Dibden Bay: The new environmental battleground

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Proposals to build a giant deep-water container port within the proposed New Forest National Park are expected to unleash one of the most bitter planning battles seen in Britain for years.

Proposals to build a giant deep-water container port within the proposed New Forest National Park are expected to unleash one of the most bitter planning battles seen in Britain for years.

Associated British Ports, the biggest ports business in the UK, wants to site more than a mile of shipping berths, an array of big cranes and a 500-acre terminal at Dibden Bay on the west side of Southampton Water, to form one of the largest dock areas in Europe, whose 24-hour operation is expected to generate more than 3,000 heavy lorry journeys a day.

The company says the £600m, nine-year development is essential to maintain the prosperity of the port of Southampton, which it owns, and which it says is running out of space to expand.

But the site is on the edge of the New Forest Heritage Area, and actually inside the proposed boundary of the New Forest National Park, whose establishment John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, announced 18 months ago.

Britain's environment sector is united against the scheme. A host of government agencies and conservation groups is registering objections in the strongest terms, saying its construction and operation - not least the huge increase in heavy goods vehicle traffic involved in handling 1.4 million containers a year - would harm the area's nationally important wildlife, landscape and tranquil character.

Apart from the New Forest itself, the project is likely to have an impact on a whole series of designated wildlife sites along Southampton Water and the Solent: no fewer than five Sites of Special Scientific Interest, a Special Protection Area under the EU Birds Directive, a Ramsar site (of international importance for wetlands) and a candidate Special Area of Conservation under the EU Habitats Directive.

The scheme also envisages the compulsory purchase of a coastal nature reserve owned by the Hampshire Wildlife Trust as a dumping ground for dredgings scooped up in the creation of a new deep-water channel. Mr Prescott is expected to refer the issue to a public inquiry shortly.

Dibden Bay encapsulates the conflict between economic development and conservation of the countryside in an extreme form. The New Forest, the ancient hunting ground of William the Conqueror, whose 200 square miles of ancient woodlands, pasture and open heaths form southern England's last unspoilt wilderness, is already subject to tourism and development pressures, sandwiched between South-ampton with its docks and oil refineries on one side, and Bournemouth on the other.

The New Forest symbolises the fortuitous survival of old and cherished landscapes, and its protection with National Park status is widely regarded as long overdue. To allow industrial development of Dibden Bay to go ahead on its edge - or indeed, if the proposed boundary is confirmed, within the National Park - would be regarded by conservationists as little short of sacrilege.

Yet Associated British Ports (ABP) feels it has a perfectly sound and rational case for the development. It is pursuing its application robustly and is making light of the objections.

The company points out that Dibden Bay was bought by its nationalised predecessor, the British Transport Docks Board, in 1967 with the express purpose of providing reserve dock capacity for Southampton, and the site itself is not forest but land that has been reclaimed from Southampton Water over several decades. It says the new port will provide 1,700 permanent jobs, quite apart from hundreds more jobs stemming from the construction.

It claims its own environmental impact assessment of the project, which has taken four years to produce, provides satisfactory answers to all the objections.

"You have to object to have your evidence considered at a public inquiry," says Captain Jimmy Chestnutt, ABP's Dibden Bay Project Manager.

"We don't think the objections will stand up to debate. We know our challenge is to prove that our project will not affect the integrity of the site and will not have an adverse effect on it. We are confident we will be able to prove that."

But ABP's assessment cuts no ice whatsoever with either English Nature, the Government's conservation adviser, or the Environment Agency. In their initial responses to the planning application, both harshly criticise its technical quality. The agency called it "deficient". Both bodies proffer a whole string of objections to the scheme, citing impacts on sensitive habitats and wildlife and concerns about pollution.

The terminal's potential effect on the New Forest itself has been signalled by Richard Wakeford, chief executive of the Countryside Agency. "It will impact strongly on the area's unique landscape and character and will significantly affect the setting of the New Forest," he says in his own objection to the proposals.

The Wildlife Trusts, the National Trust, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Council for National Parks are all adding their voices to the opposition. "In deciding to make it a National Park, the Government recognised the New Forest's special qualities," said Emma Loat, policy officer for the Council for National Parks. "Dibden Bay will be an acid test of the Government's commitment to defend it."

Local residents are also beginning to organise opposition.

But anyone who wants to campaign against the project seriously will have to dig deep into their pockets just to get to first base. ABP is charging stiff prices for copies of the 73 documents setting out its proposal. Only one of them is free, and the others cost up to £170 each, with the full set costing £2,027.32.

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