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Save Titnore Woods

BATTLELINES are being drawn in Worthing as a major battle to save a precious piece of Sussex countryside gets underway.

On one side are landowners and property developers hoping to make millions of pounds out of tarmacking over one of the last greenfield areas in the ever-expanding South Coast conurbation, with the collaboration of the Government and local authorities. On the other side are local residents and campaigners outraged by the horrific plans to build 875 new homes and an industrial development, together with the widening and straightening of Titnore Lane to cope with the increase in traffic between the A27, A259 and the new developments.

The proposed road works would plough through rare ancient semi-natural woodland which has been there since the last ice age and is currently a Site of Nature Conservation Importance (SNCI). Several hundred trees would have to be felled, many over 150 years old and comprising oak, ash birch and willow. The woods are home to many species of wildlife, including dormice. Titnore Lane itself is part of our cultural heritage, reaching back at least to the Anglo-Saxon period and most probably way beyond that. It was part of a longer track that reached northwards across the South Downs and is rich in archaeological remains.

Public outrage has been ignited over the threat to Worthing's rural heritage in a big way, according to local campaigning newsletter The Porkbolter. They said: "It's been amazing. The protest group POW! (Protect Our Woodland!) was set up to be as fluid as possible - the idea was to encourage and empower people to act for themselves rather than try to control or direct the way they voiced their opposition." And that is the way it's been happening - people have been taking the initiative. "There have been floods of letters to the local press, home-made posters going up all over the place and people with petitions cropping up everywhere - one local bus driver even told us how he had been flagged down by a couple of Durrington schoolgirls just to ask him if he would add his support."

The swelling tide of public outrage certainly set alarm bells ringing at the local Tory party HQ. Although POW! was not involved in the local elections on May 2, the Durrington Conservative candidate Alan Whiteley saw fit to devote much of his "election special" newsletter to attacking the Titnore campaign. The newsletter said the Tory council would not be opposing the Titnore development because it "would be overruled" by central Government and suggested that all that was left to be decided were "the standards of services and amenities to be included in the development". The Tory leaflet tried to convince locals that "our lives are facing serious disruption from the invasion of Titnore Lane by the eco-warriors". It fumed: "Some Worthing people seem to believe they can achieve something by joining the May protest walk bringing whistles and a picnic. Do they realise they will be escorting seasoned activists into Titnore Woods? Will their stay be a brief or a long one? On the face of it 'Save Titnore Woods' looks a very good cause. But do the likes of Swampy actually 'Protect Our Woodland'?" The POW coalition, including Worthing Anarchists, SCAR and the Worthing Green Party, is openly claiming on its website the support of protestors from all over Britain and in Europe. "What on earth will the policing cost?" Alan Whiteley says: "Think long and hard before supporting these people. They have an agenda. It may not be yours."

Sadly for Mr Whiteley, it was the Tory agenda that was clearly not shared by the people of Durrington and he was humiliated at the polls, receiving less than half the votes of the Lib Dem winner. Furthermore the Lib Dems won three seats from the Conservatives across Worthing and gained control of the borough council. The Tories admitted to the Evening Argus the next day, May 3, that the Titnore Woods issue was one of the main factors behind their defeat. However, POW! was not lulled into a false sense of security by the Lib Dems' pre-election pledges to oppose the development. Said a spokesman: "The battle has only just begun. The people of Durrington and Worthing know they cannot rely on politicians from any party to save the countryside." He added that the pressure for the site to be developed should not be underestimated. He explained that in the review of the Worthing Local Plan the inspector had rejected the idea of industrial development on the site but had approved the housing element. The landowners, the wealthy Somerset family, were also very influential locally and the property developers would also be trying to pull some strings, he said.

The three firms involved in the West Durrington Consortium are Bryant Homes (part of Taylor Woodrow), Persimmon Homes and the Heron Group, which is headed by Gerald Ronson, the disgraced tycoon jailed in the Guinness scandal in 1990. Having temporarily withdrawn their application to fine-tune it in line with the local plan inspector's comments, they would probably be dressing up their new-look plans as some kind of compromise, warned the POW! spokesman. He added: "We must not be fooled by this kind of manoeuvre, designed to muddy the waters and take the urgency out of opposition to the plans. "Any development at Titnore will be the thin end of the wedge for the area. What will be next? The west side of Titnore Lane behind Highdown? Clapham Woods?" The threat of an A27 bypass across the South Downs is also still looming and the new road from the A27 at Titnore would link in with this.

"It is vital to keep on fighting the greed machine every inch of the way. Only continual pressure, protest and commitment to taking all measures necessary will keep the bulldozers at bay. It will be a long battle but one that must won."

CONTACTS: POW! c/o PO Box 4144, Worthing, West Sussex BN14 7NZ