'Warehouses would destroy this' - campaigners urge Kettering planning inquiry inspector to preserve 'sanctuary'

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An eight-day inquiry which will decide the fate of land near Weekley Hall Wood began this morning

It’s all boiled down to this.

A three-and-a-half year fight against plans for a controversial Kettering warehouse park will soon end one way or another, with the decision down to one man.

Government-appointed planning inspector George Baird opened a planning inquiry today (Tuesday) over the future of land at Kettering North, near Weekley Hall Wood, on the northern edge of the town.

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Campaigners outside the council offices this morningCampaigners outside the council offices this morning
Campaigners outside the council offices this morning

Barristers will argue their cases, discussing complex and technical points of planning law over eight days at North Northamptonshire Council’s (NNC) Thrapston offices.

But the first day was a chance for residents to have their say – and if anyone at the inquiry had any doubt over the strength of feeling, they don’t any more.

About 20 locals and campaigners from the Save Weekley Hall Wood (SWHW) group sat in the public gallery and there was a very different vibe to previous key meetings. They held a silent protest outside with placards before shuffling in one by one and listening intently. When one member of the public’s speech was met with soft applause, Mr Baird reminded them this was ‘not a council meeting or a music hall’.

Applicants Buccleuch Property (Kettering) Ltd, the Duke of Buccleuch's development company, want to build six units and originally earmarked more than 40,000 sq m of trees for the chop, before backing down and redesigning the scheme after a furious backlash. But campaigners are still not happy because the plan would see the loss of a meadow and popular walking routes.

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The planning inquiry is due to last eight days.The planning inquiry is due to last eight days.
The planning inquiry is due to last eight days.

Tessa Sellick told the inquiry that her children grew up playing and cycling in the nearby woods, adding that it’s a sanctuary where she’s often sought solace.

She said: "I do not want to lose this sanctuary...please preserve our woods and meadows."

Steven Geary said losing spaces like this would ‘be an impact we regret’ and questioned Buccleuch’s approach to the site.

He said: "They are neighbours of Kettering. Long-term, do they want to be associated with putting tin shack sheds there as opposed to a more thoughtful and considered approach to the environment?"

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L-R: David Hugh Meagher, Dr Siobhan Currie, Dez Dell, John Padwick, Martin Toms, Frankie O’Dowd, Steven Geary, Grace Siddington, Liz Dell, Robert Dixon and Ian Gemmell.L-R: David Hugh Meagher, Dr Siobhan Currie, Dez Dell, John Padwick, Martin Toms, Frankie O’Dowd, Steven Geary, Grace Siddington, Liz Dell, Robert Dixon and Ian Gemmell.
L-R: David Hugh Meagher, Dr Siobhan Currie, Dez Dell, John Padwick, Martin Toms, Frankie O’Dowd, Steven Geary, Grace Siddington, Liz Dell, Robert Dixon and Ian Gemmell.

Ian Gemmell added: "I do not see anywhere in Kettering which is comparable with this site. It's not easily replicated...the Duke's plan does not seem to acknowledge people's needs to enjoy natural landscapes."

John Padwick, who lives in Geddington, drew comparisons between the fight and the enclosure of common land nearby in 1607, which led to the deadly Newton Rebellion.

He said: "Five big warehouses plonked on the meadow would destroy this. This would be the final act of enclosure."

Resident Helen Norman told the inquiry we have “a duty to those too young to voice their objections and think very carefully about the implications of our actions”.

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Placards left outside the inquiry.Placards left outside the inquiry.
Placards left outside the inquiry.

And David Hugh Meagher, who takes his assistance dog to the open space to let her off the lead, added: "Weekley Hall Wood reconnects me with myself. It's one of the reasons I'm still here today."

Buccleuch Property had appealed to the Planning Inspectorate because of NNC’s failure to make a decision, meaning whether to approve or reject the bid has been taken out of the hands of locally-elected councillors. NNC had said that, at this stage, they would have refused the application had they been in a position to make a decision.

A lot hinges on whether the plan accords with policy 36 of the North Northamptonshire Joint Core Strategy (JCS), which provides strategic planning policies for future development. It allocates the site for employment uses and says it will provide for a minimum of 40 ha of B1 (business), B2 (general industry) and small scale B8 (storage and distribution) development together with approximately 3 ha of leisure (D2) related uses. It also says there should be an agreed masterplan which should include proposals for access, mitigating infrastructure, an integrated transport network, protecting local wildlife sites and more.

Earlier this morning Zack Simons, representing Buccleuch, told the inquiry the plan accords with the policy and should be approved. He said that, over the next 10 years, the scheme will account for almost 2,400 jobs and have a 'net present value' of almost £360m.

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He said: "This is a much-needed scheme on a sustainably located site allocated for the proposed uses in the council's core strategy, which makes it all the more disappointing that this application sat undetermined by this council since as long ago as March 2020 – for well over three years – before this appeal was finally brought against its failure to determine the application in August 2023.

"The council's litany of putative reasons for refusal bear no relation to its pre and post-application responses over several years.

"The appeal scheme accords with the allocation policy, and with the development plan as a whole."

David Forsdick KC, representing NNC, said the proposal is fundamentally at odds with almost all elements of policy 36.

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He said 68 per cent of the application could not rationally be judged ‘small scale B8 development’.

Mr Forsdick added: "The proposal for what is essentially a dense and large-scale warehouse park, which does not meet B1/B2 employment need, is isolated from the town centre and insufficiently landscaped, and flies in the face of the principal requirements of policy 36."

The SWHW group is being represented at the hearing by Paul Stinchcombe KC – the former Wellingborough MP – after campaigners raised more than £30,000 to hire a barrister.

He said Buccleuch's bid is in 'blatant breach' of policy 36 because proposals are for the 'wrong' jobs and come forward without any masterplan having been agreed in advance with the council.

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Mr Stinchcombe said: "The consequence will be severe and unnecessary environmental, ecological and amenity harm in a highly sensitive location, harm which policy 36 is designed to minimise."

He added that the site is home to a number of animals, many of which were either missed or under-recorded in an environmental statement because surveys were not undertaken in line with best practice guidance.

They include priority species of butterflies, red-listed birds, important species of bats and herptiles.

Mr Stinchcombe raised concerns that the development will 'swamp' the area and that there will be no open space for people, 'just vast warehouses and black tarmac'.

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He told Mr Baird: "In due course I shall therefore be respectfully inviting you to dismiss this appeal so that the appellant is forced back to the drawing board to do an awful lot better than it has done thus far."

Buccleuch say the clearance of grassland is to be compensated with the creation of an equivalent area of species-rich grassland, adding that mitigation measures would result in a biodiversity ‘net gain of 21.56 per cent’.

The inquiry will run until Friday, December 8, with 17 witnesses being called to give evidence on considerations such as transport, landscape, ecology, employment need, community impact and planning policy.

Planning inspector Mr Baird, who received 182 representations on the plan, will then consider the evidence and make a decision, which is due to be announced at a later date.

Each day of the inquiry is being streamed live on YouTube by NNC. To view the links for each day, visit https://saveweekleyhallwood.com/public-inquiry/.