A campaigner fighting against proposals to close more than 50 parking areas on Cannock Chase and introduce fees in others has called for affected residents to be more involved in shaping the future management plans.
Stuart Haynes, one of the co-founders of the Save Cannock Chase group, was invited to give evidence to a Staffordshire County Council scrutiny committee when it considered the mitigation proposals being put forward to protect the Chase’s Special Area of Conservation (SAC).
He told the Prosperous Staffordshire Select Committee just 130 people had taken part in a previous consultation but the three most affected areas had a population of more than 300,000.
He also put forward a voluntary charging option as an alternative to the fees proposed for a number of car parks in future years.
He said that no mention was made of car park closures and charges in the 2019 consultation held by Cannock Chase SAC.
And concerns were raised that no further consultation was planned apart from on measures relating to the Chase Road and Marquis Drive areas.
“There is a number of serious issues with this proposal we need to discuss”, he said. “There has been a complete lack of public consultation on the plans, there has been widespread opposition from every single political party across Cannock Chase District. The chairman of the Conservative Party has called for a second consultation, as has the leader of Cannock Chase Council.
“We know this is going to have a truly harmful impact on a huge group of people; children from low income families, a lot of those who are now losing their jobs as a result of the economic impact of Covid-19. To then ask them to pay extra to go and access green spaces is awful.
“We also know that the whole purpose of this is to restrict access to certain areas. Those closures are going to mean that a lot of disabled and elderly people are unable to access large parts of Cannock Chase. We have got the Covid-19 health risk of forcing people into ever-larger public car parks.”
Committee members questioned the level of consultation that had taken place too.
Chairman Councillor Ian Parry said: “Perhaps a re-look at this from the county’s point of view would be a good thing. We could consider whether it is worth extending this consultation to encompass more thoughts from user groups and local community.”
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Councillor Tina Clements, vice chairman of the committee, said: “I do believe there has been very little consultation and if we are going to get a bigger picture of what is going on and what we need to assess with the site parking, visitors and everything else we need to involve a few more than 130 out of a population of 330,000.”
Fellow committee member Councillor Kyle Robinson said: “I think we need to work a bit harder to ensure consultations that do go out can get out into the public so that people have a real chance of having a say.”
Councillor Victoria Wilson, cabinet member for communities and culture, told the meeting: “We’re all aware how important this site is for communities and visitors and also for wildlife and heritage.
“With a growing population there is increasing pressure on the site from recreational use. If the growth of our communities is to be fully sustainable we need to make sure we have planned for any environmental impacts.”
Environmental advice manager Sarah Bentley said: “We have known for many years that recreation does impact on Cannock Chase and we have had conversations about recreational impact for the past 50+ years.
“The main impacts from recreation are erosion, damage to habitat, nutrient enrichment from dogs and horses, littering and biosecurity impacts.
“The car parking plan seeks to rationalise the number of car parks. There are currently an awful lot of them and it’s about better delineation of spaces, providing dog bins, improving signage, having fewer but better quality car parks, preventing parking dispersal onto sensitive areas and introducing pay and display at some locations.
“The site user plan focuses on path improvements with clear circular routes, reducing some of the informal paths that have developed over the years, improving onsite and online engagement and better signage and information.
“Overall, what these proposals are seeking to do is increase capacity at the more robust locations and to reduce pressure on the most sensitive areas, so overall more visitors can be safety accommodated.”
The meeting was told there was currently a high concentration of car parks in some of the most sensitive areas of the Chase, ranging from small laybys with space for just two vehicles to main parking areas.
There was also a large number of paths – from formal rights of way which will be unaffected by the proposals to ‘informal’ routes and ‘desire lines’.
Ms Bentley said: “The key issue here is if you think about some of the sensitive species that occur on Cannock Chase, with all of these paths there is a kind of buffer effect because of people, dogs and horses using these routes.
“It means the functional habitat for some of those species becomes very fragmented and limited. By trying to reduce some of that spread it gives those more delicate species and habitats a bit more of a fighting chance.
“We would suggest a phased approach to this work. It’s a long term scheme this is likely to take 10-15 years to deliver at the very least.”
The car parking changes include the proposed closure of 51 of the current 124 car parking areas, which includes 33 small laybys.
Some of these in the Chase Road area will be subject to further consultation however and there will be an overall increase in parking capacity, which will be focused in less sensitive areas.
There will also be measures to prevent parking on verges, which will be put in place ahead of any closures.
A ‘modest charge rate’ has been suggested for areas where parking fees are proposed, alongside an annual permit option, and surplus funds would be invested back into the management of the site.
Blue badge holders would still be able to park for free and there will also be more than 50 areas with no charges.