ANNUAL GENERAL MEETING WEDNESDAY 11TH NOVEMBER 2015
The Chairman introduced guest speaker Christine Howard, Chairman of the Surrey Hills society, who will give an illustrated talk entitled ‘Protecting our Open Spaces – the next 20 years’. He said that for the past three years the Friends AGM speaker has been chosen to broaden out the discussion and thinking within the Friends on the future of our Open Spaces and what can be done to protect them. Three years ago we invited Alister Hayes of the London Wildlife Trust to speak on his project to raise the profile of the North Downs. Last year we invited Sue Ireland, Director Open Spaces of the City of London who spoke of the constraints on funding and the difficulties of maintaining the City’s open spaces in the years ahead. Population growth is putting pressure on Greater London to find space for housing development, many farms are going out of business and there is criticism of Green Belt policy. The Surrey Hills are only forty miles from London and Farthing Downs is only a few miles from the Surrey Hills borders. It has some of the most beautiful landscapes in South East England, but even so the Surrey Hills is subject to the same pressures as Greater London: population growth and de-regulation of the Green Belt. Christine has agreed to talk about these issues and how the Surrey Hills Society plan to address them in the coming years.
Christine began by telling us how she became involved with the Surrey Hills Society. She had spent nineteen years as both a Parish Councillor and Councillor for Waverly, however she had always had a special interest in the environment. When she arrived in England for the first time from Sydney Australia she remembered flying into Heathrow and being amazed by the beautiful green countryside spreading out below her. Christine is now Chair of the Surrey Hills Society an independent Charity and part of the Surrey Hills Partnership which includes Surrey Hills Enterprises, set up both to promote local business and the area as a tourist destination and The Surrey Hills Trust, which promotes diversification to protect the future. The Surrey Hills Partnership Board is responsible for the Management Plan to protect the Surrey Hills and sets out to conserve and enhance the landscape. The Partnership groups are referred to as ‘families’. The Partnership includes members of both the Surrey Hills Society and Enterprises. Christine introduced her Vice Chair Ken Bare and Events Chairman Jeff Holiday.
The Surrey Hills area reaches from Farnham to the Kent borders and is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (ANOB) which has the protection equivalent to that of a National Park. There are thirty-four ANOBs in England and the Surrey Hills was the second to be designated. The area is covered by the CRoW act – The Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. The Society is eight years old and its aims are to ‘encourage families to explore, protect and enhance the Surrey Hills. Defra sets aside funding for both National Parks and the ANOBs. However £53M is given to the National Parks annually while the ANOBs which cover a much larger area are given £6M annually. The additional funding needed to maintain the Surrey Hills has to be raised from events and businesses ventures.
The Surrey Hills includes: chalk downland; heathland, Devils Punchbowl; densely wooded areas (Surrey is the most densely wooded county in England); rural areas (Surrey is 25% rural). Christine’s map showed that an adjoining area was designated as an Area of Great Landscape Value (AGLV). This area needs to be adopted into the ANOB as its management had a great impact on the area and the Society is lobbying for this.
Christine outlined some of the problems facing the Surrey Hills. London’s growing population (2000 per week) has led to an increase in population across the Green Belt creating pressures on the infrastructure. Those living outside the Green Belt (because of the high cost of living within) travel though the Green Belt to get to work in London. The City will continue to grow to keep up with other major world cities, however the shortfall in housing will continue. The proposed expansion of either Heathrow or Gatwick will have huge implications for the Surrey Hills which is a recreational area. There are also proposals for fracking and oil drilling (already taking place at Leith Hill). Christine said that in this case it is difficult to balance protecting the environment with national security. There is also the problem of four wheel drive and off-road vehicles and motorbikes, damage to the environment from these cost local government £1000s per year and there is a battle to close Green lanes and BOATs (Byways open to all traffic) to traffic. With average house prices of £580,000 and with 48% of households in our area including a registered director there is an educated lobbying group and thought needs to be given as to how we can all live together.
The Surrey Hills have been very popular as an area for quiet recreation since Victorian times and the opening of the railways. Today, following a successful Olympics there has been a growth in cycling and both cycle races and runners trap people in their homes every weekend. Use of bridleways by cyclists often upset horses and cause accidents. Leith Hill, in particular, has become a mecca for cyclists. Added to this there is the problem that land prices are forcing farms out of business and it is recognised that loss of farmland will change the landscape. Highway issues include sunken lanes being used as rat runs by trucks and large vehicles and often become grid locked. However, more road signage and traffic management schemes lead to an urbanised look and there is conflict over use of funding which is being reduced leaving Councils with less money to spend on roads. Footpaths which provide access to the countryside are affected by the cuts. The ‘right to roam’ is also an issue – the ‘my right’ mentality creates problems in itself. While the Minister for Defra recognises the need to protect ALGVs but they are second on the list for action after the Fens. Defra has just had a 30% cut to funding announced this week.
The question is how do we find a sustainable solution – Christine went on to outline ‘bright ideas’ being explored for the management and protection of the Surrey Hills for the next twenty years.
