|Our statement regarding the Solent Freeport at the New Forest National Park Authority meeting on 20th October 2022 included these Notes and Footnotes for the benefit of the Authority Members.
Further context is in THIS article (forthcoming).
New Forest East MP Dr Julian Lewis submitted a question about the seeming inclusion of the whole of the New Forest in the provisional boundary of the Freeport.
|LEVELLING UP, HOUSING & COMMUNITIES – SOLENT FREEPORT  – 21 September 2022
Dr Julian Lewis: To ask the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, for what reason the entirety of the New Forest has been included within the provisional boundary of the proposed Solent Freeport. 
[Due for Answer on 11 October.]
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up (Dehenna Davison): By delivering investment on specific priority sites, Freeports will create thousands of high-quality jobs in some of our most disadvantaged communities. These sites have been carefully selected for their suitability for development by the local Freeport coalition, which comprises key private partners and Local Authorities who, importantly, provide democratic accountability for the actions of the Freeport. The development sites sit within an ‘outer boundary’ which sets the limit for how far apart they can be and broadly indicates the area they expect to benefit most directly from the Freeport’s economic impacts. While the Solent Freeport outer boundary intersects with the New Forest National Park, this in no way means that the area has been earmarked for development nor does this confer any special planning status. Local authorities retain all their statutory powers and responsibilities, including responsibility for providing planning permission. Freeport status in no way undercuts the local planning process and there is no change to the current planning and environment status of national parks.
The Government’s assurances in their reply to Julian Lewis [above] do not mention or reaffirm the Duty of Regard to the National Park in the planning process, and given that this government and its predecessors have failed to bolster environment legislation (and may even further dilute), had Natural England assess their own proposals below the standards demanded by legislation, systematically defunded both Parks and the agencies relevant for delivery of environmental and habitat, their ambitious targets seem hollow promises.
[i] Statement on NFDC Website, 14 October 2022
|No changes to planning and environmental protection says New Forest District Council
New Forest District Council leader, Cllr Edward Heron has written to the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, in response to the call for expressions of interest to become an Investment Zone which was announced by government on 24 September 2022.
The letter reiterates that as a partner in the Solent Freeport, we are keen to secure the greatest benefits for their residents, as well as the local area.
Councillor Edward Heron writes:
“Within the government’s recent Investment Zone opportunity there is much that aligns and enhances the Freeport benefits, both to the tax site areas, and the wider District. The financial incentives are significantly enhanced and it is important that our businesses and developers have the opportunity to benefit from this new offer. For example, securing tax incentives over a 10 year period to 2032 rather than the current Freeport period which expires in 2026 and will make these sites significantly more attractive as a place to locate businesses.
We are keen therefore to explore with Government, and our partners what an Investment Zone could deliver for the Solent Freeport and ultimately our residents and our environment now and in the future, and I have therefore supported the Solent Freeport Board’s expression of interest submitted today.”
The announcement from government made it clear that Investment Zones would only be taken forwards with the support of the Local Planning Authority.
The letter from Cllr Edward Heron goes on to say:
“New Forest District Council supported the Freeport on the basis that the designation would not impact on the statutory planning process that a landowner would need to go through, to seek consent to develop the site.
The indication of support from this Council as the local planning authority is based on the understanding that the current level of environmental protection is assured for the future and on the clear and unequivocal understanding that conversion of the Solent Freeport to an Investment Zone will not include a streamlining of planning, deregulation, or a dilution of the environmental protections that are currently in place. Should this not be the case, then the Council would not support the designation of the Freeport Tax Site within the District as an Investment Zone.
I understand that this commitment is shared by the Freeport Board and we look forward to shaping a unique Investment Zone that delivers sustainable and inclusive growth for the New Forest and wider region.”
The increased Freeport opportunities for investment, regeneration, and employment were endorsed by us during the submission of the Solent Freeport business case to the government in March 2022. The business case carefully considered the Freeport within the context of the environmental designation across the area, working to focus on net zero, green recovery and strengthening the environment.
The Solent Freeport focuses on the Council’s Waterside area with the Waterfront tax site covering four specific landholdings; the former Fawley Power Station, Exxon Mobil, ABP’s Strategic Land Reserve and Marchwood Port (Solent Gateway). The whole District, including the New Forest National Park, is included in the Freeport outer boundary which is intended to ensure that the potential funding and broader benefits from the Freeport can be focused across the whole area.
