Oyster Trestle Public Inquiry: Special Feature #1

Submission made by Julie Wassmer (includes sound recording)

On Monday 26th July, a Public Inquiry began to determine an appeal by the Whitstable Oyster Fishery Company against an enforcement notice made by Canterbury City Council in 2018 against the oyster trestle development, which was built without planning consent and which the council ordered the company to remove.

There have been numerous submissions made to the Inquiry by various interested parties, including local organisations and clubs, professional experts, scientists and local residents.

Here is one of the submissions made on 28th July by author and environmental campaigner, Julie Wassmer:

Sound Recording of Julie Wassmer’s submission

Written Submission:

In the matter of the Public Inquiry into Canterbury City Council’s enforcement notice of the Whitstable Oyster Fishery Company trestle development

Comments submitted to the Public Inquiry 28th July 2021:

I am a television drama writer, author and environmental campaigner, and I have lived in Whitstable for 22 years.

I am the author of a series of crime novels, set in Whitstable, which have been adapted for the TV series, Whitstable Pearl, which has aired in the UK, the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and five Nordic countries.

As an environmental campaigner, for several years I was a member of the Environment Committee of CPRE-Kent – along with Dr Geoff Meaden – who gave a submission to this inquiry yesterday.

It has been said recently by local people that that there is no democracy in planning – because the final outcome is so often taken out of the hands of local representatives – as will be the case of this inquiry. However, I’m sure we all appreciate that planning is wholly in the public interest and I feel I should therefore make this inquiry aware, if it hasn’t been done already, that I, along with local councillors and others who have spoken publicly on this issue have been overwhelmed by representations from members of the community particularly on the specific issues of the loss of visual amenity and general amenity from this development. An article written on this subject and posted on the blog platform Whitstable Views on July 8th has had 6,402 reads to date, while an appeal for funds of £1500 by the Whitstable Beach Campaign recently, raised more than double that sum very quickly in donations to their cause. Over 200 letters were submitted by local residents in respect of the original enforcement notice and I understand not one of them was in favour of this development.

In respect of visual amenity it’s hard to see how the subjective views of one or two individuals within Canterbury City Council could take priority over the those of the wider community – namely the residents who live in Whitstable. But I understand the city council do not appear to be pursuing the planning issues of visual and general amenity – and I and many other residents are at a loss as to why that should be,

So, like many of my fellow residents in Whitstable I am extremely concerned by the existence and exponential growth of this industrial development; by the unauthorised proliferation of the Whitstable Oyster Fishery Company (WOFC) trestles in the absence of any planning consent; the negative impact on visual amenity; the risk to public safety; the significant environmental factors; the loss of amenity for users of marine craft and offshore swimmers – use that has existed for generations but which was ignored by the Marine Management Organisation (MMO) – and concern for what I believe to be spurious arguments to justify what I and many other residents and visitors to our town now consider to be a “blot on our seascape”. For all of those reasons, I therefore support the enforcement action by Canterbury City Council and I strongly oppose the appeal.

