Published: 06:00, 06 August 2021
| Updated: 09:26, 09 August 2021
Natural England dropped a bombshell at a public inquiry into a Whitstable oyster farm this week, revealing it no longer objects to controversial trestles on the town’s coastline.
The revelation came as a “real blow” to campaigners against the metal racks, erected by the Whitstable Oyster Fishery Company (WOFC).
Canterbury City Council gave the firm two months to remove the trestles in 2018, despite the authority having ruled in 2010 that the structures “do not constitute development and therefore are not controllable” under planning law.
The company 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, are being considered by the planning inspector.
The public inquiry, which started last Monday and has continued this week, could have a huge impact on the future of oyster farming in Whitstable.
Campaigners have raised concerns about the potential dangers the racks pose to boats and swimmers, and their visual impact.
Natural England originally objected to the trestles 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 on Monday that 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.
But city councillor Chris Cornell (Lab) says Natural England’s decision to withdraw its objection “at the 11th hour is a real blow”.
The council, which had been given advice by Natural England, has confirmed it is still pursuing enforcement action against the trestles.
Giving evidence at the hearing, WOFC boss James Green told how the firm is shipping one-and-a-half tons of oysters a week to Hong Kong alone.
He also said the oyster market in the UK has “expanded enormously” in the past 10 years.
“People make the effort, particularly in Whitstable, to come and eat oysters they can see growing a few hundred metres off the coast,” he said.
The Whitstable Yacht Club argued the nearby trestles pose a hazard to its members as strong tides can carry watercraft into the farm.
But Mr Green said: “It’s an area of the beach they cannot use now but there are vast areas on either side of the harbour or further out to sea where they can still pursue the watersports they want to.
“The yacht club still has races and regular meetings and I can’t think that would have affected their ability to carry on what they are doing.”
The Whitstable Beach Campaign told how a survey last year revealed 164 people reported incidents involving the trestles.
“This huge development, which Mr Green has stated he intends to further increase in size, now forms a substantial barrier on our foreshore, which all water sports and leisure users have to navigate around,” they said.
Critic of the farm, Cllr Ashley Clark (Con), said in his closing statement: “The heart and soul of the Whitstable community has been ripped out by unfettered commercial and industrial interests.”
If the council loses the inquiry, it will be liable for costs - and if the Oyster Company loses, bosses say it could impact events such as the Whitstable Oyster Festival, and would reduce oyster production.
The hearing will be closed in writing next week, with a final decision made at a later date.