerator is still not yet fully functioning, and Viridor has yet to release any emissions data, to which they, as operators of the plant, have sole access.
Nick Mattey, the independent councillor for Beddington North, describes the situation as “a nightmare”.
“In the local plan, the inspector who approves the plan said that four hectares of Metropolitan Open Land on the western side of Beddington Lane could be used for industrial purposes because the land was now blighted by the incinerator,” Mattey said.
When Viridor was given planning permission for the incinerator six years ago, the company promised to restore the surrounding area and set targets for increasing key wildlife. A comprehensive management plan was drawn up to deliver an abundant nature reserve for local people. Planning permission was granted conditional on this management plan being delivered.
Alfrey is one of a number of individuals and groups who say that Viridor has failed to fulfil its wildlife obligations, and in 2015, they have even got a ruling from the Local Government Ombudsman supporting their contention. The trouble is, Sutton’s LibDem-controlled Council has failed to fulfil its duties and conduct any enforcement action against Viridor.
When an enforcement official was eventually appointed by Sutton in 2018, as they had been ordered to do by the Ombudsman, the officer left the job inside three months. No explanation has ever been offered by Sutton, and no replacement has been appointed. No enforcement action has been taken by the council, despite the Ombudsman’s ruling.
Now, the Wandle Valley Forum, a grouping of environmental-focused organisations across south-west London, is preparing to hand a petition to Ruth Dombey, the LibDem leader of Sutton, demanding action on the Ombudsman’s ruling against her council and Viridor’s negligence. They already have accumulated around 6,000 signatures.
Tony Burton, the chair of Wandle Valley Forum, told Inside Croydon: “It is shocking to find that despite hundreds of pages documenting correspondence between Sutton Council and Viridor, that Beddington Farmlands is still without its promised nature reserve.
“Wildlife has collapsed and there is next to no public access to enjoy this vast area of open space at the heart of the Wandle Valley Regional Park.
“The Beddington incinerator is nearing completion and there should be no further delay in Sutton Council taking enforcement action to deliver what was promised to the community.
“We call on Sutton Council to put an end to the delay. It is time to enforce the planning conditions and require Viridor to restore the site and deliver the nature reserve it promised. Everyone can support our campaign by signing up to the petition calling for action.”
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