South Hams Council has been accused of allowing a rare wildlife meadow to be ‘churned up’ to accommodate services for a new housing estate.

Bakers Estates recently secured planning permission to build 40 homes at Sawmills in Dartington.

The work involves building an on-site flood attenuation tank with a discharge pipe to the nearby Bidwell Brook, via a small field off Droridge Lane.

District ward councillor Jacqi Hodgson says assurances were made that the pipe would pass under the field without any disturbance to the area.

She was horrified to discover, after being alerted by anxious residents, that a digger and other “huge machines” were in the field “destroying” its surface, and that rare plants, identified in a report by ecologist Dr John Day, were being dug up and removed.

Cllr Hodgson said the field was declared a “valuable wildlife area” by Natural England, which queried Baker’s ecology report for the site, which had assigned the field semi-natural grassland status. Natural England said overall, the field “appears to meet the criteria for UK Priority Habitat as a Lowland Meadow.”

Priority habitats are of principal importance for conserving biodiversity.

Cllr Hodgson says she has been unable to find any documentation showing what has been formally agreed for the field, or that the district council has complied with Natural England’s concerns, or requested further surveys to be carried out.

She said she received no explanation as to why the drainage pipe could not follow the side of the road down to the brook instead of going through the field.

South Hams Council insists “all works have been taking place as approved in line with the planning requirements.” 

Assistant director for planning, Alistair Wagstaff stated: “The council considers all works are being properly carried out and have been properly considered through the planning process to ensure the impacts are limited on the surrounding environment.” 

Bakers said any question of the legality of the work is “completely unfounded.”

Operations director Graham Hutton insisted: “All of the relevant information relating to these works is held by South Hams Council and is publicly available.

“There is no higher hurdle than to receive the approval of Natural England, Devon County Council Ecology and all appropriate officers at SHDC; which is exactly the position here.”

Cllr Hodgson said: “These works are still going on. A month later they are destroying the surface of the field with all the heavy vehicles, heavy metal fencing erected around the field and the digging and removal of plants within the wildlife corridor.

“Are they checking they don’t hurt dormice, badgers and greater horsehoe bats, let alone the rare plant species identified by Dr John Day? I very much doubt it.

“SHDC declared a Biodiversity Emergency in 2019 and recently Sir David Attenborough talked about the three per cent remaining of Lowland Meadow in the UK, yet none of this seems to matter.

“This field has been clearly identified as likely to be a rare priority habitat, yet SHDC has let in the developers, with little or no rigour, and seems to be unconcerned at the destruction of a protected habitat and the likely impact on the protected species that live there.

“It’s my understanding that this is breaking the law. What can any of us do to protect our wildlife when the local authority lets this happen right under its nose? Shame on them.”

Mr Wagstaff said the work was approved in the reserved matters planning application, adding: “When the detail was provided, this route was planned to be trench dug. Following officer concerns about the impacts of the trench, another construction method was selected to ‘thrust-bore’ the pipe underground. Meaning the road, hedge and trees would be undisturbed, with only a small area impacted by the digging.

“This was approved in consultation with the local lead flood authority, council tree specialist and the county council ecology service. 

“In mid-February 2023, the applicant erected the tree and hedge protective fencing in the field to keep the construction machinery away from sensitive areas. At this point, an enforcement enquiry was raised and responded to.

“A planning enforcement officer visited the site within three days to ensure unauthorised works were not taking place. It was established that all works have been taking place as approved in line with the planning requirements.” 

Mr Hutton said: “The works to complete the drainage outfall in the field off Droridge Lane are nearing completion and are in accordance with the planning permission. Any question of their legality is completely unfounded.

“This allocated new housing development has been an unfulfilled part of the local plan for years and the planning process is there to ensure that the impacts of it are correctly mitigated; which they are.”