Surrey's countryside at risk: tackling the Green Belt threat - special report
PUBLISHED: 08:33 10 November 2015 | UPDATED: 10:13 10 November 2015
It's one of the most important issues facing our county today - the threat to our cherished Green Belt from the spectre of thousands of new homes. Here, Andy Smith, the Surrey branch director of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, brings us the story - and explains what we can do to help...
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine October 2015
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Stand in Guildford High Street and look up to the green hills that dominate the skyline to the west. The chalk ridge providing the dramatic backdrop to this historic town is the Hog’s Back – and the road that runs along it offers panoramic views back across the town into vast swathes of glorious open countryside. It is the rural gateway to Guildford – and much of it has been unchanged for centuries.
It is inconceivable, surely, that such an unspoilt rural landscape could ever be concreted over with thousands of houses. It is, after all, part of the Green Belt – the ‘green lung’ of Greater London. Part of it is within the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The ancient pilgrim paths run across it. It could be said to be one of the true “natural wonders” of England.
Yet, there are plans afoot that would see more than 600 acres of the Hog’s Back built over. A scheme has been put forward for an “urban extension” of some 3,000 new houses that would sprawl out into this open countryside. Unfortunately, indications are that the local council might be minded to approve the plans.
Indeed, to meet its ever-growing housing targets, Guildford Borough Council is considering a wholesale ‘roll-back’ of Green Belt protection from thousands of acres of farmland and green space across the borough. Blackwell Farm on the Hog’s Back is just one of dozens of Green Belt sites earmarked for destruction.
This one scheme alone would mean the removal of 265 hectares of land from the Metropolitan Green Belt – and thus from statutory protection. This is something that the local authority is permitted to do if it can demonstrate that in its judgment there are “exceptional circumstances” for such a redrawing of Green Belt boundaries.
“If the plans are realised,” says Karen Stevens from the local Save the Hog’s Back group, “a third of the land forming the northern slopes of the Hog’s Back between Guildford and Farnham would become urbanised, and nationally important views blighted for miles along this ancient ridge. Large swathes of countryside will be covered with roads and houses.”
But how on earth have we reached the stage where such precious and beautiful countryside is under direct threat of development and destruction? How can farmland and woodland that has been designated as worthy of protection because of the role it plays in preventing urban sprawl suddenly be considered expendable?
The answer appears to be a political agenda of unchecked “economic growth”, which has led to local authorities being landed with excessive and wholly unsustainable house-building targets that force them to consider building on the Green Belt.
Soothing reassurances from Government ministers that the Green Belt is “safe in our hands” have little credibility when planning inspectors rule that Surrey districts must not only meet the housing needs of locals but also build enough new homes to satisfy demand from outside the area.
In Surrey’s case, demand is potentially limitless. It is the very “green and pleasant” nature of our county that makes us especially vulnerable. Almost two-thirds of new housing requirement in boroughs like Guildford, Woking, Waverley, Reigate and Tandridge is to cope with inward migration from other parts of the UK and Europe. Housing “need” is really just about demand.
Sixty glorious years
This year, the Green Belt celebrates its 60th anniversary. It was in 1955 that the housing minister in the then Conservative government, Duncan Sandys, authorised the creation of ‘green belts’ around British towns in order to prevent urban sprawl. The Metropolitan Green Belt – London’s local countryside – is the largest of all England’s Green Belts, and no less than 75% of Surrey’s total land area falls within this area.
In fact, Surrey has more Green Belt country- side than any of the other Home Counties around the capital, and more even than Greater London itself. For six decades, this has provided absolute protection for Surrey’s open spaces and has checked the spread of urbanisation, ensuring that our county would remain overwhelmingly “green and pleasant”.
Just imagine what Surrey would be like if we did not have the Green Belt protecting our countryside. Some of our most important green spaces would have disappeared under concrete and brick, and towns would have merged into one another. London itself would have crept out into Surrey like an octopus, swallowing up fields, hills and villages. Indeed, Surrey would probably by now all be part of the city – one endless series of streets with just a few isolated patches of greenery in which to take refuge.
That, alas, is the danger we face now.
Siren voices claim that the Green Belt is no longer needed; that it is somehow obsolete and its time has passed. Think tanks, pressure groups and a growing number of politicians echo the developers’ bogus assertion that the “housing crisis” can be solved by building on the Green Belt.
However, campaigners argue that the Green Belt is actually more important than ever. “The Green Belt is a fantastic British success story of which we should all be proud,” says Shaun Spiers, chief executive of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE). “It has both protected countryside and aided the regeneration of towns and cities across England. It is good for people’s well-being and quality of life, good for nature and wildlife, and it provides us with much of the food that we eat. Of course the country needs more homes but we can get them without trashing the Green Belt.”
Save Surrey’s countryside
However, with “economic growth” increasingly the politicians’ mantra, Green Belt land is now very seriously at risk throughout Surrey and the south-east. In our county alone, there are plans being considered by local councils for the building of more than 15,000 houses on what is currently Green Belt countryside.