Specifically, I would like to point out the following:-

  1. With reference to the graph submitted showing observed trestle and pole numbers 2009 – June 2020 by the Whitstable Beach Campaign (WBC), the observed number of trestles, based on photographic and foot survey by the WBC has increased from 15 in 2010 to 5,400 in June 2020. (NB there was an increase of 3,000 observed trestles from 2018 – when Canterbury City Council issued its Enforcement Order after the WOFC failed to apply for planning consent – see Submission 1.
  2. Visual amenity for both local people and the visitors to the area (on whom so much of our local economy depends) has not only been compromised but effectively destroyed during low tide. What was once an uninterrupted coastal view, enhanced by the northern light which has attracted so many artists to our town, is now dominated at low tide by a mass of rusting trestles and hooks, the magnitude of its visual effect so great as to be overwhelming and inescapably dominant.
  3. Navigational Risk Assessments relate only to potential hazards to shipping – not to members of our community and visitors to our coastline whose interest may not be to eat oysters (particularly in the light of the recent spate of norovirus which resulted in Hong Kong suspending imports of WOFC oysters – see: Hong Kong government press release date 6th July:- (https://www.info.gov.hk/gia/general/202107/06/P2021070600744.htm ) while Canterbury City Council has closed down the WOFC twice in recent weeks, the last time on 19th July. See: Whitstable Gazette dated 21st July: https://www.kentonline.co.uk/whitstable/news/oyster-sales-halted-again-after-further-reports-of-sickness-251019/ – just 4 days after the Environmental Health department had allowed the company to recommence sales after which more people became ill following eating oysters. Avoiding the possibility of contracting norovirus – many people instead choose to visit our coast purely for marine activities; to swim, sail, windsurf, kite surf and kayak. However, anyone viewing the images of the rusting trestle hooks (See Submission 2 – photograph of trestle hooks which was shown on the BBC SE TV News on Monday evening) would surely immediately understand what kind of injuries could be suffered in pursuit of those activities, especially young children swimming or paddling near the trestle development when the hooks are submerged. I understand from local data, collected in a WBC survey in 2020, that in fact, there have been in excess of 100 incidents reported by the public. I wonder how much more warning is required before the risk to public safety from these trestles is properly acknowledged?
  4. The Whitstable Oyster Fishery Company appears keen to promote its historical connection to oysters, as evidenced on its website eg “we believe it is so important to ensure the sustainable development of the oyster industry in Whitstable, helping the town to maintain its link with it’s (sic) heritage” and “Our heritage has supported the tourism industry within Whitstable and given the town a product to be proud of’. However, Whitstable’s historic association with oysters involved the offshore fishing by dredging of the native oyster – not the farmingof the Pacific rock oyster in which the WOFC is engaged. As James Green from the company was quoted as saying in the Guardian newspaper on 9th March 2019: “Native species don’t lend themselves to commercial farming.” (see: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2019/mar/09/whitstable-oysters-beach-trade-oysteropolis) Indeed, commercial farming is precisely what is being undertaken in this development in an industrial process which the WOFC boasts on its website produces “4 million rock oysters every year.” This is wholly distinct from the historic offshore dredging for the native oyster and the two should not be conflated – especially since the Pacific rock oyster is, as my former colleague Geoff Meaden pointed out, “a non-native invasive species” as the recently issued South East Inshore Marine Plan (Technical Annex – June 2021 – paragraph 183) notes clearly: (“POs are classified in the UK as non-native species.) I therefore suggest the connection between Pacific rock oysters and Whitstable is as tenuous as that between Dracula and Whitby – namely, it’s fictional.
  5. Geoff would also have pointed out in the same plan that “ inhibiting the spread of invasive non-native species is an important aspect of sustainable aquaculture management”. The farming of Pacific rock oysters presents two specific hazards. Natives oysters lie flat on the sea bed but the Pacific rock oyster grows vertically, with razor-sharp shells pointing upwards, making them potentially injurious to anyone who treads on them with bare feet. Brightlingsea beach in Essex became unusable for leisure due its colonisation by rock oysters and a programme of removal had to be put in place after the oysters’ razor-sharp shells cut the hands and feet of sailors jumping out of their boats at low tide. According to Dave Gibbons, the commodore of Brightlingsea Sailing Club, the oyster shells are sharp enough to go through rubber boots.
  6. Secondly, as an invasive species, rock oysters have escaped their confines and are now proliferating along our Kent shoreline. “Coastbuster” projects, funded by Natural England and Kent Wildlife Trust are being run along the coast at Herne Bay, Birchington and Margate with volunteers working to eradicate the species. Does it therefore not seem contradictory that on one part of the shore we have environmental groups working hard to destroy Pacific oysters for the sake of our marine ecology while on another we have a company actively farming them for profit – in a process that has been likened to growing Japanese knotweedin poly tunnels? As Geoff Meaden asserted yesterday it “defies easy logic” to see rapidly expanding Pacific rock oyster production in upstream “shared” North Kent waters. A further point to be made on the Pacific rock oyster is The WOFC’s own science reports state that sterile (triploid) oysters can revert to their fertile (diploid) state at a rate of 0.06%, which, considering some 6.5 million oysters are currently being grown in Whitstable, could result in 3900 oysters producing between 50 and 200 million eggs each – or put more simply: an ecological disaster. I’m aware that NEKSCAG (the North East Kent Scientific Coastal Advisory Group) of which Geff Meaden is chair, sees no good reason why the Whitstable Oyster Fishery Company is not obliged to rear native oysters as takes place in Essex coastal locations.
