Last Monday, the 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.
The public enquiry is online and scheduled to last upwards of ten days. Barristers have been appointed for both Canterbury City Council (who made the original decision) and the Whitstable Beach Campaign who have been designated a Rule 6 Party (an interested party given special status in respect to the appeal). Both parties are allowed to submit evidence to the Inspector but their approach in this matter has been different. Canterbury City Council have chosen to predominantly focus on the grounds by which they refused the application – namely that the trestles pose an unknown environmental threat and have a detrimental impact on the heritage of the Whitstable Conservation area. The Whitstable Beach Campaign have entered a wider range of evidence highlighting the risk the trestles cause to maritime navigation and loss to visual amenity for residents.
The Whitstable Beach Campaign’s evidence has been key in appraising the inspector of whether or not the trestles in the enforcement areas would still constitute a ‘public benefit’ if environmental damage were proved. The WOFC have entered evidence to suggest that the farming of oysters in the area has been key to both the economic regeneration of the area and is essential for the tourist economy going forward.
Unfortunately, this enquiry only covers approximately 18% of the total number of trestles – those which are above the mid tide mark and as such under the enforcement powers of the city council. Those beyond this mark are the responsibility of the landowner(WOFC) and the Marine Maritime Organisation who have a role in ensuring the safe passage of craft in the sea.
Local MP Rosie Duffield is currently lobbying the DEFRA on whether the MMO, as a light touch regulator predominantly interested in shipping, is suitability to ensure the safety of pleasure craft and recreational swimmers so close to our coast.
Local councillors Valerie Kenny & Chris Cornell have been working with the Beach Campaign in highlighting how the economy of Whitstable is complimented, and not reliant on, the farming of oysters in this area. They have presented evidence in support of that provided by Patricia Dixon & Hilary Metcalfe, local residents and economists.
The Whitstable Oyster Fishery Company contend that Whitstable is a ‘one industry’ town with a global recognition because of the Whitstable Oyster. They argue that being unable to farm oysters within the enforcement area would irreconcilably damage their accommodation/hospitality businesses and the tourism – citing the success of the Oyster Festival and the number of products sold on Etsy associated with links to both Whitstable and Oyster as evidence of how the ‘Oyster Brand’ is essential to our town.
Labour’s local argument has been that:
- historically our town has been famous for more than just oysters. In contrast to other seaside towns – Whitstable was historically famous for salt, fish, oysters and copperas.
- the regeneration of Whitstable drew heavily on over £900,000 of public investment in regeneration our buildings between 1990 and 2008. This investment in the fabric of our town encouraged artists and independent shopkeepers meaning that conventionally we are are as well known as being an ‘arty, foody, fashion hub’ as we are a heritage destination. Our reputation as a gastronomic hub had started was starting to get national attention well before the WOFC started trestle farming in 2010.
- there is little evidence that the ending of oyster farming inside the enforcement area would destroy our economy. Vacancy rates in town are low and the accommodation the WOFC provide is still attractive to visitors. Historically the council have believed that light industry such as that evident at the John and Joseph Wilson Business Parks is as important as tourism to our town.
- the maritime heritage of Whitstable is far wider than just oyster farming. The Whitstable Harbour, which prizes and protects this heritage, doesn’t include any oyster farming.
- recently the council has invested heavily in allowing people get on the water with paddle boarding, kite surfing and commercial chartered boats all increasing. The trestles are a threat to this emerging business.
- the ‘Oyster Brand’ is just that – a ‘means of reinforcing local identity’ and helping shape the perception of visitors. The WOFC isn’t the only person who contributes to the success of that brand and the Oyster Festival wouldn’t fall to pieces without them. The Oyster Festival was actually set up in 1989 without their involvement.
- Claims that the Whitstable Oyster is as important to Whitstable as the Cathedral is to Canterbury are ludicrous and evidence that some places (i.e. Canterbury Cathedral) become so synonymous with an area that the approach to marketing of them consciously focusses on other ‘lesser known’ interests. Online metrics are often a better indication of the intent of marketing than the result, after all Dolce & Gabanna recently tweeted Whitstable was in Cornwall! Whitstable Oyster Farming has recently been in the news for contamination and Norovirus.
- search engine optimisation data presented to show the tangible link between the WOFC and Whitstable is weak and misleading. Since 2004 Google Trends has seen a near doubling of interest in the term ‘Whitstable’ and a halving searches for ‘Whitstable Oyster’. Most of the searches for ‘Whitstable Oyster’ relate to the Festival and not the Oyster Company.
As an online public enquiry, it has been difficult for local councillors to participate as fully as we would have hoped – however we have been a key part of the proceedings.
More detailed evidence presented by councillors was initially refused by the Planning Inspector but detailed written notes of Cllr Kenny’s speech were entered onto the record. She has also been able to cross examine witnesses from the Oyster Company and present a closing statement highlighting local people’s concerns.
Information we have been able to provide has been vital in helping make the case against the WOFC.
We await the outcome of the enquiry with great interest.