Fringe Box



Letter: Opportunity of Change for the Better Amid Our Troubles

Published on: 3 Jul, 2020
Updated on: 3 Jul, 2020

From Gordon Bridger

hon alderman and former Mayor of Guildford

In response to: Financial Pressures Force Council to Cut Back on Some Projects Amid Pandemic

Having been an observer, participant and commentator on our council’s activities for a surprising (to me) five decades, I think we now have, with recent moves, a real opportunity for a change for the better.

That the council has been landed with a seriously flawed development plan and a financial crisis the likes of which we have never encountered and requires us to draw massively on reserves is unfortunate.

The list of projects chosen to prioritise seems sensible but may be optimistic in terms of funds likely to be available (eg Spectrum).

Importantly, there will now be an opportunity to reform the council’s planning team with a new head of department, but they must secure a really top expert and this is likely to entail a very high salary or help to acquire a house appropriate for someone at this level.

And they will need to tackle the massive commitment to collect Special Areas of Natural Greenspace or SANG charges, the “tax” paid by developers used to create or maintain these green areas to attract local inhabitants from other areas where endangered species exist.

Developers see creation of a SANG as a way to get permission to develop in the green belt. And our cash-strapped council receives about £6,000 per new house to maintain the SANGs, such as The Chantries and Riverside Park.

Whether the council needs these ring-fenced payments which must be used solely for SANG maintenance is questionable, especially as SANG charges can be deducted from any Section 106 or CIL payments which are used for more beneficial community gain.

In Whitmoor Common and Wisley and Ockham Common, the endangered three species of birds, Dartford warblers, nightjars and woodlarks were, according to GBC information, effectively wiped out by a cold spell in 2009. Latest figures are only 20 nests in the combined 500 hectares of land.

Of course, rare birds do require protection but studies have shown factors affecting the populations of these birds do not include, to any significant extent, human recreational activity: climate is the key factor.

If all the 14,400 houses included in the Local Plan are built, the council could receive £60 million to £80 million. And over the schemes expected life, 25 years, a lot more.

In these times when the pandemic has had such a huge impact on council budgets, if this money is to be collected, it should be used more effectively for real community gain. One such use could be construction of social housing.

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Responses to Letter: Opportunity of Change for the Better Amid Our Troubles

  1. John Perkins Reply

    July 7, 2020 at 1:29 pm

    Thank you Gordon Bridger. I was unaware that SANG [Special Area of Natural Greenspace] fees can be offset against other community infrastructure payments.

    However, there is a way to avoid them almost completely. A developer can purchase nearby farmland and apply for it to be re-designated as SANG. If the council rejects the application, it is only necessary to appeal to the Secretary of State and an independent Planning Inspector will then consider the case.

    In two previous cases, the inspectors found that, because they enabled housing to be built in the Thames Basin Heaths Special Protection Area (TBH SPA) zone, the applications were justified, even though GBC already had plenty of SANG capacity.

    The difference is illustrated by the second of those two applications where the land was bought for about £250,000 whereas SANG fees could have been more than 40 times as much.

  2. Gordon Bridger Reply

    July 12, 2020 at 10:23 am

    I am grateful for John Perkins’ reply my comment. He is one of the few people who understands this policy and the way it has been interpreted.

    As he says, SANGs [Special Areas of Natural Greenspace] are now being used to allow development in the green belt with bespoke arrangements for large scale developers enabling them to avoid the high charges which individual owners and small scale developers have to pay. As he points out, by buying some land to designate a SANG for, say, £250k which would allow savings of some £10m in taxes can be saved which small developers, who can’t afford the SANG option, have to pay. This is unfair and needs serious investigation

    When the council last approved this scheme in 2016 my objections to it were not recorded and dismissed, in an appendix, in one sentence.

    However, somewhat guiltily, the council agreed to my request that the scheme should be submitted to the Overview & Scrutiny Committee

    But this offer this was withdrawn at a meeting I had with Cllr Spooner and others in the face of vigorous opposition from our then Chief Planning Officer who quoted the two inspectors’ reports John Perkins refers to.

    These two reports, on Long Reach and Wood Street, went to appeal because the Planning Committee had wisely, in my view, rejected officers’ recommendations that SANGs were required. The developers were no doubt encouraged by the officers’ recommendation. However, the reasons for refusal did not state, as they should have, that the numbers of birds on these two sites totalled only 20 and according to GBC officers this was because they had effectively been killed off in cold spell in 2009. Nor did they mention that the two SPAs [Speacial Protection Areas] were on commons which had been awarded “highest commendation for heathland management” to South Surrey Wildlife by Natural England, and that visitors, meant to be diverted to SANGs, were actually being encouraged.

    The inspectors’ reports did not mention this important evidence and gave as their main conclusion that SANGS would not cause that much damage to the green belt land, not an unreasonable decision, but it should have been quite different if a proper case against had been made. A massive misallocation of funds is taking place merits challenge

    Of course, John Perkins may be right that the Inspectorate has lost all independence and are prepared to ignore facts.

    Am I the only person to be concerned that during the most serious financial crisis the council is still going to continue to take tens of millions of pounds, maybe £60 to £80 million from new housing which should be paid as section 106 payments to compensate the community?

    We have far more SANGs than we need. There are very few birds benefiting from the policy on which councillors were misled when we were first asked for approval. It would be perfectly reasonable and legal for GBC to say no more are required, that the policy has been successful, let’s move on.

    Gordon Bridger is a hon alderman and former Mayor of Guildford.

  3. Jules Cranwell Reply

    July 12, 2020 at 7:43 pm

    Good on Gordon Bridger. The voice of common sense, as ever.

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