On the 3rd of March there will be a debate in the Senedd on the demand for an independent inquiry into the site for a Velindre Cancer Centre. Here Tessa Marshall, a campaigner with Save the Northern Meadows, provides a detailed account of the recent history around the development, highlighting the need for such an inquiry, and exposing the deep issues in the politics of Wales that impact us all.
Save the Northern Meadows is a community protest group established in March 2020 to oppose the development of the ‘Northern Meadows,’ Lady Cory Field, and the abandoned railway cutting in Coryton. The area is incredibly biodiverse for it to be found in a city, hosting protected species like hedgehogs, song thrushes, grass snakes, and slowworms, covering three protected areas, and providing us with a safe haven to enjoy during lockdown.
We built on the strong history of opposition to the development of the meadows which started before 1995, and most recently saw objections to planning applications submitted in 2017. We started with a petition and a facebook group, and now we are active with 3,000 members lobbying Ministers and Councillors to encourage the rejection of development on the meadows on environmental, medical, and economic grounds. We demand the community’s needs are put first and our health, wellbeing, and environment is protected for us and for future generations. But our struggle isn’t unique – communities across Wales are being forced to fight against developments – often brought by the public sector – which will harm their health, wellbeing, and local environments.
When the campaign started, people in our community who used the meadows daily – walkers, families, birds watchers, joggers – had no idea development was due to start in the summer of 2020. This is largely due to confusion and poor communication and transparency within the decision making processes at local (Council) and national (Senedd) level. Planning permission has existed to place houses, offices, and commercial units on the meadows and Whitchurch Hospital for over 25 years (planning application 20/00357/MJR), and has been periodically renewed 5 times with minimal community engagement.
The cancer centre itself has had outline planning permission (which means there’s a vague plan for putting some kind of building on the site) – and these plans include outright permission for enabling works. The outright permission (meaning a full plan and design was submitted and granted) includes two huge bridges across the railway cutting – with construction ongoing for almost four years. Despite the complex documents submitted in the past, this year alone the developers, Transforming Cancer Services (TCS) – tasked by the Velindre University Trust to design the future of cancer care for the whole of South East Wales – have submitted eight planning applications relating to the development of the meadow.
These applications were pushed through without in depth community engagement. Only Pendwyallt Road was initially flyered about the update, and the residents living of the Hollybush Estate who live in closest proximity to the meadows and railway cutting were ignored. Because of our work, we secured hundreds of comments in opposition to these applications. If we hadn’t done so, the new applications and amendments would’ve been waved through, and many would be totally unaware of the development. One application (20/01110/MJR), changed the timescale of use for a temporary access route from nine months to four years, placing the community at the centre of construction work.
This is just one example of a planning meeting where councillors don’t really reflect on the concerns of the community. For example, we raised the fact the new application sought to remove guardrails on Pendwyallt Road to stop cyclists being crushed by heavy vehicles. But the planning officer was quick to state they wouldn’t actually be removed so the street stays safe for school children attending Coryton Primary at the Whitworth Square junction. But he failed to acknowledge the lengths of wall along the road where cyclists could easily be crushed, and failed to provide an alternative to prevent the crushing of cyclists against barriers. This road – single lane to J32, with a disappearing cycle lane and only one pavement – is unsuitable for heavy vehicles, and is regularly clogged with traffic. It’s unsafe on a good day. The presence of HGVs for four years, will put pedestrians, children, and active travellers at risk. But the plans were granted.
Here, I think it’s important to address why we’re campaigning. We’re frequently called NIMBYs for protesting against a crucial piece of our healthcare infrastructure.
We reject that characterisation. We care about the meadows because we care about a wondrous place. The semi-ancient Longwood stretches out above the Glamorganshire canal, the sturdy old oaks overlooking the Afon Taf. The old industrial railway line blends into this landscape now, and seemingly stretches on for miles. The whole area overflows with creaking trees and birds sing from dawn to dusk. The meadow itself is a wide open space covered in grassess, brambles, ivy, and young trees slowly growing, showing the beginnings of a young forest on the meadow. Brambles have overgrown old paths and new ones have been mapped out. When you reach the highest point, you can see the Whitchurch Hospital bell tower, with a view across Cardiff to the South.
The space sustains the community’s physical and mental health, our wellbeing, our environment, and gives us access to our local cultural heritage.
We recognise the crucial care provided by Velindre, who are close to the hearts of all of us across South East Wales. But we also support the growing body of medical evidence which states that building on the meadows would actually be bad for cancer patients receiving care at Velindre, and bad for the physical and mental health of the community. Building here could actually put more pressure on the NHS in the long term.