Christine expanded on the roles of the partners in the Surrey Hills Partnership. The Society was set up as a member of the Surrey Hills ‘families’ with work being undertaken by volunteers (not officers) to publicise the Hills and organise events; Surrey Hills Enterprises was set up to look after businesses; a Trust Fund was set up to diversify to protect the future. The Surrey Hills Partnership is run by a Board of members including: Councillors, and representatives from the NFU, Surrey Wildlife Trust, CPRE and National Trust as well as representatives from the Surrey Hills Society, Enterprises and Trust Fund. The Board shapes planning policy, strategy and projects and a new management plan produced by the Board has been adopted both by Councils and Parish Councils in the area. The Board has been responsible for the Leith Hill Project to develop separate routes for walkers, horse rides and cyclists and a project to address the lack of research carried out on the industrial history of the Tillingbourne Valley. Lottery funding won by the Board will finance a new archaeological survey now underway. Restoration of the once hidden Tudor Gunpowder Mill and Victorian Drink toughs has been undertaken by English Heritage and Guildford Council. The Surrey Hills Partnership can work on projects in partnership with landowners and raise funds. The Big Society Award from David Cameron gave the Society a chance to showcase its work and local food produced in Surrey at the Palace of Westminster.
Fund raising events promoted by Surrey Hills Enterprises include the annual National Wood Fuel Conference in October which explores generating income from wood and business opportunities from renewable energy. The Surrey Cow Parade from May to September 2016 will bring the world’s largest art display to the Surrey Hills to raise awareness, raise funds and involve the local community. The annual Wood Fair, first weekend in October, is a day out for families with food, entertainment, stalls and rural craft demonstrations.
The Surrey farms are the most diversified in the Country taking business opportunities in renewable energy (solar panels), offering venues for weddings and conferences and locations for filming. Surrey farms also produce distinctive local products encouraged by the Annual Surrey Life Food and Drink Awards (Surrey Hills Enterprises gives sponsorship). Products include Silent Pool Gin and Loseley Ice Cream which has now been taken over by Beachdeen and sold in major supermarkets.
The unmanaged Surrey woodland is costing more to run than it is currently earning therefore business opportunities need to be created to make it pay. LC Energy, based in Surrey are one of the country’s leading suppliers of sustainable wood fuel and supply Terminal 4 at Heathrow and is an example of how woodland can become self-financing and sustainable.
Christine explained the role of the Trust Fund which was set up to enable philanthropic giving by the wealthy and corporations. Contributions can be made to fund events, or help in kind given with financial management, investment and an endowment fund which creates money for staff employment.
Protecting the rural character is another way in which the Surrey Hills Partnership is working with Parish Councils to de-clutter the roads and lanes of traffic signs and replace necessary signage with wooden signs where necessary. The Partnership can help with funding for these projects. We were shown before and after photographs of landscapes with and then without electricity pylons as an example of their visual impact on landscape views and how the landscape can be improved over time when de-cluttered. The Surrey Hills Partnership is currently working with Sat-Nav companies to prevent inappropriate use of country lanes by HGVs. Christine showed us photographs of Leith Hill in Victorian times and Leith Hill today to demonstrate how better managed the area is for visitors now with well-kept footpaths and landscaping. Both Leith Hill and Box Hill are the most visited sites in the Surrey Hills. A major remit of the Surrey Hills Society and the Surrey Hills Partnership is to inspire the next generation with events and projects aimed at families and school children to protect and appreciate the Surrey Hills in the future.
Questions from the floor:
Q: Transport problems could be relieved if people were encouraged to live and work in the area. Could derelict areas be used to create Technology Villages for this purpose?
A: There are ways in which land used for farming can be converted to provide jobs and business accommodation. The Loseley Estate is an excellent example of this conversion of farm land to commercial use. Along with offering venues for weddings and conferences they have now converted farm buildings to offices creating business and job opportunities. Another example is the Hampton Estate, Hoggs Back, which now organises events, lets holiday cottages and runs a farm shop. These creative commercial ideas help to protect the countryside.
Q: Is there a link with the local Chamber of Commerce or large supermarket chains which could provide volunteering through Corporate Social Responsibility programmes.
A: The Surrey Hills Partnership is working much more with businesses. For example Toyota have sponsored walks leaflets and money has been raised from businesses through matched funding. Key sponsors include solicitors, lawyers and investment companies.
Q: There is always the possibility of development of land considered ‘ordinary landscape’ but the Green Belt seems certain of ‘impending doom’ in North Surrey.
A: Currently commerce and population growth is gravitating to London and no one is tackling the problem. Beyond the Green Belt, areas are being developed but these have an effect on the ANOB through increased traffic. Many solutions could have been found i.e. using disused buildings for high tech industries within the Green Belt. Christine explained the current battle with Guilford Council over a proposal for 300 new homes in Shere, a very beautiful historic village frequently used for filming. The proposals would destroy the character of the Village. This reminds us that development proposals have to be constantly scrutinised and opposed when necessary.
The Chairman thanked Christine for her excellent and detailed talk and also to Ken Bare and Jeff Holiday for bringing the exhibition which members are invited to look at this evening. He looked forward to more links between the Friends and the Surrey Hills Society in the future.