After ten years of planning and a flurry of eleventh-hour doubts, ambitious plans to build a spa hotel and eco-resort on St Helena have been given the green light.
But UK writer Ian Mathieson has called for “a full public debate” on the environmental and economic implications.
The scheme is the largest ever to be considered by councillors, apart from the £200 million airport project.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds had praised the environmental ideals of the developer, but formally objected to the plans because of doubts about the impact on the island’s critically-endangered wirebirds.
The St Helena National Trust had also objected to the scheme, which includes an 88-suite hotel and 165 holiday homes.
The island’s planning board recommended approval for the scheme on 7 June 2012, but with a set of strict conditions.
The developer, Shelco, had already given undertakings to protect water supplies and established paths across the land, and improve breeding conditions for wirebirds on the site.
Governor Mark Capes was due to make the final decision on Tuesday, 12 June, but when the plans went before executive councillors they asked for further reports before giving their own view.
Approval was finally given on Friday, 15 June, after a special meeting of the executive council (ExCo).
Governor Capes reported after the meeting:
“On Tuesday, officials provided a comprehensive oral briefing on the Shelco application. We then put questions to the officials and engaged in a good discussion of the project.
“ExCo chose to defer making a decision to allow more time to reflect on the issues raised during the briefing and the subsequent discussion. Clearly this was the right approach given the scale and importance of the proposed project.
This morning, Friday 15 June, ExCo met in open session to take a decision on the development application. I am pleased to report that ExCo indicated full support for the project and, accepting the planning board’s unanimous recommendation, duly approved the development application.”
In the June 2012 issue of the St Helena Connection – published shortly before the planning decision was made – Ian Mathieson expressed doubts about the whether there would be enough water available at Broad Bottom to serve the resort.
He also questioned the proposal that the hotel would be run by the Oberoi group, whose hotels – including one on Mauritius – have been named among the best in the world.
“What of the weather?” he asks. “While in Mauritius all months have an average of seven hours of sunshine a day, at Broad Bottom only in February can seven hours of sunshine be expected.
“There seems to be a strong likelihood that this project will slip through simply because there is little else on the table.
“At present it seems that the community may be blinded by the size of the investment without being aware of the contents of the Pandora’s Box which it may open.”
Some of St Helena’s unique plants could be grown for export to garden centres around the world, it’s been suggested.
The idea is put forward in the masterplan for the Wirebird Hills eco-resort at Broad Bottom, which also includes planting endemic species across the 160-hectare site.
Growing tree ferns could become a business opportunity for Saints, says the main 82-page planning report submitted by developer Shelco.
Tree ferns and native dogwoods could even be used to increase rainfall, reducing strain on water supplies. Both species were part of a cloud-forest that St Helena National Trust hopes to recreate across the highest parts of the island, from High Hill to the central peaks.
The Shelco report says investing money in reforestation would pay off in improved landscape, better habitat for wildlife and greater rainfall – and also as a business prospect for contract-growers on the island.
“There may also be opportunities for establishing an export market for the tree fern (Dicksonia arnorescens) and other rare plants to supply the international garden centre market,” it says.
But growing enough plants to realise Shelco’s ambitions is a challenge.
“The Agriculture and Nature Resources Department nursery presently appears to be the only one on the island which may be in a position to provide the volume of endemic and indigenous plants which are likely to be needed.
“However, some resident Saints have also expressed an interest in being able to provide suitable plant material at the earliest opportunity.”
Shelco has spent more than a decade researching and refining its proposals for Broad Bottom. Parts of its proposed site are used for beef grazing, but large areas are overgrown with invasive species such as flax or gorse.
The company consulted historical records and analysis to devise “appropriate” planting of native species.
“The landscape and planting character would echo the drop in elevation at the lower, northern edge of the site towards Lemon Valley.”
Three planting zones are proposed:
Tree fern zone: The surviving remnants of tree fern woodland on High Peak would be extended – with neighbouring landowners’ agreement – to form “a continuous blanket” of woodland, coming down to the edge of the proposed eco golf course. “In the long term the road to Head O’Wain could be flanked on either side by this distinctive characteristic ‘Cloud Forest’ vegetation.”
Gumwood habitat: The native gumwood – adopted as the national tree in 1977 – originally extended over roughly a third of the island, between 400 and 600 metres above sea level. Shelco hopes to imitate planting of the Millennium Gumwood Forest on desert ground beyond Longwood. “The tree has a dome-shaped canopy and gnarled and crooked multi stems, making it particularly attractive and picturesque.”
Ebony and waterside Habitat: Ebony and gumwood thickets historically stretched across land between 100 and 500 metres above sea level. Similar planting would be recreated on the sides of guts (steep, gouged valleys), stretching down into Lemon Valley. This would merge with “riparian vegetation” found close to water, along with exoting lakeside planting. A small lake was created on the site some years ago. “Ferns would also be extensively used as foliage ground cover planting in the lower areas within the guts.”
The Shelco plan says existing landscape features such as rows of thorn trees, water features and field boundaries would be preserved, with its golf course designed around them.
The landscaping strategy is based on mapping of pristine endemic vegetation (found nowhere else in the world) by Cambridge researcher Quentin Cronk.
He was with islander George Benjamin when he rediscovered the St Helena ebony, which had been thought to be extinct.
For the native plants and trees to be re-established, “aggressive” species such as flax – which also harbours rats – would have to be cleared.
For the first few years of the resort development, though, existing non-native woodland will be kept. Tall, mature trees will continue to provide nesting sites for fairy terns.
Exotic forestry areas could be thinned and underplanted with gumwood trees and endemic plants such as rosemary, bellflower and false gumwood.