New colleges to impact wetland habitat

Image: Jay Dyer

  • Over 1400 bedrooms in two new colleges are proposed to be built on Heslington East by 2021
  • The development is planned right up to the lake’s edge, severely impacting habitat used by protected species

Proposed developments of new residences on Heslington East are set to severely impact the high-ecological value of wetland habitat, with plans showing buildings right up to the edge of the Heslington East lake, Nouse can reveal.

The developments, which are proposed to start construction next January, are comprised of two new colleges, described as the north and south colleges in the planning documents. They will cause existing habitat to be lost as part of the construction work, with a serious risk of pollution to the lake while works are occurring.  The top reaches of the lake will be isolated from the rest of the site, cutting off the wildlife corridor, with noise and light pollution expected to be brought up to the lake edge, which is heavily used by wintering and breeding birds.  Long-term affects will also see negative impacts in terms of accumulation of litter and pollution.

One of the planning conditions put on Heslington East was that the University was obligated to create a mosaic of habitats and increase biodiversity, which has seen woodland, wildflower meadows, and wetlands created.  The cultivated wetland habitat, which now represents a significant habitat with regional conservation significance, is the one now threatened by this development.

The developments will go against the University’s existing Sustainability Policy to formally identify and control environmental impacts, to utilise sustainable design in construction, and to protect biodiversity in external spaces on campus.  Furthermore, Nouse can reveal that the developments may disturb species which it is an offence to disturb without implementing mitigation measures first.

An internal City of York Council memo seen by Nouse from Nadine Rolls, Ecology  and Country-side  Officer,  to Lindsay  Jenkins,  Development Management Officer,  reveals that  the  developments will result in the loss of breeding and foraging habitat  for  Skylark, which is classified as  Red  in the  UK  under the  Birds  of Conservation  Concern  4: the  Red  List for  Birds  (2015), with  no  mitigation measures  proposed  by the  University  for the  loss  of this  habitat.  The plans do not accommodate two mature Oak trees, which can provide up to 5000 species of invertebrate as a food chain for the birds and mammals on campus.

Rolls also describe the development as setting a “concerning precedent” for the rest of the site, stating that the campus master plan should be updated to exclude development on the remaining lake edges if this design were to be accepted.  Overall, the memo suggests that the scheme should be redesigned to incorporate the oak trees and move the accommodation blocks from the lake’s edge.  A representative from the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust also supported Rolls’ findings and questioned why the plans included no scheme to show how the development will result in a net gain in biodiversity, in accordance with the government’s National Planning Policy Framework.

Discussions regarding  the  long-term impacts  of  the development  on  the lake  at  a meeting  of  the University’s  Sustainability  Working Group  on  2 February  resulted  in comments  that,  while they  did  recognise  the environmental  and  statutory obligations  were  an issue,  they  claimed the  development  was “nevertheless  intended”  to go  ahead,  and that  a  balance needed  to  be struck  between  campus development  and  the University’s  maintenance  of biodiversity.  A paper presented at this meeting stated that the development “calls into question the University’s sustainability credentials were it to proceed.”

A further internal City of York Council memo from Esther Priestley, Landscape Architect, to Jenkins described the two new colleges as “imposing on the landscape”.  Priestly identifies the third edge of the proposed “green space” in the development as “an opportunity to relocate some of the residential accommodation away from the lake edge.”  The memo further states that the accommodation blocks of the south college should have a softer feel, describing them as “still sit[ing] uncomfortably close to the naturalistic water’s edge.”

When asked why the new developments are being built on habitats of high ecological value, a University spokesperson commented: “We are planning to develop more than 1400 bedrooms on Campus East.  The feedback we have received through consultation with staff and students is that any new builds should help connect up Campus East and Campus West, which is reflected in our development plans.

“The scheme has been designed to avoid any disruption to natural habitats.  The development is currently being considered by the local planning authority, following our community consultation earlier this year.” While Nouse put other questions to the University asking why no extensive ecological surveys or environmental impact assessments had been conducted, or why the new colleges were not instead of being built on land designated for construction, no response was received.

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