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Whitstable Oyster Company ordered by Canterbury City Council to remove all racks from beach

By Lydia Chantler-Hicks

The Whitstable Oyster Fishery Company has been ordered to remove its controversial racks by Canterbury City Council.

An enforcement notice served this week states that the firm has two months to pull up its trestles, bags and buoys off Whitstable beach.

WOFC owns the section of land on which the trestles are situated, but the metal structures have caused controversy regarding safety, and whether their placement on the beach breaches licensing laws.

The Oyster Racks exposed at low tide
The Oyster Racks exposed at low tide

This led to an investigation last year by the Marine Management Organisation into the safety of the racks, which ultimately ruled they were allowed to stay put.

However, Canterbury City Council requested the WOFC apply for planning permission and a retrospective certificate of lawful existing use or development (CLEUD) for the trestles.

As part of the firm's CLEUD application, it revealed there had been an almost 10-fold rise in trestles on the beach in a six-year period – from about 250 in 2010 to approximately 2,400 in 2016.

In June, the council refused the CLEUD application and ruled that more than 300 WOFC trestles on Whitstable beach were unlawful.

Now, the council has ordered the WOFC to remove all oyster trestles, bags, and marker buoys from the land within two calendar months.

A Canterbury City Council spokesman said: "After taking extensive legal advice, we came to the view the trestles, bags and buoys used by the Whitstable Oyster Fishery Company to grow oysters on their beach in Whitstable need planning permission.

"The company is aware of the position but has not made a planning application for the retention of the trestles.

"Therefore we had no option but to serve an enforcement notice on the company for what is an unlawful development that needs to be removed.

"A future application for retrospective planning permission to retain the trestles would be fully considered."

Oyster racks on Whitstable beach
Oyster racks on Whitstable beach

The Oyster Company is seeking advice on this, but no further decision has yet been made.

Cllr Ashley Clark, vice-chairman of Canterbury City Council's planning committee, said: "In planning terms, there is a conflict between private commercial ambitions to create something that never previously existed versus the amenity and safety of users of our waters and possible threats to ecology.

"Had the Oyster Company decided to repopulate the dredging areas in deeper water a mile or more from the shore with Native Oysters and to fish in the traditional way on the basis that the company was initially created then such activity would have had the full support of the local community. But they chose not to do this.

"They took unilateral action and made no planning application where all these issues could have been aired and investigated in advance."

WOFC uses the trestles at Whitstable beach to grow Pacific Oysters.

The company also harvests Whitstable Native Oysters, but as these are both rarer and seasonal the company produces far higher numbers of Pacific Oysters.

Company boss James Green claims the removal of racks could spell the end of oyster farming in the town. Questions have been put to the company to find out whether it would be viable for the WOFC to return to the previous methods of farming oysters, relied upon before it first began using racks in 2008.

Whitstable Oyster Fishery Company boss James Green
Whitstable Oyster Fishery Company boss James Green

He also points to a letter sent to WOFC by the city council in 2010 in which a planning officer wrote: “This LPA (local planning authority) are of the opinion that the metal trestles do not constitute development and therefore are not controllable under planning legislation.”

Mr Green said: "The WOFC has expanded the production area based on this advice. A letter of January 9, 2018 stated that they [the city council] now believe there had been a breach of planning.

"We are the only oyster company producing Whitstable Oysters.

"The council pursuing enforcement action will result in the 2018 Oyster Festival being the last oyster festival where Whitstable oysters will be available.

"Oyster production is intrinsic to the Whitstable Oyster Company – a business that employs 200 people whose jobs are now threatened by this action."

Only six people work directly on the oyster farm, while the majority of the WOFC workforce is employed at its other local businesses, such as the Hotel Continental and WOFC restaurant.

It is thought the removal of oyster racks could have a knock-on effect upon these jobs, but Mr Green has been asked to clarify this further.

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