[ii] The Solent Protection Society review of the Solent LEP’s Freeport Consultation response makes these observations (quotes from the LEP response in italics):
Given the large number of local authorities across the Solent Freeport region, Solent LEP go further, proposing “the establishment of a special Virtual Planning Authority that is facilitated by a coordinating institution with the cooperation of relevant local authorities”. This is a direction which Solent Protection Society believe should be pursued with great caution. There are already well publicised proposals, for example the Aquind Interconnector project near Portsmouth and the Southern Water desalination plant near Fawley, where opportunities for public and local authority scrutiny are being overridden by central governments’ declaration of the initiative as a ‘National Infrastructure Development Project’.
The Solent LEP response also proposes “extending the permitted development rights accorded to ports to include assembly and manufacturing though they believe this would still not improve the planning environment enough to act as an incentive to potential investors. While the expansion of permitted development rights would simplify development processes on seaport land, it would still not allow for the greater freedoms or coordination in higher-level planning required to ensure Freeport success.”
In what might seem to some a worrying threat to environmental standards, the Solent LEP go further, suggesting that “existing environmental regulations along much of the UK coastline supersede Permitted Development Rights, further limiting their additional value as an incentive”.
Their updated analysis of Freeport Tax Sites including noting that Dibden Bay is listed as both a Tax and Customs Site (for those trying to disabuse the notion of its development as a port facility). This notes particularly:
Marchwood Port / ‘Strategic Land Reserve’ – Solent Gateway / ABP
Tax site type – Existing Facility / Greenfield
Customs Site – Marchwood Port / ABP ‘Strategic Land Reserve’
Assumed programme delivery priority – High/Medium
It is notable that ABP have only submitted the northern part of their Dibden Bay ‘Strategic Land Reserve’ for definition as a Freeport tax site. Leaving the southern part of the Dibden Bay site out of the Freeport definition enables ABP to retain an option to keep this part of the ‘Strategic Land Reserve’ for future expansion of its non-freeport operations from the eastern shore.
Current environmental regulations give the Dibden Bay shoreline some level of protection from development, however once the freeport is in operation, developments within its boundary will benefit from the government’s proposed relaxation of planning regulations within freeports. As SPS observed in our report from May 2021, the Solent LEP at page 17 of their consultation response suggested that permitted development rights in freeports should be extended to enable those rights to supersede existing environmental development regulations.
Once development of the northern part of the Dibden Bay shoreline has been permitted under the freeport rules, then a precedent would have been set which could then be used to attempt to override the existing environmental protections outside the freeport boundary in the southern part of the ABP ‘Strategic Land Reserve’.
[iii] Two bills effecting planning, with overlapping goals for growth are still proceeding forward, expect if one falls the other to remain:
[iv] Interview with outgoing ABP exec Doug Morrison [including claims for future of Dibden Bay]:
[v] Report to NF NPA Meeting 20/10/2022 by David Illsley, this is the paper that the Authority were to discuss after our statement in Public Questions. It outlines the lack of clear guidance from Government surrounding the Investment Zones, issues of implications of the Freeport and Investment Zones on the National Park, and options for the Members to support.
[vi] The Duty of Regard has already been eroded by NFDC in their most recent local plan:
During the 2019 examination both the Wildlife Trust and RSPB stated categorically that not only had the NFDC failed to show the efficacy of their current mitigation, but NFDC had in no way shown that they could possibly mitigate for their four-fold increase in housing development in the new plan. (also see Endnote ix below)
[vii] HCC failed to initiate the most basic habitat assessment before or since consultations around the proposals for widening the A326. Also, given the years of NFDC consistently overdeveloping the Waterside and permitting development up to the edge of the road, any widening will inevitably impinge on the Forest.
viii] The Campaign For National Parks wrote a brief analysis of the Investment Zones and Freeports, (including the claim that the current sea life disaster off the North York Moors coast are due to dredging at Teesside):
|“The Government’s proposed Investment Zones may impact 7 National Parks and 29 Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty – together accounting for 2 million hectares of our most special landscapes. This follows announcements on Freeports that include the New Forest, Dartmoor and North York Moors National Parks, along with many AONBs, within their boundaries. We only need to look at the ecological disaster unfolding on the North York Moors coast, with growing evidence suggesting this is a direct effect of the Teesside Freeport, to know that unregulated development in these precious landscapes would not end well.”|
Their comments on the Government’s Response:
|There is much to be concerned about in the current Government’s proposals to boost growth by “liberalising” planning and doing away with many vital environmental protections. One of the things we’re most concerned about is the proposed investment zones which, as analysis we published last week shows, could impact seven National Parks and 29 Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs). These areas account for a combined 2 million hectares of landscape, pulling in 250 million visitors last year, and generating an annual economic contribution of £24 billion.
