Published: 09:46, 26 October 2021
| Updated: 12:55, 26 October 2021
Controversial oyster trestles erected on Whitstable's coastline have been granted planning permission following a public inquiry.
Whitstable Oyster Fishery Company (WOFC) has won its appeal to overturn a decision by Canterbury City Council to remove the metal racks.
But critics have branded the announcement a "sad day for the real people of the town".
The local authority served the firm an enforcement notice and gave it two months to remove the trestles in 2018.
This was despite the council ruling in 2010 the structures “do not constitute development and therefore are not controllable” under planning law.
WOFC has continued to add trestles to the beach each year - with there now thought to be almost 5,000.
But just 20% of these, closest to the shoreline, were considered by planning inspector Katie Peerless.
The council has no enforcement powers over the other 80% further out to sea, which are the legal responsibility of the Marine Management Organisation.
The MMO investigated the potential danger in 2018, concluding there was “insufficient evidence to prove a criminal offence” so the racks were therefore allowed to remain.
Objectors have previously raised concerns the obstacles could lead to someone being fatally injured.
The Whitstable Beach Campaign told how a survey last year revealed 164 people reported incidents involving the trestles.
They said despite warning signs and the buoyage around the farm, conditions could change quickly - with water-users finding themselves swept over the area.
Had the appeal been refused, the oyster company said the future of oyster farming in Whitstable would have been hugely impacted.
But following the public inquiry, which was held in July and August this year, Ms Peerless ruled that while there was "some additional risk to water users", the risks on their own were "not sufficient reason to refuse planning permission".
She said the trestles are about 0.75m high so adults and most older children would "not normally be out of their depth" where there was not enough water to pass over them safely.
"There are warning notices - some of which have been defaced or which otherwise need updating - positioned at many strategic points along the shore," she states.
"Although local objectors complain about signs telling the public that there are areas of the sea that they cannot use, I saw at my site visits that the warnings are obvious to anyone coming onto the beach."
Critics hit out at the visual impact of the metal racks, describing them as an "eyesore".
But Ms Peerless writes: "Whether the visual impact of the trestles is harmful is clearly one that is influenced by personal preferences and opinions.
"However, given the length of time the trestles are submerged and the fact that they are seen against a wide area of rather featureless mudflats when they are exposed, it seems to me that they do not cause unacceptable visual harm.
"In my opinion, they generate a certain amount of interest when they are visible due to their association with the oyster tradition that is evident in, and so important to, the town."
The WOFC argued the production of Whitstable oysters had contributed to much of the town's economic success, but critics said the regeneration of the town began before trestles were introduced.
Ms Peerless said: "I have no doubt the oyster trestles as a whole are providing some economic benefit to the town and the production of Whitstable oysters contributes to the tourist industry and raises the profile of the town.
"But their presence is also having a restrictive effect on the area of the sea that can be used for marine sports and recreation.
"Whether the loss of revenue that would occur if the appeal trestles were to be removed would be sufficiently compensated for by an increase in economic activity in these leisure areas has not been quantitively addressed."
Natural England dropped a bombshell at the public inquiry when it revealed it no longer objected to the controversial trestles.
It originally raised concerns in 2019, citing the displacement and disturbance of birds in the area and the impact of the invasive Pacific oysters, which are grown at the farm.
But the inquiry heard the government’s environmental adviser had agreed a “statement of common ground” with the WOFC.
In the statement, it was agreed operations on the farm should not be conducted where the temperature is below -3C to protect winter birds against disturbance during cold weather conditions, following surveys of the farm.
And regarding concerns over Pacific oysters, it was noted the WOFC cultivates ‘triploid’ stock, which are at reduced risk of reproducing due to the presence of a third chromosome.
The report concluded the trestles “do not have an adverse effect on the integrity of any sites”, including the Swale Special Protection Area and wetland area.
The city council subsequently confirmed it no longer had any planning objections.
But it was agreed with the WOFC the enforcement notice should not be withdrawn because it would be "prejudicial" to the firm who would have to apply for planning permission again.
Gorrell councillor Valerie Kenny (Lab) said she was "deeply dismayed" by the planning inspectorate's decision.
"I disagree with the conclusions reached - in particular, those related to the impact on the view and the impact on the economy," she said.
"As Whitstable endeavours to recover from the impact of the pandemic we need to preserve what makes this town attractive to visitors.
"The racks of oyster trestles are not attractive and are an eyesore in one of the most popular parts of the town.
"I believe the conclusions are short-sighted and could eventually damage both the tourist economy and marine life.
"Why is it that once again the voice of the people is not heard?"
Long-standing critic of the farm, Cllr Ashley Clark (Con), accused the council's planning and legal departments of a "lacklustre" performance by ignoring evidence collated by the Whitstable Beach Campaign (WBC).
"Instead they elected to pursue purely the environmental arm on the basis of what Natural England had to say and leaving the WBC to courageously cover the key aspects alone," he said.
"I have always said there is no democracy in planning and the views of hundreds of local people and their representatives were not accorded the weight they deserve.
"As far as planning goes, it remains very much a case of, 'we shall fight them on the beaches, we shall fight them in the hills and the landing grounds, but when it comes to the planning inspectorate, we will always surrender'.
"This is a sad day for the real people of the town."
In a statement following the decision, a Canterbury City Council spokesman said: "Although ultimately the appeal was allowed and planning permission granted, the independent planning inspector has made it clear we were entitled to be concerned about the possible harmful environmental impact of the trestles, and noted the lack of any positive response from the appellant.
"She also concluded that the issuing of the enforcement notice was a reasonable and proportional method of addressing our concerns at the time.
"The information that showed there was no significant impact on ecology from the trestles was not available until the Public Inquiry was well underway, so we therefore still believe it was correct to pursue the matter on behalf of local people."
James Green, the director of WOFC, has released a statement following the decision.
"The appeal inspector, Katie Peerless, has found in favour of the WOFC meaning the 25% of the farm subject to the enforcement notice served by Canterbury City Council, and the part intrinsic to the production of market sized oysters, will now stay.
"Therefore, we will continue the production of the famous Whitstable oysters on our freehold ground to meet the increasing demand for this environmentally sustainable product in Whitstable, the rest of the UK and abroad.
"It was never in the interest of the public to serve this enforcement notice which would have removed the production of market sized oysters from Whitstable; a town synonymous with oysters and whose economy is based on tourism. The council has now been shown to be wrong in serving the enforcement.
"The planning department was put under pressure to serve this enforcement notice by individuals such as Ashley Clark, Sally Newcombe and others from the WBC and the Whitstable Yacht Club.
"The process has cost both the council and the company substantial costs in the form of legal fees and independent consultants. Serious questions should be asked regarding this enforcement process, and why once implemented, resulted in a disgraceful use of the local taxpayers’ money."
The planning inspector dismissed an application for costs to be awarded to the WOFC after finding “unreasonable behaviour resulting in unnecessary or wasted expense” had not been found.
The firm argued the inquiry could have been avoided had the council given more time for a planning application after a certificate of lawful development was refused.
But Ms Peerless said: “Expansion of the farm was continuing and although it is the case that a dialogue with the council was maintained, there was no firm agreement to submit a planning application by any specified date.
“The council was entitled to be concerned about the possible harmful environmental impacts of the trestles in the absence of any positive response from the appellants.”