Staffordshire County Council’s approval of the plans for the future management of the area was called in for scrutiny by the leader of the opposition – but the original decision has remained in place.
Proposals to close a number of smaller car parks and introduce charges in other areas have led to concerns the changes will limit access to the Chase for visitors with disabilities or low incomes.
But Staffordshire County Council has said action is needed to protect the most sensitive parts of Cannock Chase for the flora and fauna that live there – and so that future generations can enjoy the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
Last month the authority’s cabinet approved a £7.8m management plan put forward by the Cannock Chase Special Area of Conservation (SAC) Partnership.
However the decision was called in for further scrutiny by Labour group leader Councillor Charlotte Atkins.
Speaking at a corporate review committee meeting, she said: “Cannock Chase is the jewel in the crown of Staffordshire. People are passionate about it and care deeply about its future – that is why we’ve all been bombarded with emails.
“Many feel that Staffordshire County Council is trying to take their special place away from them, so they have been alienated and feel they have been ignored and their needs not taken on board. The tragedy is they are the very people who could safeguard the future of the Chase – they are largely local and committed to the future preservation of this special area.
“So what has gone wrong? First the consultation, for whatever reason, did not capture their views. There were only 400 responses representing just 130 organisations and individuals. There has to be discussions with those user groups who feel they have been excluded from the process.
“Despite the proposals for blue badge parking and dementia trails there are many with disabilities who do not think the plans cater for their needs. There is a huge range of disabilities, many of which are not visible.
“For instance, consider a family with a child with Williams’ Syndrome and hypermobility issues. Their child is not a wheelchair user but has limited ability to walk more than a mile. He is very sensitive to noise and crowds and suffers with anxiety. They need to be able to park near the quiet area they want to access, away from crowds, noise and lots of cars – but they also need to be able to access toilet facilities quickly too.
“It should be possible for the county council to accommodate such families, perhaps with a special permit, if they can prove their need. The Chase is a haven for so many people and they need to be able to enjoy it in their own way.”
But Councillor Victoria Wilson, cabinet member for communities and culture, said the proposals had been through a thorough scrutiny process.
She added: “We have a legal and moral duty to protect Cannock Chase for future generations in the face of increasing demand.
“The Cannock Chase Special Area of Conservation Partnership has developed proposals for access, infrastructure and engagement and for car parking changes which aim to mitigate the impacts of increased recreational pressure associated with the growing resident population. They include measures to reduce pressure on the most sensitive areas while increasing capacity in the more robust locations to ensure we can sustainably meet the growing demand to visit the site.”
Councillor Ian Parry, chair of the Prosperous Staffordshire Select Committee which scrutinised the plans before they went to cabinet, said it had heard comments from a member of the Save Cannock Chase group, which has spoken out against the car park changes.
“We thought it was important to hear those views of the organisation that has been the most prolific on issuing emails and communications”, he said. “The committee felt it very difficult to reach everyone individually and that the cabinet member and partnership had done their best to reach as many people as they could. We are satisfied the consultation was fair and reasonable.
“The committee was overall convinced that the cabinet member’s position and the decision that she was proposing, to protect the most vulnerable areas of Cannock Chase, was a sound one. The intention to allow people to access vast parts of Cannock Chase, with very adequate parking and suitable convenience facilities such as toilets, was easily accessible.
“There are many parts of this country where sensitive habitat and landscape are not accessible to the public generally. Sensitive areas need protecting.”
Committee member Councillor Sue Woodward called for the issues raised to be referred back to the cabinet to consider.
She said: “I’m not against the intent of the proposals – I think we all agree there has got to be appropriate management of these special areas in our county. But it’s the execution of the proposals that has been called into question.
“The question we have to ask is why has there been such a furore over recent weeks over this issue? Something somewhere has gone wrong.
“How do we capture the passion that’s been shown over recent weeks for the future of Cannock Chase? It seems to me the process was not as inclusive as it might have been.”
But the motion failed to gain enough support from fellow committee members and was defeated.
Instead members voted in favour of a second motion put forward by Councillor John Francis, to agree for the original cabinet decision to go ahead.