Cancer is a devastating disease which has impacted almost every person in Wales. Our members have experienced cancer as individuals, within their families, with their friends, as everyone has. Our hearts go out to all patients receiving cancer treatment at Velindre and across South East Wales, and to everyone who has lost a loved one because of cancer. We send our solidarity and support to all doctors, nurses, and healthcare workers within the NHS, who have worked tirelessly during the covid-19 and austerity crises.
So we were appalled to find that £20 million has been spent, another £3 million handed over for 2020, and a further £26.9 million grant will be spent on the project before constructing the actual centre begins. This has happened whilst some patients in South East Wales are being denied treatment because of the cost. So we would expect this to be providing the best model of care possible, based on thorough research and engagement of staff and community. All patients and staff deserve a medical model which can secure the best possible outcomes for patients and the best possible working conditions to ensure the best possible care can be provided.
Yet, in the summer of 2020, 60 clinicians spoke out on the model, and the report relied upon to justify the choice of model turned out to be non-existent. We’ve heard Health Boards outside of Velindre – who also provide cancer treatment – were not consulted about the design of the model. And, on the 14th of January 2021, a letter stating the project could actually harm the people of South East Wales was sent to Velindre and the Health Minister, signed by 163 senior clinicians. The current model of cancer care has left South East Wales with the worst short, medium, and long term outcomes for cancer patients in Europe.
Planning Cancer Care
Our campaign started as an effort to save an amazing green space, but it’s become more than that. We now stand with the clinicians who have been ignored and misrepresented by the unaccountable executive board. As patients and family of patients, we are outraged that those actually providing our care were ignored and potentially intimidated when this project was being designed. And in addition to those significant clinical concerns regarding the model of a cancer centre, we’ve also heard from nurses, doctors, and GPs who believe the meadows are indispensable for the health and wellbeing of local people.
Because of the serious and avoidable failures, our campaign applied pressure for an independent inquiry into the choice of site for the new Velindre Cancer Centre through the petitions committee. This secured the Nuffield Report – which is not the ‘independent clinical review’ called for by clinicians. This was the first external criticism of the new Cancer Centre project which has been in planning for over ten years. Indeed, Tom Crosby – the clinical lead of the project – recently tweeted asking clinicians what they would want for the future of cancer care if cost was no option, and celebrating the collaboration between health boards. Yet this collaboration only began as a result of our petition requiring scrutiny of the Health Boards engagement on the matter. So why is this weak “consultation” being conducted now – when building contracts are literally out to tender?
In its current form, the project has serious long term implications for our health. Any consultation which happens now will only result in tinkering around the edges, when the whole thing needs a total overhaul. There’s no evidence of any scrutiny and decision-making is being made across two levels of Government (Cardiff Council, Senedd) and five public bodies. These decisions should be all about putting the public and our needs first. But the community, the environment, the clinicians providing the care, and just about anyone outside of the boardrooms are being sidelined and ignored.
We do have a fight on our hands.
What About the Law?
The meadows are located on the border of the M4 and Junction 32 to the north/north west, the Hollybush Estate to the north-east, Whitchurch Hospital to the south-east and the Glamorganshire Local Nature Reserve to the south-west. The area keeps local air clean, and provides a muddy, wild, green haven for our community, especially during the lockdowns. The space is closely interconnected with our local heritage stemming from Whitchurch Hospital, the Glamorganshire Canal, and Forest Farm. The meadows are the only space remaining which resemble the farmland our community was built upon. And with all communal public spaces closed, it’s been noted widely by the Welsh Government, Cardiff Council, and the Health Boards that green spaces are important and we should be exploring our local areas.
The development of the meadows is partly funded by Welsh Government Grants and the (already infamous) MIM (Mutual Investment Model) engineered by Mark Drakeford. The funds will destroy an accessible, wild, semi rural space, permanently turning the area into an urban space. A site the size of a third of the area of the local nature reserve (LNR), a site of importance for nature conservation (SINC), and the border of a site of special scientific interest (SSSI) will be impacted and destroyed. These categorisations are supposed to protect green, open, biodiverse spaces, and should be enhanced by the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act and the Environment Act. We’re told the Act will lead to the protection of the environment across Wales, but the laws have failed to defend our biodiverse spaces in the way a declaration of a ‘climate emergency’ requires.
At the meadows, in Cardiff, and across South Wales we’re not feeling the effects of these regulations. The local and national system barely recognises, let alone applies the environmental protections which have been enshrined in Welsh and International Law for years. These regulations won’t start helping us because of toothless entreaties like ‘must regard’, ‘applying due regard’, or ‘considering’ the environment. Meaning planners, politicians, executives on health boards simply have to think about the environment, think of a ‘mitigation,’ and plans are waved through by planners, councillors, and ministers. These developers also get the benefit of building in a regulatory desert, where enforcement offices are overstretched because of a decade of austerity and a Westminster government which sees regulation as a hindrance to progress. All in all, the public bodies bounce off each other to get shit done without really having to explain the plan to the public other than confirming we should be all for it and they know best. This means our communities, health, wellbeing, trees, watercourses, air, and biodiversity suffer.
