Land development project under fire

Hundreds of people turned out to voice their opinions about a controversial multi-million pound plan to redevelop the Seething Wells Filter Beds.

At a public meeting on last Thursday, a community group fighting against the proposals accused Hydro Properties Ltd of neglect and causing damage to the 6.5 hectare property.

Hydro have applied to build 64 two and three-bedroom flats and town houses, a car park, a 92 berth marina, a restaurant, a heritage centre, public space with extended riverside walk and a managed natural reserve. The company didn’t comment on the exact amount of investment it planned to make but said the project would create 30-40 new jobs.

The filter beds were a part of Victorian waterworks; they haven’t been used since 1992 and there has been no public access to the site, but they are a part of the protected Metropolitan Open Land, which is the London’s equivalent to the Green Belt status. Five applications to re-develop the filter beds have been rejected by the Kingston Council to date.

Speaking at the gathering on Thursday, Simon Tyrrell, director of the Friends of the Seething Wells community group said: “Local ecologists have been proud to consider it to be the most valuable wildlife site in the borough… Since the Hydro took the control, it’s been a story of neglect and damage. The beds were unnecessarily drained twice in 2011. They excavated some of the sand, gravel and shells. And beds do not longer refill properly, they have been damaged.”

The Hydro’s application describes the filter beds as “redundant industrial site with no public access”, yet according to the Friends of Seething Wells, it “provides a unique habitat for an uncommonly wide range of rare plants, birds and bats. The filter beds and reservoirs provide undisturbed ecosystems that attract a remarkable range of birds, small mammals, reptiles and insects.” A total of 75 species of birds and up to 10 species of bats including endangered have been recorded to be seen at the site.

Speaking on behalf of Hydro, former Surbiton Hill councillor Nick Kilby who runs a Kingston-based communications company said: “The whole mission of this group (Friends of Seething Wells) is to portray Hydro as nasty people. The reality is that Hydro has done nothing harmful to the filter beds. Filter beds are deteriorating because there is no investment in them. The real issue is the longer it is as it is, the worse it would get because there is no natural sustainability of ecology there. It’s just a brownfield site that has overgrown. If people want to leave it as it is, it will continue to deteriorate regardless of who the owner is.”

Mr Kilby also said that in their current state the filter beds are essentially “a waste of site” and said that “there is evidence that its current ecological benefits are exaggerated”.

Another leader of the campaign against the proposal is MP for Kingston and Surbiton Edward Davey, who also spoke at the public hearing on Thursday. He said that although the Hydro plans had merit and they were much better than anything that had been proposed before, he was still against the scheme. He said: “This is a very special site right by the river Thames, right opposite the Home Park. It is possible according to the planning laws to develop the site despite all the protections if there are very special exceptional circumstances. Does this proposal meet that very high test? I don’t think it does”.

The overwhelming majority of people at the hearings said they were against the Hydro proposal.

Friends of Seething Wells claim they are drawing up an alternative plan to re-generate the filter beds and open them for the public access. The website of the Friends say their project will “provide the chance for everyone to enjoy and share open space by the riverside,rich and rare wildlife,the heritage of the Victorian waterworks and pride in the history of the local area.”

Nick Kilby was sceptical about it. He said that “there is no plan B” and that Friends of Seething Wells is “a coalition of people with different agenda” with no track record of being able to raise millions of pounds required for land acquisition, development and upkeep.

Hydro’s website dedicated to the project labelled the the Friends of Seething Well “a destructive organisation of people who are clearly prepared to see the site fall even further into decline for many years to come and deny the local community a wonderful opportunity in order to satisfy their own private agendas.”

Responding to that, Ed Davey told Kingston Courier that “he is happy to support the Friends of Seething Wells” and that “there is a huge potential to raise the funds we need both through the Heritage Lottery Fund and through partnership with local community. About nine months ago we were talking to a range of people about how we would raise the money. I think this is a modest project compared to some of that I have been dealing with”.

Hydro expects its application to be reviewed by the Kingston Borough Council on December 18, but according to Deputy Leader of the Council Liz Green who also took part in the hearings, the Control Committee is not likely to make the decision until January.

Nick Kilby said the company would appeal if the application is rejected by the Council.

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