MAJOR conflict is fast approaching in a fraught battle to save a piece of ancient woodland in West Sussex from a massive housebuilding and road widening scheme.
The planning application to build 875 homes and fell 275 trees at Titnore Lane, West Durrington, was approved by Tory-run Worthing Borough Council at a meeting on June 10, at which police were called to evict protesters from the stage. And with the Government Office for the South East announcing on August 1 that there would be no public enquiry, battle lines are now being formed for a new stage in the long-running conflict.
To kick this off, an outdoor public meeting is being staged close to Titnore Lane on Sunday September 4. This is at 2pm in Northbrook Park, between Titnore Lane and Romany Road. It is a short walk from Goring railway station on the main South Coast line between Brighton and Portsmouth.
Titnore Lane and the redevelopment site is located to the north east of Highdown Hill between the A27 and A259 to the South. To the north of the site and the A27 lie Clapham Woods (the largest dip slope unitary ancient woodland complex on the South Downs) and the South Downs where the ground rises to above 300 feet. Titnore Lane for many years has been a rat run for traffic commuting between the two major south coast trunk roads, but its origins date back into prehistory as a droveway.
The development will include the straightening of Titnore Lane to cope with the increase in traffic between the A27, A259 and the new developments. The proposed road works would plough through rare ancient semi-natural woodland that has been there since the last ice age. It has been designated a Site of Nature Conservation Importance (SNCI) and is completely irreplaceable. Several hundred trees would have to be felled, many over 150 years old and comprising oak, ash birch and willow. The woods are home to many protected species of wildlife, including bats, crested newts, dormice, slow-worms etc.
These trees are part of one of the last remaining areas of ancient woodland on the coastal plan and ironically the developers accept that the ancient woodland is of great conservation importance as it is known to support a considerable variety of bird species - long tailed tit, blackcap, treecreeper, willow warbler and chiffchaff. They also accept that the oaks along Titnore Lane are of lichenological interest and include Schismatomma quercina which is very rare in Sussex and the uncommon species Arthonia vinosa.
The campaign to save Titnore's trees got going in earnest in January 2002, when a protest alliance called Protect Our Woodland, or POW!, was formed in Worthing. It quickly became apparent that big money was involved in the Titnore development. The West Durrington Consortium consists of Heron Group, Bryant Homes (part of Taylor Woodrow) and Persimmon Homes. Local campaigning newsletter The Porkbolter revealed in May 2002 that the Heron Group is headed by super-rich Gerald Ronson, a convicted crook who has been jailed for his shady deals. Ronson was found guilty of one charge of conspiracy, two of false accounting and one of theft in August 1990, as part of the notorious Guinness insider share dealing scandal. He was fined £5 million and sentenced to one year in prison, though he ended up serving only six months, being released in February 1991.
As well as raising a petition with thousands of names, POW! called a protest for May 26, 2002 to mobilise public opinion against the threat of development. Sussex Police declared in the local press that the protest was "illegal" because nobody had come crawling to them to seek their "permission" to exercise their democratic rights. At this point a long spell of police harassment began. Reports came in of people distributing leaflets about the protest in a supermarket car park being followed and videoed by a phalanx of police the day before the march and of local residents being intimidated by constant visits from police demanding to know who was "organising" the protest.
On the day, some 350 people ignored the efforts by police scare them off. The protesters, young and old, gathered at the southern end of Titnore Lane outside Northbrook College from about 1.40pm. Then at around 2.20pm, as police with loud hailers looked likely to try and order their dispersal, they moved off en masse up the lane, whistles blowing, banners flying and chants ringing out of "No more houses - Save our woods!" The unstoppable mass forced police to divert traffic as the procession travelled the whole length of Titnore Lane and back, closing the road for a couple of hours.
The protest was a defiant but peaceful event, and many locals on the demonstration were outraged to find they were being filmed by police "evidence gatherers" using aggressive "in-your-face" tactics. At the end of the protest, on the A259 roundabout, police decided to arrest one man, a youth and a woman. Police claims that they were assaulted were shown to be false in the most dramatic fashion on November 11 2002, when the Crown Prosecution Service offered no further evidence against the woman in question. Luckily, the incident had been filmed by a member of the public - unknown to the police - and this evidence showed the police allegations to be a total invention.
With a string of subsequent protests being held in Durrington and Worthing town centre, police harassment continued, with visits to people's homes demanding to know the identity of the "organisers". Titnore campaigners were also vilified by local Tory politicianswho tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade residents that the real threat to the area came not from the property developers' bulldozers but from "eco-warriors" out to disrupt their lives.
The strength of local opposition was so apparent, and the climate so tense, that the issue was cleverly put on the back burner for months on end and a PR firm, ironically called "Green Issues", brought in to try and split the anti-development camp and take the sting out of the campaign by staging phoney "public consultation". WHile POW! continued its campaigning, the long delay did serve to confuse the public and there were even rumours circulating that the whole development had been shelved because of flooding fears. When Worthing Borough Council invited the public to its meeting on June 11, it was clearly hoping the issue had faded - and it did its best to create that impression by giving less than a week's notice to those lucky enough to be kept informed.
But the high-profile response of campaigners on the night, which received corporate press and TV coverage, will have buried any such complacency at the Town Hall, and POW! hopes they will come to bitterly regret their denial of local democracy in the weeks and months to come.