Last month, Andy Smith, Surrey branch director of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), made a direct appeal to David Cameron on the future of the greenbelt and the countryside:
Dear Mr Cameron,
During your recent Conservative Party conference, we heard much about the economy, pensions and the health service – the things that matter to all of us. However, little attention has been given to the future of something that also matters very greatly to us: the survival of our Green Belt and countryside.
Here in Surrey, we value our county’s extensive green spaces – our countryside, which includes such timeless places as Box Hill, Leith Hill and Ranmore Common on the North Downs, and the quiet corners of the Mole and Tillingbourne valleys. Valuable Green Belt, walking and recreational land surrounds our historic towns, such as Reigate, Leatherhead, Dorking, Godalming and Guildford. Many of these open spaces are ‘ordinary’ countryside that give us, the locals and residents, the chance to breathe and enjoy fresh air and a measure of tranquillity. We know that you also value such experiences: your description of the Prime Minister’s historic residence at Chequers in the Chiltern Hills, as a place of peace and quiet, very much resonated with us.
That is why we are making a direct appeal to you – to help us to defend a way of life that is inextricably bound up with the villages, towns, communities and countryside of one of England’s most beautiful – but threatened – counties.
We are alarmed by development plans that threaten to shrink the Green Belt. This protected area was created by far-sighted and public-spirited people more than half a century ago, specifically to prevent urban sprawl and town-merging. Yet in many districts of Surrey the boundaries of the Green Belt are being re-drawn to make way for masses of new housing – not, in fact, to provide for local people (and young people trying to establish a home for the first time) but to satisfy the targets of house-builders and developers.
Market demand is often used as the justification for this new development – but do all these extra houses really need to be pushed into Surrey? And do we really have the jobs and infrastructure to accommodate such a vast new influx?
It is estimated that about two-thirds of the new houses that are proposed for land currently in the Green Belt (or former Green Belt, as it will become) will go to outsiders – in other words, people who want to escape from London and the cities and enjoy a better life in “green and pleasant” Surrey.
Naturally, we don’t blame anyone who wants to find a better life. But by overwhelming us with new, large-scale and often densely-packed housing, the very thing that makes Surrey attractive – its Green Belt and countryside – will cease to exist.
In Guildford alone, almost 20,000 residents have responded to a consultation on the draft Local Plan and it is clear that the overwhelming majority believe housing provision should be much more carefully considered; that it should “fit in” – and, above all, be for local people – with no destruction of our much-valued landscapes and our precious open spaces.
Can we really build thousands more houses in the villages surrounding Guildford (from which it is proposed that Green Belt protection should simply be “rolled back” in vast swathes)? What will our roads be like in a decade from now if such schemes go ahead? Surrey already has the most congested roads outside the major cities. Will our schools and local NHS be able to cope? We are already the most densely populated of any shire county. Surrey simply cannot be surrendered to developers, or to the projections and equations of planning inspectors – or, it has to be said, your own ministers!
From the start of your premiership, ‘Localism’ was supposed to be at the very heart of the Government’s policy. If that promise still holds sway, we hope that you will listen to local voices – to the people who live and work in Surrey; and give us the reassurance that we so urgently need, that our county will not be lost under acres of housing estates, concrete and congested roads.
Surrey branch director, CPRE
This is Dr Louise Irvine’s comment on the open letter.
This situation has come about because the coalition government changed the planning laws to make it easier for developers to build anywhere and to reduce the rights of local people to object. The numbers of houses being forced on the area is ridiculously high and is designed more to provide profits for developers creating expensive houses for London commuters than homes for local people. Of course new homes are needed – but they should be affordable homes for local people. And that does not mean “affordable as long as you are a millionaire” – it means affordable by people on low and middle incomes too. Therefore there should be a plan for new council housing in the area. And development should be sensitive and in keeping with the character of the area, with respect for the environment, natural habitats and green spaces, and with proper health, education and transport infrastructure, including supporting healthier non-car modes of transport. These are all views that have been expressed by people in SW Surrey and are reasonable and should be listened to. But current planning laws favour the rights of developers over the rights of local people so it is doubtful how much real say local people will have in the implementation of these plans. The only way to ensure sustainable development responsive to local needs is to repeal current planning laws and replace them with ones that give real power to communities in local development decisions.