Local Labour Party member Charlie Deacon blogs about the current status of the Seething Wells Filter Beds in Surbiton.

There is growing opposition to proposals to re-develop the historic Seething Wells Filter Beds in Surbiton. An application has been made for a Certificate of Lawful Development at this site. These certificates retrospectively authorise a use or development.

Decommissioned by Thames Water in 1992, the filter beds are now owned by Isle of Man registered Cascina Limited. An application has been made to re-classify the site as water storage, claiming uninterrupted use for the previous 10 years. This is following the granting of a similar certificate in February 2020 for the existing Victorian water infrastructure.

It seems that Cascina Limited are attempting to downgrade the status of the site to make any future planning application easier.

The applicant cites a 2008 DEFRA report claiming that the site could provide additional drinking water for London. However, Thames Water discounted this in its 2016 Water Resource Options report due to lack of useable space. Operational use was also discounted before sale in the late 90s. The filter beds were drained twice in 2011 and 2018. These works showed that the filtering substrate was not removed by Thames Water, contrary to Cascina’s claims. The water level in the beds is now extremely low and is filled with decaying herbicide-treated vegetation that was removed from the banks. This does not meet the claim of 10 years of unabated storage use.

The site has been subject to numerous unsuccessful planning applications for development, as far back as 1998. The most recent came in 2013 for 64 floating homes and a 92 berth marina, with no affordable housing on site. This was refused by Kingston Council and refused again on appeal after a high-profile public battle.

The site is designated as Metropolitan Open Land (MOL), affording it the same protection as Green Belt. Kingston Council’s 2018 appraisal of MOL and Green Belt designated the filter beds as making a “significant and unambiguous” contribution. The site also sits in the Riverside South Conservation Area and contains locally listed buildings and structures.

The filter beds are also a borough Site of Importance for Nature Conservation (SINC) owing to rare chalk grassland, identified as a priority habitat in the London Biodiversity Action Plan. 75 species of birds, 11 species of bats and species of reptiles have been recorded at the site. These include sand martins, a priority species for London, a Daubenton’s bat maternity colony and grass snakes. The filter beds are part of the only remaining dark river in London, highlighting their importance for light-sensitive bat species. The site forms part of the “green chain” along the Thames.

Kingston Council’s Local Development Framework emphasises the need to protect and enhance designated green space, noting low quantity per head of population. Its “Vision for Surbiton” describes improving and enhancing the filter beds as green space. The plan resolves all development should protect and increase biodiversity.

Recently, residents watched in horror as vegetation was cleared and herbicide was sprayed over the site in the spring and summer of 2018. These works were followed by the felling of 36 mature trees, subject to Tree Preservation Orders, on structural grounds. The once vibrant haven for wildlife is now barren and desolate.

It is important to recognise the acute housing need in the Borough. This must be affordable, sustainable, and developed in good faith.

A number of community organisations and political campaigners have stated their opposition to the potential re-development of Seething Wells. The current public health crisis caused by the Coronavirus pandemic has reminded the world of the importance of our relationships with each other and to our environment. Every community must play its part in fighting ecological breakdown.

The filter beds must be restored to their former natural glory in line with local policy. Kingston Council must refuse the application to re-develop Seething Wells and prevent any further degradation to this cherished open space.

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