They Do Give A Hoot

Local group continues fight to save Gunnersbury Triangle nature reserve


A view of one of the ponds on the Gunnersbury Triangle nature reserve

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They are a local organisation with an unusual name, but Hoot (Hands Off Our Triangle) is steadily gaining support for its campaign against a development next to Gunnersbury Triangle nature reserve.

The plans by Blackstone, the owners of Chiswick Business Park, envisage six and eight-storey high blocks of apartments, on what is known as the Colonial Drive site, just off Bollo Lane. The area is to be linked to the business park by a footbridge.

The matter is up for discussion before Ealing Council next month, when both developers and those who oppose the current plans will get a chance to put their case.

But why is a patch of almost hidden nature reserve exciting so much local opposition? The woman spearheading the Hoot campaign is Dr. Jan Hewlett, a long time resident of Chiswick with a background in urban ecology.

Jan has been associated with the Gunnersbury Triangle ever since the very first campaign in the early 1980s when protesters saved the former disused railway land from being turned into a site for warehouse use.

When the application for planning permission was posted by Blackstone last January , a number of concerned individuals and organisations connected with the Gunnersbury Triangle came together as a network.

“Hoot was formed to represent the interests of people in Chiswick and South Acton, and is a network of concerned individuals and organisations, who do not want to see something spoiled that we cherish”, says Jan.

Firstly, Jan says it’s important to stress that the Hoot is not just against all development . But the group opposes the current plan for development on the grounds that it would have a detrimental effect on the nature reserve and its unique collection of flora, fauna and wildlife.

“ We are not against the idea of development, but we want one in scale with the environment. It’s too big, too close, and too tall, she says.

“We want it pushed further back and to be in proportion , not something that dwarfs the woodland. The qualities people really enjoy will be compromised and they will not see the trees and the sky but only these buildings.”

Hoot is also concerned that the plans would impact on flora and fauna, reflecting sunlight onto the birch trees and grassland and therefore drying them out in summer. Another worry is that light pollution at night would loom over the woodland habitat of bats and birds.

The Colonial Drive development is somewhat complicated by the fact that the development is in Ealing Council territory while the nature reserve is within Hounslow Council’s area.

Some local residents group are also worried that the current plans do not cater for sufficient car- parking, and that this will lead to congestion on surrounding streets.

Hoot has sympathy for other concerns, but has confined its campaign to the protection of the nature reserve.

Jan showing plans for the eight-storey high development

“ You walk into the nature reserve and all your cares melt away. People visit for different reasons, some for the nature, the trees or the wildlife, and others just to have a quiet time” says Jan.

As a professional ecologist with experience working for the GLA and London Ecology Unit, she has spent years striving to preserve ecological balance going hand in hand with urban development, and speaks with passion of wanting to save the environment for future generations.

“We’d like to see the developer do a proper environmental and ecological assessment of the area. What do we know about their plans, will they be pile-driving into the ground, will they be pumping water- how will all those things affect the ecology of the area? These are all questions we want answered “.

Hoot also want the buffer zone between the development and the reserve to be no less than 15 metres, to be planted with native species, and for the height of the buildings to be no more than the highest buildings on the present site and preferably in scale with the tallest trees in the woodland.

The first stage in their campaign was to persuade local people to write their concerns to Ealing Council, and the second phase was to launch a petition which has to date been signed by 500 people, with another 200 signatures on an online-version, which can be seen on their web site.

As the date for a council discussion draws near, the members of Hoot, along with local concerned residents, are anxious to put their concerns before the planning officials. Ultimately the Mayor of London may have the deciding vote on the development as it is classified as a mayoral referral.

Gunnersbury Triangle is a special place. Back in 1981, developers proposed to turn the former railway triangle into an area of warehouses, destroying the attractive forested habitats that had developed naturally by “secondary succession” from the abandoned railway gardens.

That proposal provoked an energetic campaign in 1982 by the newly-formed Chiswick Wildlife Group, which became the local Chiswick group of London Wildlife Trust. Together with celebrities like David Bellamy, naturalists and local people banded together to save the triangle. They succeeded in forcing the planning application to a Public Inquiry, which took place in July 1983.

The Inquiry ruled that the Gunnersbury Triangle site should be saved for nature. It was the first time ever in the United Kingdom that a Public Inquiry had favoured urban nature over commercial development, and it set a vital precedent.

Since 1985, local volunteers and the London Wildlife Trust have carefully managed the Triangle on that basis. The Triangle became a Local Nature Reserve in 1987. With locally scarce Acid Grassland and butterflies, coppiced willows, untouched woodland, interesting ponds where children go pond-dipping, an array of fungi and rare ferns, and a long list of visiting bird species, it is valued as one of the few unspoiled urban nature reserves in the UK.

“It’s a big change for this corner of Chiswick. When we tried to rescue the place all those years ago, we succeeded in overturning the policy for industrial development “,says Jan.“The woodland has raised the quality of the environment, so it’s no wonder someone would want to build houses there, we just want to make sure that this beautiful haven of peace and tranquillity is saved for this generation and the next”.

The developers have defended their plans saying they have worked hard to create a design for the site that would respect the local area. In a previous statement, Blackstone said:

"We have worked hard to prepare a high quality design for the Colonial Drive site that would be sensitive to and respect the local area and Gunnersbury Triangle nature reserve. No part of the nature reserve would be lost and we have agreed with the London Wildlife Trust that no further entrances to the reserve would be created.

They would also strengthen the boundary and landscape the area with native planting.

They said they also agreed to reduce the overall number of units from 138 to 124 and that their proposals would deliver much needed new homes for Ealing, business start-up space and a crèche on what is currently an underused and poorly designed industrial site.

“We have also increased from 3m to 7m the distance between the proposed building on the western side from the edge of the railway embankment and have increased the amount of green spaces around the site, all of which will be carefully landscaped to a high standard. We now look forward to our proposals being considered by the council." It is expected the matter will come up for consideration towards the end of May.

April 18, 2012