  7. The development is likely to give rise to significant environmental impacts because it is located in the Swale Special Protection Area (SPA), the Swale Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), The Swale Ramsar site (RAMSAR) and the Swale Estuary Marine Conservation Zone (MCZ). The land is designated a European Site that benefits from the highest protection of the European Habitats Directive and the Habitats Regulations 2010 from significant impacts of development.
  8. It is abundantly clear to anyone observing the trestle development during a lowering tide that it is both significant and expansive and clearly does not represent the continuation of our town’s “heritage” ,but a new industry marketing itself for promotional purposes as part of a historic tradition while actively destroying its historic landscape. As Richard Maltby, principal of training at the Whitstable Yacht Club sailing school, pointed out to the Guardian newspaper on 9th March 2019, Whitstable’s history also includes the fact that the very first passenger railway service operated between Canterbury and Whitstable, bringing people to the coast for sea-bathing. Mr Maltby was quoted as follows: “There is a balance that’s always been special in Whitstable, but that’s being challenged by what’s going on,” he said. “We’re not anti-development, but he (referring to James Green of WOFC) needs to understand other people use these waters.” (See: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2019/mar/09/whitstable-oysters-beach-trade-oysteropolis)
  9. Whitstable appears prominently, almost as another character, in my eight crime novels – and the books were written as a tribute to the town I fell in love with 22 years ago – and to the people who populate it. I write with respect and affection for those people, and in 2015, I dedicated the first book to an oyster fisherman who was still dredging in the traditional manner at that time. Many other residents are involved, not only in coastal recreational activities, but with businesses connected to those that are threatened by this development and its further expansion – as came to light in recent correspondence when our local Yacht Club made a recent application to renew its lease. The WOFC proposed a change of lease to allow for the extension of its own operations, which is now being challenged by the yacht club. The key reference is in an email sent by the club to its members on the May 25 2021. Note: “In the WOFC’s response to our questions it became clear that the new lease offered to the club no longer includes the seaward area, that is the area directly in front of the beach leased by the club.Although removal of the seaward area of the lease does not necessarily prevent access to the area beyond it, the WOFC have also stated that they wish to expand the oyster trestles eastward. This would be unacceptable to the club, effectively restricting access to sailing areas.” Therefore, despite having no planning permission for the existing structures, which has resulted in the very need for this public inquiry, the company still has plans for an unprecedented extension of the current development into areas traditionally used by Whitstable’s sailing fraternity.
  10. As a final point, for all the WOFC’s marketing rhetoric, the trestle development is considered by many to be an insult not only to the residents of this town but to the city council who enforced against it – only to observe it expanding further – while being situated within just a hundred yards from the most well-used part of the beach, blighting the sea view and littering it with waste and debris from its operations. Crucially, other examples of this form of aquaculture usually take place well away from built-up areas but the WOFC chose to erect and expand their trestle development without any consultation with the community, thereby surely demonstrating a degree of contempt for local residents and our representatives – and what is perceived to be a level of a conceit with which the company has conducted itself over the years in pursuing its own business ambitions at the expense of the interests of its neighbours, visitors and the wider community. I must tell you, there are some who are fearful of speaking out against such a powerful company with so many business interests in this town, including property developments, and perhaps there are those in our city council who feel the same way. Cllr Ashley Clark, who made a submission yesterday and has strongly and vocally opposed this development asserts that he was told by a relative of one of the company members that T-shirts had been printed with an image showing his head on a spike. As a member of the police force for some 30 years, Ashley is not easily intimidated – though others, I am sure, would be. I ask, how has our coastline been scarred by an act of environmental vandalism on such a massive scale – and what would have happened if you or I were to have erected 5,000 trestles just off-shore from anywhere else in the whole UK without the need for any explanation or permission? We speak to this inquiry on behalf of many and we do so because it’s quite clear we face the unremitting expansion of a company unconcerned by the unsightly appearance of its industry, or by the dangers to public safety its impact on the local environment and marine ecology.

What we have here is a David and Goliath battle – Whitstable is not a company but a community – and the needs of that community must be respected above and beyond the profits of any one single business. Our collective responsibility at this inquiry is to preserve and enhance our natural and historic environment – neither of which can be done by sanctioning the vast proliferation of these trestles – so I therefore urge this inquiry to reject the appeal made on behalf of this unauthorised, unsafe and unsightly development which is already depriving many of visual and general amenity.

Julie Wassmer is a TV drama writer, author and environmental campaigner

More on the Oyster Trestles:

Whitstable vs Whitstable Oyster Fishery Company

Oyster Trestle Public Inquiry: Special Feature #2

Oyster Trestle Public Inquiry: Special Feature #3

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