A council has been accused of destroying a possible “oasis of nature” after ploughing a wildflower meadow containing 130 species of wildlife and plant types to make way for a set of hard tennis courts.
Dozens of local residents protested after Norwich City Council announced plans to install three floodlit hard-weather courts in Heigham Park at a cost of £266,000.
The site was formerly used as a set of ten grass tennis courts, but was closed in 2017 following the approval of the council’s planning application for three new all-weather courts.
The following year, an environmental survey described the meadow as of “low ecological quality” - but it has since rewilded and become home to a host of plant types and animals.
Specialist ecologists were given access to the site to conduct a wildlife survey last month. Sarah Gelpke, an ecologist at Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) who led the survey, told The Independent that the meadow had developed into a “biodiversity hotspot”.
“With the survey, I felt it was important to make the council pause. If they had let nature run its course this could have become a real oasis of nature, but it just feels like they’ve ploughed on regardless,” she said.
“There’s been no consideration of the biodiversity of urban areas. Councils and the government are constantly announcing environmental plans - I hope this can be a call for them to act on that and try and protect nature.”
The two-hour survey uncovered and catalogued 56 kinds of flowering plants, six types of grasses and 12 kinds of trees and shrubs. Among the animals it identified were the woodmouse, hedgehog and Eurasian pygmy shrew.
Meanwhile, a night-time bat survey also identified the presence of common pipistrelle, soprano pipistrelle and brown long-eared bats on the site.
Local residents launched the Heigham Park Consultation group in the hope of pressurising the council to reverse the decision and launch a fresh consultation into the building of the hard courts. They claim that residents were not properly consulted, which the council denies.
Denise Carlo, the Greens councillor for Nelson Ward, told The Independent there was “considerable anger” in the community about the decision.
“Our ward is very heavily built up and the gardens are tiny,” she said. “To have an acre of grass in an area like ours is a rare thing, so for the council to approve its destruction is really depressing.
“Grass in urban areas is a diminishing resource. It is so important for cooling the city and biodiversity. The council has just closed its ears with every turn, which is very frustrating.”
She added: “It was a beautiful hay meadow - to see a digger go over it is horrible.”
The group have ramped up protests in the past two months. Signs hung on the gates of the park recently read “Hands off Heigham Park, we love it” and “Ask the community before you destroy our nature”.
The Gardens Trust, a national charity dedicated to preserving the UK’s parks, had also objected to the move and claims it does not respect the historic status of the Grade-II registered park.
In a statement, the group said: “We applaud the council’s aim of providing up-to-date sports facilities for Norwich, but there are other ways to achieve this and reduce costs to the council without sacrificing the city’s landscape heritage.
“The city council capital money saved could then be used to provide additional hard courts in less sensitive locations, and everyone would benefit.”
A Norwich city council spokesperson said that the project aimed to “improve facilities for our residents” and was “an important part of delivering our priority to improve health and wellbeing”.
“During the process we have listened to and considered, the views of community groups,” they said.
“Despite the challenges of the pandemic, we’ve been able to move forward with our plans for the tennis expansion starting at Lakenham Recreation Ground recently, building on the success of previous Norwich Parks Tennis sites such as Eaton Park.
“The importance of delivering this sporting facility for our residents can’t be underestimated in terms of the associated health benefits as well as reducing anti-social behaviour and vandalism through the increased use of the park.”
The Council said that the courts will provide a reduced playing cost for users and will come with coaching programmes designed for a range of abilities and ages. Construction on the project began on September 6 and is expected to take 12 weeks, a spokesperson said.
They added: “Formal consultation took place in 2017 as part of the original planning application process. Independent heritage and ecological impact assessments have also been carried out, alongside equality impact assessments, to inform our proposals.”