Recent months have brought a torrent of bad news for Surrey’s countryside, writes Andy Smith, Surrey branch director of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE)
See you in court!
Defending the Surrey countryside can be a rollercoaster ride. One week brings a campaign success and the next a setback. The summer of 2018 has certainly seen mixed fortunes for our work to keep England (and particularly Surrey) “green and pleasant”. After some encouraging noises from government ministers and local authorities earlier this year about protecting the Green Belt, ministers have now hit us with a new national planning framework that actually weakens the existing protections.
At the same time, Surrey councils such as Waverley, Guildford and Tandridge have pressed ahead with local development plans that include large-scale surrender of Green Belt land to the housebuilders. And the green spaces set to be concreted over are not being sacrificed to meet any genuine local housing needs but merely to generate profits for developers and to allow councils to tick boxes that prove they have met their targets.
The new planning framework has been described by one of my CPRE colleagues as “a charter for speculative developers” and by another as “a betrayal of pledges to defend the Green Belt”. It is hard to comprehend why a government, many of whose members sit for Green Belt constituencies, seems suddenly so eager to throw away the votes of communities that cherish their local countryside. Please write to your MP about this!
Egged on by the government, Tandridge District Council is pushing for a so-called “garden village” at South Godstone that will comprise some five thousand new houses. This “village” will utterly swamp the neighbouring villages and put an unprecedented strain on local roads, public transport, schools, hospitals, GP surgeries and other already-overstretched public services. Local CPRE campaigners say it is not a “village” at all but unwanted urban sprawl. The battle of Tandridge is just hotting up!
Meanwhile, Waverley Borough Council has adopted a local plan that means new housing estates will be built on Green Belt land, in “countryside beyond the Green Belt”, and even in parts of the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). CPRE has recently been given permission by the High Court to challenge Waverley on its excessive and unsustainable housing numbers, which include a proportion for “unmet need” from the neighbouring borough of Woking. The case will go before a judge at the Royal Courts of Justice this month. We are optimistic.
CPRE played an active part in the month-long “examination- in-public” of Guildford Borough Council’s local plan, which proposed thousands of houses on five “strategic sites” in the Green Belt including Blackwell Farm on the Hogs Back. Day after day, CPRE and various local groups including Guildford Residents Association, Guildford Greenbelt Group and local parish councils set out compelling arguments against the surrender of these rural sites to the developers. Our call was for reductions in the housing numbers, and for new homes to be built in or near the town centre. But throughout the examination we were up against an army of lawyers, including leading QCS, retained by the bouncil and the developers to make the case for building in the countryside rather than, as CPRE argued, in the town.
We have yet to see Guildford Council’s modified plan, but indications are that it is likely to contain even higher housing targets and perhaps even more loss of Green Belt countryside to the bulldozers than originally envisaged. CPRE will need to take advice on this but once we have seen the revised plan we may need to consider launching a legal challenge against Guildford too. We could, soon, be in court against two or more Surrey councils. Legal action is, or should be, a last resort for campaigners but the goal posts have been moved so far that we now have a planning system that increasingly favours the developers over local communities. District and borough councils are elected to represent local people – but are they doing so? Councillors should be standing their ground and defending the Green Belt. Instead, they kowtow to developers. In these circumstances, we have no option but to say to irresponsible councils: “See you in court!”
‘We could, soon, be in court against two or more Surrey councils.’
To support CPRE’S appeal to Save Surrey Countryside, visit the CPRE Surrey website and click on donate
WITH ANDY SMITH