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Moral victory is not enough to save ancient woodland

By Eamonn McCann

Published 07/10/2015

It's always good to be able to report a win for grassroots campaigners over pig-headed bureaucracy. So, congratulations to George McLaughlin and Damien Martin of the Prehen Historical and Environmental Society (PHES).

They have just had official confirmation of the validity of their complaints about the way planning permission was given for houses on one of the last patches of pristine woodland left in the land.

But lovers of the landscape can still sing their songs of praise for the doughty Prehen campaigners. When it comes to a contest between developers and defenders of our natural heritage, winning the argument doesn't necessarily mean landing the prize.

Prehen Woods is the only remnant of the ancient forest which once curved its way along the Foyle from Derry to Strabane.

The Woodland Trust hails it as "one of Northern Ireland's rare and irreplaceable ancient woodlands ... At 7.5 hectares (18.5 acres) the remaining woodland is much reduced ... That which remains, however, is a natural treasure trove."

For Derry children in times long gone, Prehen Woods was a wonderland, just across the bridge in the Waterside, a secret sanctuary secluded from adult surveillance, with a canopy of greenery splintering the light and a carpet of bluebells under your feet, and red squirrels, long-eared owls, sparrowhawks, foxes and badgers.

In 2005, a planning notice announced a proposal for four houses at the edge of the wood, with link road and sewerage and drainage facilities. PHES immediately objected. The woods had been declared an Area of Nature Conservation and was covered by a Tree Preservation Order and a number of other protective designations. Nobody refuted the PHES case. It was just ignored.

"What is the point of these designations and protection orders if they can be set aside at the whim, or discretion, of a particular planning officer?" More than eight years on, with the Prehen Woods development under way, there's still no answer.

In the meantime, PHES has been back and forth, back and forth, to the Planning Service, the Department of the Environment, the Information Commissioner, local councils and every elected representative in the area. All to no avail.

The obduracy of the bureaucracy has been as remarkable as the persistence of the PHES. On what basis had the Planning Service dismissed PHES's objections, asked George back in 2007. The planners ignored him.

George complained to the Department of the Environment. He could inspect the relevant documents at the planning office, the department eventually advised. But George and Damien had already been there, done that. There wasn't even a Post-it relevant to their case. Freedom of information requests for documents setting out how the application had been handled were ignored. PHES complained to the Information Commissioner. The commissioner wrote to the department in February 2009. Ten months later, the commissioner wrote again: why had his February letter been ignored?

Weeks later, the department responded that George could inspect the relevant documents at the planning office. It is difficult to avoid a conclusion that public officials were having a laugh at the presumption of members of the public trying to exercise their statutory rights.

PHES asked for an inquiry into the handling the application. The planning authorities replied that there was no mechanism for holding such an inquiry. George and Damien protested to the department. The department ordered a "review".

Last month, PHES finally got its hands on the outcome of the review.

English planning expert John Davies found that the department had been wrong to allow assessment of the plan without taking proper account of the impact of access to the proposed houses - on the face of it, a startling omission.

The PHES had been treated unfairly: its objections had not been properly evaluated. Adequate reasons had not been provided for approving the application in the first place.

Problem solved, then? The trees will whisper, the bluebells sway, the inquisitive squirrels continue to dash and scamper? No. The fact that the application had been wrongly handled, that the impact of the development had been wrongly assessed, that the citizens who had objected had been wrongly treated, did not mean that it had been wrong to allow the development to go ahead.

George and Damien hadn't seen that one coming. They say they will fight on. But it is easier to have admiration for their indomitability than confidence that they'll succeed.

Last week, a property website was advertising: "This secluded luxurious new development, accessed through the lower part of Prehen Woods, which means the driveway in and out will be an ever-changing vista with oak and beech trees, not to mention beautiful hazel and holly trees." Yours for £295,000.

Once upon a time, it belonged to us all.

Belfast Telegraph

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