Despite the plan for the meadows and Whitchurch Hospital being designed by two Health Boards, they don’t reflect the ‘wellbeing goals’, sustainability, or any principles of community health. Although according to the applicants the wellbeing act has been applied, the community and worker voice have been ignored at every turn. The project fails to address the needs we actually have – like South East Wales having some of the worst cancer outcomes in the UK, the need to expand research and teaching, and the environmental, physical, and mental health crises which are snowballing during the pandemic. This disconnect is not necessarily a surprise either. The last large scale public consultation for the new cancer centre occurred in 2017. In 2018, Chief Medical Officer Frank Atherton said consultation stopped as they were ‘under the impression everyone supported the development.’ But in 2020 we collected multiple petitions gathering 12,0039, and 5,241 signatures, and over a thousand objections across multiple planning applications clearly demonstrating the developers engagement plans didn’t adequately engage the community. This has become clearer as we discovered the idea/plan for a Velindre Cancer Centre train station behind Asda.
During our research, it’s become clear the area has been under survey by Transport for Wales, another Welsh Government institution recently taken into public ownership. The new station would be a part of the Cardiff metro project, which seeks to expand public transport across South Wales. On the surface, it’s an attempt to connect Cardiff and improve public transport. But scratch that surface and you’ll find the plan is not necessarily grounded in reality, and is already being challenged by the community of Morganstown for the loss of Gelynis Farm and a local meadow, implying a HS2 style future of devastation for the project. Their ‘vision’ is to extend the Coryton line and connect it with Taffswell. At present, the train terminates at Radyr and Coryton stations, travelling along a horseshoe line from North to Central, back to North Cardiff. In Coryton, the railway used to connect to Taffswell and the metro would offer a circle service along the old line. The line was scrapped in the 1950s, and subsequently the railway cutting was rewilded, becoming a public right of way. Right now, the cutting shows us exactly the kinds of old industrial environments we need to be creating to fight the biodiversity crisis.
But the old line has been earmarked as a key part of the metro’s new ‘Cardiff Circle Line’ and is seen on maps published by TFW. They seek to replace the railway line along the railway cutting, and extend it to Morganstown and Taffswell. The line would include a large park and ride on Longwood Drive, and a Velindre Cancer Centre train station, as well as vast works changing Coryton station and Lady Cory Field. This has never been raised with the community, and it would require the permanent destruction of the urban forest which runs from Lady Cory Field to J32, under the M4 and up to Tongwynlais and Taffswell. This would harm the communities of North Cardiff, and would impact the resilience of biodiversity on two sides of the Taff. Although it appears to address the need for more public transport, it doesn’t offer any consideration for how our lifestyles and working patterns will change after or during the pandemic, or what areas like the Hollybush Estate and the South Wales Valleys actually need from our public transport. Undod published an interesting article alluding to the trouble with the metro in 2020. In reality, if we want to be ensuring the resilience of biodiversity, we can’t be building expensive railway lines through biodiverse spaces, when we could be exploring the development of our bus, tram, or light rail services. Over 250 households don’t have gardens, and neither are there parking spaces on the Hollybush Estate. People here live without access to the internet, and there are individuals living in assisted living spaces across Pendwyallt Road and the Estate. There is a primary school and a residential school for autistic children, both using the meadows for forest schools. All of us deserve access to our natural and cultural heritage which the meadow can provide. And although TCS say this will be the ‘greenest hospital in Britain’, there’s no way cutting down thousands of trees, building on top of an LNR and SINC, and subjecting two blocks of flats to years of dust from construction works, and then regular train journeys just beneath their windows, is green.
So the destruction of the meadows isn’t only a warning sign the leadership of the NHS in Wales is in the hands of people who are committed to privatisation over the provision of effective, excellent healthcare services. It shows the transport system is also in the hands of executives committed to a vision of Cardiff and South Wales for profit creation, and the exploitation of workers by connecting them to Cardiff and opening up Coryton, Morganstown, and the Valleys up to gentrification. And it demonstrates the utter weakness of the legislation which we’re told will save us from our unsustainable, unhealthy, and polluted communities.
A Recipe for Disaster
All our communities need access to natural and cultural heritage, we need the best cancer care possible, and we need affordable public transport and housing. But the Velindre project will not only gentrify our cancer care by the use of the MIM model, it will open up a key part of our cultural heritage in Whitchurch to gentrification too. Housing, offices, ‘retail units,’ and apartments are planned to go within and around Whitchurch hospital. The recent planning applications have made it clear these won’t be the accessible, affordable, and equitable housing and retail units we need to keep our communities alive. So along with the loss of our green space, we’ll be saddled with an expensive cancer centre only viable for 10-15 years, a railway line through the railway cutting’s enchanting forest, executive housing, our cultural heritage sold off into apartments, and expensive retail units suitable for multinational franchises. All provided on a silver platter by a £26.9 million Government grant to open up the meadows for development.