We wrote to Simon Clarke, the new Secretary of State responsible for planning, to highlight these concerns and seek a formal commitment to excluding National Parks and AONBs from investment zones. Our letter also asked for reassurances that there will be no downgrading or removal of the additional planning protections which apply in these areas, including the presumption against major development.
We’ve now had a response from Simon Clarke, which makes lots of positive references to the benefits National Parks deliver, but unfortunately doesn’t give us the reassurances we need. It is good to see that the Secretary of State recognises the contribution of these Protected Landscapes to our identity, economy and environment, and his acknowledgement of the important role for these areas in achieving nature recovery commitments. But rather than ruling out any possibility of investment zones in Protected Landscapes, he says that they will only be allowed where there is local consent.
This doesn’t give us the reassurance we need. The Secretary of State must go further and confirm that there is no way that Investment Zones will go ahead in National Parks and AONBs. Placing the emphasis on local planning authorities to make those decisions brings huge risks, particularly for AONBs which are not planning authorities and have no formal role in decision making. Indeed, the Government set out proposals in the Landscapes Review earlier this year to make AONBs statutory consultees for planning precisely because they don’t currently have a strong enough role in planning decisions.
Dr Rose O’Neill, Chief Executive of Campaign for National Parks said: “We welcome warm words from the Secretary of State, but we need to see firm commitments in policy that Investment Zones will not go ahead in National Parks and AONBs.”
Campaign for National Parks is also very concerned about the impact that investment zones in other areas close to their boundaries could have on National Parks and AONBs. Increased development in neighbouring areas will only increase pressure for new roads and other infrastructure inside Protected Landscapes.
Rose added: “It is absolutely vital that our Protected Landscapes are protected from the impacts of damaging development outside their boundaries too. We only need to look at the ecological disaster unfolding off the coast of the North York Moors National Park, and the growing evidence linking this to the neighbouring Teesside Freeport, to see why it’s so important to protect our most precious landscapes from unregulated development.”
Campaign for National Parks fought for the creation of National Parks over 70 years ago. That they, and AONBs, have been stewarded safely and protected from irresponsible development ever since is one of the biggest successes in public policy in this country. The rules in place to protect them are not “burdensome requirements”: they are a vital part of ensuring we pass this inheritance to future generations.
The ongoing issues with Teesside Freeport dredging and the DEFRA response to mass sea life poisoning, noted in the CNP’s response:
The RSPB response to recent proposals including “Investment Zones”
[ix] Additionally, the conservation charities agreed with the NFA contention that the mitigation regimes inappropriately use the formula developed by Natural England for Thames Basin Heaths, which does not scale appropriately to the Forest because a) the Forest is much richer in features and biodiversity at threat and should cost developers more b) the morphology of the Forest is different: Thames Basin Heaths spatially has greater opportunity for alternative spaces, where the Forest, surrounded, creates more of a siege situation (with only one major SANG to the West at Moors Valley, and plans for similar facilities to the East not yet realized).
NFDC’s standards for SANG’s are not sufficient to create landscape scale alternatives for recreation of sufficient quality to take pressure off the New Forest. Initiatives to create effective and meaningful landscape scale mitigation projects to relieve recreation pressure on the Forest have been stalled continually, but their fruition should have been a prerequisite to any further development within the District. A HIOW Wildlife Trust assessment of greenspace provision within Hampshire ranked NFDC third from bottom, just above Portsmouth and Southampton, yet developers seek to erode the NFDC’s already minimal standards for SANG delivery. The Plan released Green Belt sites for development, rather than considering its potential for large landscape scale alternative greenspace for mitigation.
The Plan also undermined Duty of Regard by making the Fawley Waterside allocation dependent on the destruction of a SINC (Site of Interest to Nature Conservation) within the National Park, which was opposed by some National Park members.