Center Parcs has been criticised over plans to build a complex on rare bird habitat in Sussex, next to a site of special scientific interest.
The holiday company announced it was applying to create its sixth UK holiday village on 223 hectares (551 acres) of woodland in Worth Forest, West Sussex. They hope to attract Londoners down to the wood, which was selected because of its transport links to the capital.
The development, expected to cost GBP350m-GBP400m, is on land home to rare birds including crossbills, goshawks and firecrests.
John Randall, a former environment adviser to No 10, said the plans were “depressing”.
Lord Randall said: “I have discovered that 553 acres of privately owned woodland – I do not know if it is ancient woodland – is going to be taken, it is reported, by Center Parcs to open a new site … it has schedule 1 [a category of legal protection] breeding birds such as honey buzzard, goshawk, firecrest, hobby and crossbill nesting there, as well as threatened species such as redstart, nightjar and lesser spotted woodpecker.”
The new environment bill will contain requirements for developers to create a “biodiversity net gain”. Critics have asked how this will be measured, however, and whether planting new saplings is a sufficient remedy for destroying old trees and important habitats.
Extinction Rebellion said: “If we understand this correctly, Center Parcs are excited to commit ecocide … by displacing rare and protected wildlife and destroying habitats.”
Center Parcs has since clarified that the plans will not include building on the protected area itself. A spokesperson said: “The forest is the lifeblood of our holiday villages and we take our responsibility to protecting and enhancing it extremely seriously.”
Locals have also complained about the plans. Ann Hacke said: “I live within a couple of miles of this area. You intend to destroy important natural habitats to create a holiday camp. Our narrow Broads will be even more congested than usual with, firstly, construction traffic and then tourist traffic. Awful news.”
Edward Paxton, a local birdwatcher, said: “Dear Center Parcs. Please stay away from Sussex. This is a busy, heavily populated part of the country that doesn’t need more traffic and damage to our natural environment.”
Center Parcs Europe was recently barred from building a village in Roybon in south-east France over fears it would harm an important wetland and impact bird life.
Sussex Wildlife Trust said it had not been consulted about the proposals. A spokesperson said: “Sussex Wildlife Trust haven’t seen details of the proposals, but we’re concerned given the importance of the area for wildlife. The woodland is part of the High Weald area of outstanding natural beauty and appears from maps to be plantation on ancient woodland, which has the same status as ancient woodland, which means it is irreplaceable and therefore policy states that development should only happen if there are ‘wholly exceptional reasons ‘.”
The chief executive of Center Parcs, Martin Dalby, admitted it would have to “lose a number of trees” to build the complex, but said: “It’s really exciting to have identified a potential site for another Center Parcs village in the UK. Today’s announcement marks the first step of a long journey, and there is still a huge amount of work to be done before we can submit a planning application. The proposal we will be submitting will create a significant number of jobs and bring major benefits to the local and national economy.”