All of these impacts will occur without even addressing the implications of literally draining surface water from the site into the Melingriffith Feeder (to the Taff), which flooded homes near the meadows in January 2020 and came close in December 2020/January 2021. It doesn’t address the threats to the form of Whitchurch Hospital and the listed Chapel, road safety, air pollution, limited affordable housing, or the fact the environment minister has never even responded to our queries once. The fact is, if Ministers cared about future generations they would be fighting tooth and nail to write and apply effective legislation which could actually protect, manage, and enhance nature, support and engage local communities, and provide us with the excellent, modern cancer care and research which we deserve. There has been barely any engagement by Ministers – when Mark Drakeford, Vaughan Gething, Julie James, Lesley Griffiths, and Julie Morgan all have a stake in pushing this project ahead.
The rampant failures which have left us disenfranchised, ignored, and overwhelmed by bureaucratic political planning are the same failures causing the loss of green space, gentrification, unaffordable housing, harm for our local music industry, destruction of our cultural heritage, and the building of swathes of unaffordable student accommodation across Cardiff and South Wales. Uniquely, the development of the meadows will entrench South East Wales’ position of holding the worst cancer outcomes in Europe, and end the opportunity for Velindre to produce cutting edge research, crucial for the training of young radiologists and oncologists. And rather than utilise Whitchurch Hospital for something positive – such as a museum (even the museum of military medicine could go here, although there isn’t the space to discuss the truly depressing nature of the museum itself), we’ll likely see the same pattern of Redrow built, overpriced housing which does nothing to reflect the history of the area.
Wellbeing – Well meaning but No Meaning
So we’re left wondering what value does wellbeing actually have for Welsh Labour and our politicians? Is it just a word on a piece of paper or a new job description, another box to tick? Or is it the step forward towards a society where citizens’ needs are cared for, they are engaged with, and their views are applied by political representatives when making decisions about the future of our land and communities? Because this campaign has shown us the people of Cardiff want to look after their wellbeing, they care about where they live, and they want to have a say in how the area is designed. The Council, the Government, the Health Boards, and the transport services categorically prevent us from engaging constructively in these conversations. People want to save the meadows and other green spaces not just for future generations, but for the present ones who are enjoying it and accessing it as a crucial public amenity right now. Mitigation can’t account for the years of dust and noise from a building site, nor the impact of climate change which is accelerating every day we fail to implement structural, systemic change. Our city will sink within 30 years if we stay on this destructive path. We need to use every tool possible, including the preservation of green spaces and biodiversity to ensure we have a fighting chance for the future of Cardiff.
We don’t claim to have all the solutions, but we have some ideas on where to start. We want the Council to implement Reclaim Cardiff’s demands, which you can find here, and put a pause on planning decisions as we continue through the pandemic. We want the new Local Development Plan, which has just finished its first round of consultations, to be truly representative of what the people want. That means no sham consultations which ignore or ‘mitigate’ objections, but a rolling process of engagement which places the needs of communities above the plans of developers. We want the immediate implementation of an environmental strategy for the whole city, including the total protection and enhancement of all green spaces, expansion of green spaces to areas experiencing environmental deprivation, and a legal emphasis on the environment as a crucial material planning issue.
Build Back Differently
But this goes higher than the local Councils. If we are to really change and protect our environment, we need the Welsh Government to amend the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act and and the Environment Act to include strong language to improve the resilience of, to create, and to maintain and enhance present ecosystems. Finally, we need public bodies to be publicly accountable. The Welsh Government is too small to be able to sufficiently scrutinise the actions of unelected civil servants who run bodies like Velindre and Transport for Wales. But these bodies are funded by the Government, meaning public money is spent on poorly-planned projects (like the nVCC and the new metro) when people in Wales are really suffering. The least we deserve is a voice which is listened to and represented within the decision-making process, and truly accessible information and engagement processes when decisions are being made which will impact our future healthcare, environment, transport, as well as the areas where we live.
We know that if we are to address the multiple crises facing our country today and in the years to come, we need to put care for where we live at the centre of decision-making. Care should be key when we discuss planning of community spaces, the environment, transport, housing, healthcare, and every aspect of governance. We need to listen to the actual doctors and community members who are passionately advocating for the protection of green, biodiverse spaces in cities and across the countryside, and not the planners, councillors, and ministers who open the door for unsustainable, and uncaring developments in our areas. And fundamentally, community views and needs must be seen as instrumental to all developments. If we fail to apply care for the needs of communities to all decision making, we’ll be unable to look after our own health and wellbeing, and we won’t be able to cope with the climate, biodiversity, health, and economic crises we face.