In the borough of Guildford, for example, not only is there the threat to the Hog’s Back but also a scheme for a new town of 2,100 houses on Green Belt at Wisley, close to the RHS gardens. Here, 300 acres of agricultural land, meadows and wildlife habitat will be lost if house-building plans go ahead.
Meanwhile, in the neighbouring borough of Woking, the local council is currently consulting on a proposal to remove no fewer than 16 sites from the Green Belt in order to make way for housing development. Local campaigners say that no adequate justification has been set out for such a dramatic change to the Green Belt boundary and that the consequence of the proposal would be the merging of the urban areas of Woking and Guildford.
For the purposes of calculating housing requirements, Guildford, Woking and Waverley are all lumped together, and a ‘Strategic Housing Market Assessment’ is currently being drawn up by planning consultants that will form the basis of the Local Plans in each of these three boroughs.
On the other side of the county, in Tandridge, the district council is reviewing its existing Local Plan, which was approved in 2008. The new Plan is being formulated against the background of increased threats to the Green Belt in the district.
Local campaigner Catherine Sayer, of the Oxted & Limpsfield Residents, explains: “Over the last 20 years, Tandridge has taken a massive amount of inward migration, building more than double its housing requirement, and this has led to some parts of the district seeing population increase by more than a third, with very little infrastructure to support it.
“Accepting further inward migration would lead to major destruction of the Green Belt and overwhelm infrastructure in this rural part of Surrey.”
Need versus demand
Local housing need – as distinct from demand coming from outside the district – is low in Tandridge, but the council is under financial pressure to raise money and, by allowing more house-building, it can tap into Government incentive schemes like the New Homes Bonus and the Community Infrastructure Levy. “The more houses Tandridge builds, the more money it gets,” says Catherine.
Documents for the new Tandridge Local Plan are due to be published in December, with the council calling for sites to be put forward for housing. Needless to say, developers are already deluging the council with proposals to build on the Green Belt.
Elsewhere, the neighbouring borough of Reigate & Banstead has already had to accept a redrawing of Green Belt boundaries to allow an “urban extension”, but this was only after long-running attempts by the council to resist any surrender of countryside to the developers. In the end, a substantial amount of Green Belt land has had to be de-classified so that development can take place.
Meanwhile, Mole Valley council last year began a Green Belt boundary review, with the intention of identifying sites – mostly around the towns of Dorking and Leatherhead – which could be removed from the Green Belt and earmarked for house-building. However, by the end of 2014, the council, facing widespread public opposition to any loss of green space in the district, decided to halt its review and instead focus on finding ways to reduce its housing figures and meet genuine housing need within the urban areas and on ‘brownfield’ (previously developed) sites.
Naturally, though, this strategy does depend on the council succeeding in either reducing the Mole Valley housing numbers or otherwise finding sufficient non-Green Belt sites that are suitable for new building.
How we can help
In any event, the good news is that readers of Surrey Life can help, simply by writing to your local MP, and to your district and county councillors, and urging them to do all in their power to oppose development on the Green Belt. You could also sign up to the CPRE’s ‘OurGreenBelt’ campaign via cpre.org.uk and on social media.
For six decades, the Green Belt has protected our farmland and open spaces. To hand it over now to the developers would be a gross betrayal. Once Surrey’s green spaces are built on, they are lost forever. Can we sit by and let this happen?
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“We are incredibly lucky in Surrey that over 70% of the county is currently protected within the Green Belt; an area that supports a higher proportion (4%) of ancient woodland than most other parts of Britain. Balancing the need for development with the protection of these special areas is essential to ensure a secure future for Surrey’s wildlife and the well-being of its residents.”
– Sarah Jane Chimbwandira, director of biodiversity, evidence and policy, Surrey Wildlife Trust
“As a society, we need new homes, but people also care deeply about where these should – and should not – go. The Green Belt prevents urban sprawl, keeping towns and villages distinct and special, which is why we think it is important to maintain the protections it offers. We don’t have urban sprawl in England in the same way that other countries do because of our history of development planning, and the designation of Green Belts in particular, and we weaken that enduring protection at our peril.”
– Richard Hebditch, external affairs director, the National Trust
“Our members have joined the Surrey Hills Society because they love this Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty – which is all within Surrey’s Green Belt. Any development that affected this protected landscape would be of concern to us. There is only one Surrey Hills with its unique history and rare chalkland and heathland, which contains many endangered species. How lucky we are to have this beautiful landscape on the doorstep of London for all to enjoy... long may it last!”
– Christine Howard, chairman of the Surrey Hills Society
“Surrey County Council has a proud history as the creator of the Green Belt – the county’s Countryside Estate, founded by the Surrey County Council Act of 1931, was the basis of the London County Council’s Green Belt Act of 1938. We believe the Green Belt and all other green spaces are vital and we will do everything to protect Surrey’s Green Belt. Any Green Belt development taking place in the county would have to be in line with the needs and wishes of Surrey residents.”
– Mike Goodman, Cabinet Member for Environment and Planning, Surrey County Council