Defending Hollington Valley? Don't even think of talking to the man who's destroying it

The man himself - John Shaw on the Link Road site.
The man himself - John Shaw on the Link Road site.
A polite knock on the door of a Mr John Shaw of Hastings got Emily Johns a visit from the police. How so? He's the CEO of a secretive 'non-profit company' that's using tens of millions of pounds of public funds to build white elephant business parks and destroy valuable nature sites. And avoiding accountability looks like a major point of the exercise.
A few days after knocking on his door I was visited by two huge policemen in stab proof vests who sat in my front room to give heavily reiterated "friendly advice" that on no account must I look for John Shaw.

Earlier this year I spent my days in Hollington Valley watching the felling of hundreds of trees. The people who came and stood in the valley were quite powerless to stop the chainsawing.

The week before, Gabriel Carlyle of the Combe Haven Defenders had put in a legal challenge to the planning permission for the Queensway Gateway road, that allowed the destruction of the woods and meadows of a designated SNCI - Site of Nature Conservation Importance.

Shortly after the Council's lawyers - and SeaChange, the self-styled "not-for-profit economic development company" for East Sussex - received notice of the legal challenge, the nature reserve was removed. Not quite every single tree. Two were left: a massive holm oak and an ash facing each other across the valley.

These two contain nesting bats - when the bats are gone these two are marked for the saw. (Note: SeaChange have agreed not to fell these trees for the time being following protests and interventions by a lawyer.)

The spring that rises at the head of the valley next to the badger setts had diesel poured into it on the first day of felling. I phoned Hastings environment department and informed them. The next day I phoned Hastings environment department again as nothing had been done and the diesel had flowed down the stream.

Still no action was taken so I phoned the environment agency at 9.30pm. They took the contamination of a water source seriously and laid mats the next day to soak up the diesel. The algaes and liverworts are dead and there are now oil rainbows on the water working their way down to the wooded gill.

Wanton destruction of a well-beloved landscape

I have been drawing the Hollington Valley over the past weeks. Sitting and listening and looking. I heard the woman who lives in a cottage in the wood who woke to find the wood gone. She was distressed and displaced.

I listened to the dog walkers of Baldslow: their outrage that their bluebell woods and rabbity meadows have been destroyed so wantonly. I listened in the dawn chorus to a man stunned by the loss of his childhood roaming lands who remembered trying to stop the green tunnelled track of Baldslow Lane from being bulldozed to make a road when he was seven by climbing into a thorn tree.

I listened to residents from Emmaus who had used the nature reserve as their back garden - a place to take new arrivals, a place to calm and earth people who have lost everything and need a good safe place to start growing again.

This is the sitting room for residents who work hard all day for £35 a week, and in the evening have the good things that can be had on that wage of companionship and a beer around a campfire in a bluebell wood with the evening chorus all around.

A few days after knocking on his door I was visited by two huge policemen in stab proof vests who sat in my front room to give heavily reiterated "friendly advice" that on no account must I look for John Shaw.

The man to talk to: Seachange CEO John Shaw

The day that Seachange felled the last of the trees I sat and looked and drew the stumps of an ecosystem that had not just been made up of plants and birds and mammals and reptiles but of human communities too.

I talked to someone that day who said: John Shaw, head of Seachange lives just over there, in spitting distance of Hollington Valley. I went to look for John Shaw.

In all the destruction of Combe Haven and the wild sites to the north and west of St Leonards I have never had the opportunity to talk to John Shaw. His company receives public money, our taxes, his company receives our land (the promenade to build Azur), his company profits from the empty projects that have gone into receivership such as Lacuna Place in the middle of Hastings, but I his client cannot meet him.

So I thought, here at Baldslow where John Shaw is a member of the community and part of this ecosystem we should be able to talk. I wanted to let him know that I was very sad that day. I thought maybe I would tell him about the people I had heard talking in the valley.

Well, I couldn't find John Shaw. I knocked on a door and the woman who answered said he didn't live there and that I shouldn't be asking for him.

A few days later, an unexpected visit from the boys in blue

A few days later I was visited by two huge policemen in stab proof vests who sat in my front room to give heavily reiterated "friendly advice" that on no account must I look for John Shaw.

On discussing with these men in my house how we could possibly have an accountable public expenditure and planning system when there are no opportunities for communicating with the companies we are employing, they recommended that I arrange a meeting by email. I told them we had tried to contact him many times, and he didn't respond. But I emailed him anyway, requesting this meeting, and am waiting yet.

In subsequent weeks before the General Election numerous people whom I didn't know came to my door to talk about politics and community and accountability. This is called the democratic system, an honourable process of communication and calling to account, of respectful speaking face-to-face.

Why is John Shaw exempted from this dialogue? If I asked them to, would Hastings police have hunted down a Tory canvasser who had knocked at my door? I wonder.



Emily Johns is a member of Combe Haven Defenders.

This article was originally published on the Coombe Haven Defenders website.

Author's note: we have tried multiple times to talk to or meet with SeaChange in order to ask some questions about their use of public money and destruction of green spaces. They don't answer our emails or letters or return our calls. Nobody is ever available to speak to us. The CEO, John Shaw, is rarely seen in public.

When SeaChange held a 'consultation' about their next new road, there was nobody from SeaChange present. This is a company which is financed entirely from public funds: should we as the public not be able to hold it accountable?

Editor's note: Seachange Sussex is a remarkably slippery body. For a start, no company of that name exists. It turns out that the company's real name is something completely different: 'East Sussex Energy Infrastructure And Development Limited'.

According to Companies House it's a Private company limited by guarantee, with no share capital whose business is 'development of building projects'. Normally this kind of information, along with its directors, would be shown on its website, but it's not.

A Freedom of Information Request about the public funds invested in the company was refused in 2013 by the company on the basis that "as a wholly private company, not a public body, we are not required to respond to any FOI requests ... The Freedom of Information Act covers only public authorities and companies which are wholly publicly funded and as neither of these definitions apply to Sea Change Sussex, I'm afraid I cannot respond to an FOI request."

A 'Seachange Sussex Watch' website has been created to cast light on the company and its activities. Among the company's directors are three local councillors and Professor Julian Moray Crampton, Vice Chancellor of Brighton University. As a "major contributor to the regeneration of Hastings and Bexhill" John Shaw, the CEO, received an honorary Master of Laws degree from the university in 2014.