By Chris Yandell
Southern Daily Echo – 3 August 2008
It was one of the biggest and most expensive planning battles ever fought in the UK. Countryside campaigners clashed with Associated British Ports (ABP) over proposals to build a massive dock development at Dibden Bay, a heavily protected part of Southampton Water. The battle ended four years ago when the Government rejected the £600m scheme after a 13-month public inquiry.
ABP's application to construct a huge container terminal on reclaimed land between Hythe and Marchwood appeared to be dead in the water. But the controversial issue is refusing to go away. Alarm bells started ringing on the Waterside once again this week after ABP confirmed that it still harboured hopes of building a new port.
It was the latest in a series of indications that campaigners could find themselves sailing into battle for a second time. Two years ago local residents were warned to be on their guard after a controversial High Court ruling on the future of Dibden Bay. Politicians spoke out after ABP blocked an attempt by New Forest District Council to limit the size of any future development on the land.
Councillors altered the District Local Plan amid fears that ABP might make another attempt to obtain permission for the proposed port. They inserted a clause that said the amount of land used for any scheme should be "minimised" to safeguard the strategic gap between Hythe and Marchwood. However, council chiefs were forced to back down after ABP successfully challenged the clause in the High Court.
The company said it was not planning to submit a new application and went to court only because an important legal principle was at stake. But ABP's chief executive, Bo Lerenius, later forecast that the proposed port would be built at some point in the future. He said:
"I find the reasons for Dibden Bay's refusal confusing and I am pretty convinced that there will be a terminal there one day."
The issue surfaced again this week at the Port City Futures conference attended by marine Minister Jonathon Shaw. Port Director Doug Morrison received a rapturous round of applause after revealing that ABP still wanted to forge ahead with the scheme. Mr Morrison said:
"The history of Southampton is one of reclamation and development. That has proved to be a legacy for the city. The question is how can I, as Port Director, leave a legacy for future generations. I finish with one point, Dibden Bay."
His remarks have been met with incredulity and derision by some of the objectors who attended the public inquiry.
Referring to transport Minister Tony McNulty's subsequent decision to reject the scheme, New Forest East MP Dr Julian Lewis said:
"What part of ‘No' do these people not understand?"
Other campaigners claimed that nothing had changed since the Minister made his ruling. Phil Henderson, who was vice-chairman of the pressure group Residents Against Dibden Bay Port, argued that the controversial scheme was dead and buried.
"It was dismissed on all counts by the inspector who chaired the inquiry and it would be ridiculous if ABP tried again. They'd have to do something quite extraordinary to protect the environment,"
he said. But others are less sanguine and point to potential threats lurking in the shadows.
Despite Mr McNulty's decision to uphold the inspector's ruling, there is always the possibility that a future government might look kindly on any new application. Worried environmentalists say a proposed shake-up of Britain's planning system could make it easier for controversial projects to get the go-ahead. Major decisions will be handed to an independent panel of experts who will be guided by national policy statements setting out the country's key infrastructure requirements.
ABP regards Dibden Bay as vital to the future of Southampton docks and is doubtless hoping that a potential avenue will open up. Totton councillor George Dart, former chairman of the town council's planning and transport committee, described Mr Morrison's remarks at the conference as "very disturbing". He warned that any new application would result in another avalanche of objections.
"A massive development in a sensitive area on the edge of the New Forest would be both unsustainable and undesirable,"
said Cllr Dart. However, any fresh proposals are likely to be welcomed by Southampton City Council, one of the few organisations that supported the original scheme. The council's QC, John Hobson, told the inquiry that Southampton was ideally placed to meet the needs of major international shipping companies.
Mr Hobson said government policies encouraged the provision of new port facilities and added:
"It's the role of operators such as ABP to respond and ensure that provision is made. In promoting the new terminal at Dibden, ABP's proposals are consistent with national policy guidance."
The inquiry closed at the end of 2002 and the decision to reject the 500-acre scheme was announced more than a year later.
Leading wildlife groups praised the government's decision, saying the proposed development would have destroyed a vital feeding area used by thousands of birds. However, rival ports elsewhere in the UK have since been given permission to expand in a move that could result in business being taken away from Southampton.
An ABP spokesman said it had "absolutely no plans" reapply for permission to develop Dibden Bay but admitted that managers were keeping their options open.
"We need to safeguard the land in case we ever want to proceed with any future development,"
he said. Meanwhile, the site itself continues to stand idle - an unspoilt but unused monument to the success of people who fought and won the Battle of Dibden Bay. Plans to build houses were rejected in the 1980s and any similar application in the future is also likely to be refused.
Experts say Dibden Bay is likely to remain rough grazing land - just as it has been for the past 50 years.
Dibden Bay timeline:
- 1940s: Reclamation of Dibden Bay begins.
- 1967: The reclaimed land is bought by ABP's predecessor, the British Transport Docks Board, and safeguarded for future port use.
- 1995: ABP begins a public consultation exercise on the future of the 500-acre site.
- 1997: Plans to build a massive container terminal at Dibden Bay are formally unveiled.
- 2002: ABP submits its planning application to the government.
- 2001: Start of 13-month public inquiry into the scheme.
- 2003: Michael Hurley, who chaired the inquiry, recommends that the application be refused.
- 2004: Transport Minister Tony McNulty rejects the ABP application.
- 2006: Bo Lerenius, ABP's chief executive, forecasts that the port will be built "one day".
- 2008: Port Director Doug Morrison says the scheme is vital to the future of the docks.