Fringe Box



Letter: Unnecessary Protection Has Hampered Guildford’s House Building

Published on: 8 Jul, 2017
Updated on: 8 Jul, 2017

From Gordon Bridger

Hon Alderman and former Mayor of Guildford

Guildford Borough Council (GBC) has recently published a massive list of difficult to analyse infrastructure proposals for our new Local Plan. I expect that most are highly desirable but my attention was drawn to 13 investment projects (not infrastructure) to fund “SANGs”, with an identified expenditure of £72m, plus interest, for ten of them, with another three not quantified but which, if approved, could add, on my estimates, another £30m.

What are SANGs and how can such a colossal amount of money be justified? SANGs are “Suitable Alternative Natural Greenspace” which are going to be improved by massive investments. Many will immediately wonder why so much money is going to improve “natural “ green space, why it is necessary and who is going to pay for it? Are we to have more “Newland Corners”?

Let me explain. Some ten years ago (when I was on the council) we were informed that the EU had issued a directive requiring us and ten other districts in the Thames Valley to save three endangered species of birds, the nightjar, the woodlark and the Dartford warbler. In Guildford, the primary Special Protection Area (SPA) was Whitmoor Common (150 hectares of pleasant woodland in north Guildford).

We were told that the causes for this decline were visitors to these SPAs, their dogs, and cats from nearby houses. We were also advised that the solution, laid down by the EU, was to establish SANGs to attract visitors away from SPAs, to prevent any further housing within 400 metres, and that any new housing with five kilometres of a SPA would pay a levy to make other sites attractive to those normally visiting a SPA.

We were not told how many birds were involved, we were not told what the costs would be but so great was the threat that all house building within 5kms had to stop until all policies and levies were legalised.

This entailed no new housing in central Guildford for six months. It was not explained why a policy which entailed travel to other areas was an environmental benefit.

Our council officers did not know anything about the policy but there was no point in challenging it as we had a legal obligation to implement it. I made a visit to Whitmoor Common, contacted the RSPB who thought there were about 180 bird nests and was advised by a friend in the EU that this was a discretionary directive. However, officers insisted that it was a legal obligation and it was approved unopposed.

So last September when a consultation report from GBC came through the post about this scheme I was surprised to read that, in fact, the EU directive was discretionary (eg we could have put up signs saying, “Dogs on leads in breeding season”).

I went to enquire what the costs were and how many birds had been saved. I was told that “due to adverse weather conditions in 2008/9 they were effectively wiped out”.

Yes, that is correct, as Natural England (NE) has confirmed, in 2016 there were only two Dartford warbler nests in Whitmoor Common, and possibly four nightjar nests.

A secondary SPA added later at Wisley has 16 nests and a tertiary area, Ash Ranges, has 189 (though this is a military area and NE says the number of birds increasing there has been due to fires, not visitors).

A further report by NE in March this year, evaluating bird numbers, stated that adverse weather in Britain was likely to be the main problem, never mentioning visitors or funds spent.

Most people would have assumed that the councillors would have been advised of this turn of events and would wish to review the policy. Data from the internet shows there were 878 nests on these sites in 1998/9 which makes one wonder what the crisis was all about.

Trying to be helpful and diplomatic I drew these facts to the attention of the council last September hoping to save them embarrassment from a misled policy which had been a total failure and entailed funding by increasing house prices. I urged that the scheme needed reviewing.

This helpful advice has been ignored so I am obliged to go public on what seems to me a massive misdirection of financial resources which will have to be funded by further increasing house prices.

Can anyone really justify spending anything between £72m and £100m funded by a house price levy for this purpose?

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Responses to Letter: Unnecessary Protection Has Hampered Guildford’s House Building

  1. Lisa Wright Reply

    July 8, 2017 at 5:53 pm

    I am aware that Mr Bridger, being a vocal supporter of building on our green belt sites including Blackwell Farm, would very much like EU THBSPA avoidance strategy to be ripped up and would suggest this is his reasoning for trying to discredit this EU policy.

    For the record, in my opinion, it’s highly unlikely SANGs do work. However, although much more could be done to protect our treasured species, at present this is the best instrument we have.

  2. Jim Allen Reply

    July 11, 2017 at 5:36 pm

    I would hazard a guess that those wanting to build on the green belt believe that SANGs serve the same purpose so we can ultimately do away with the green belt!

    Personalty I believe SANGS are simply an excuse to build high-density housing while renaming an existing green area.

    For example, as I understand it only a section of the Riverside Nature Reserve is a designated SANG, but the whole area is open to the public – but some will be redesignated to SANG later, which is an utter nonsense.

  3. John Perkins Reply

    July 14, 2017 at 4:56 pm

    The effectiveness of SANGs can be judged by those included in the Local Plan. In my opinion they amount to little more than planting flower beds. They will do nothing at all to protect species, endangered or otherwise, and will not draw a single visitor away from any SPA.
    Mr. Bridger is right to draw attention to the fact that EU legislation has been misused in this manner.

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