Future Mole Valley Consultation 2017
A response to the consultation from the Committee of the
Leatherhead & District Countryside Protection Society
We write in response to the Future Mole Valley Consultation. Here are our thoughts - the emphasis is on the northernmost part of Mole Valley, as that is our primary area of focus as a Society.
Mole Valley District Council has an undoubtedly very difficult balance to achieve within its next Local Plan. On the one hand, people are expressing a desire for greater and more varied housing provision with good associated infrastructure, but - on the other hand - people value enormously the beautiful and accessible countryside and they want that to be fully protected. These are strong themes within the Future Mole Valley video on YouTube: “We must build more houses“ versus “It’s always voted one of the most beautiful places in the UK and I don’t want to spoil it.”
Can we have our cake and eat it? It would require enormous skill and flair to provide the numbers of homes provisionally cited without doing irreparable harm to Mole Valley’s natural and semi-natural landscapes*, but it is not impossible. Where are the challenges to the students of leading schools of architecture (not uncommon practice, we understand, when looking for truly innovative solutions)? *and please can we be very open about the damage done to these landscapes because of proximity of high-density development – it is not just the direct development of these sites that causes harm, but the over-use by people and pets from nearby residential and commercial areas using them for leisure, education and anti-social purposes; our countryside can only stand so many walkers, riders, runners, cyclists, dogs, cats, fly-tippers, tourists, etc., before it is in very serious trouble indeed, and experts on the ground understand that this is already the case in parts of Mole Valley.
Firstly, we must as a District be absolutely certain of and transparent about the number of homes indisputably ‘needed’ as opposed to ‘desired’ – Mole Valley remains an attractive area because it still has access both to London and to countryside, and in theory there must be insatiable ‘desire’ for genuinely affordable housing if it were to be offered.
There is housing market uncertainty and political volatility as this consultation takes place, which complicates matters further – certain types of housing are currently difficult to sell in Mole Valley and neighbouring districts and this may of course prove to be a game changer in terms of the Local Plan.
If a figure authentically reflecting likely ‘need’ is finally established, where do we then stand? We believe that the local general public is very confused by the conflicting arguments for the sanctity of Green Belt and simultaneously for its demise. Our MP Sir Paul Beresford has spoken up for its sanctity:
“The position of Central Government with regard to local planning and development on the Green Belt is clear. Residents have heard in the past comments to the effect of “It is the government in Westminster which is forcing us to do this…”. This was not true then and it is not true now. I have met with Ministerial colleagues on multiple occasions and corresponded with the Department for Communities and Local Government at length on the questions of Local Planning and Green Belt policy. The Conservative Government is absolutely committed to Green Belt protection… There is nothing in national policy which supports, encourages or condones any development on the Green Belt save for the most exceptional – and housing need is acknowledged as not falling into this category.”
In addition, firm protection of Leatherhead’s Green Belt was cited by Councillor Howard Jones as justification to build skywards in Leatherhead town centre at the Transform Leatherhead public meeting held in March this year at Leatherhead Leisure Centre, and yet North Leatherhead alone has lost three Green Belt sites to development in the last three years.
There is also a wide lack of understanding as to what Green Belt actually is – it’s complex, and it isn’t taught in schools, so why would most people know what it is about in any great detail? ‘Openness’, ‘sprawl’, ‘exceptional circumstances’ – we are convinced that most local people are unfamiliar with the precise purpose, terminology and definitions unless they have had reason to undertake their own research. Certainly, in many discussions we have had, few people know that Green Belt is already being lost in Mole Valley. The use of the word ‘greenfield’ in the consultation has added extra confusion.
We were disturbed when a Mole Valley councillor was quoted by Surrey Mirror as saying (after permission was granted for the new Wildlife Aid Foundation complex on Green Belt land):
"This site is boggy, brambly and is right up against the motorway so it's not suitable for agriculture or indeed housing and I really don't know what else it could be used for."
Are we correct in thinking that this demonstrates an unwitting but worrying lack of understanding amongst our decision makers re. what Green Belt and countryside are for? Many important natural and semi-natural sites are boggy and brambly and doing a vital job of providing biodiverse habitat and corridors for wildlife and a sense of openness for people - that is what they are for, and they are not just desirable but essential.
At a meeting of the Leatherhead & District Local History Society earlier this year, it was explained that Leatherhead invented the Green Belt – an idea for Leatherhead alone that was then adopted and rolled out by London; if this is confirmed as true, then we should surely be championing and upholding the policy even more than most (assuming that we believe it to be a good policy in the first place) and rigorously testing it as a policy if anyone feels that its original creation was a mistake (i.e. does it matter if Mole Valley gradually becomes more of a suburb of London; what are the consequences?).
We wholeheartedly appreciate the attention given to sustainability and heritage within the Evidence Documents, and we feel lucky to have some excellent, experienced, thorough and committed Council Officers and currently some Councillors with world-class expertise in relevant fields. It must be accepted by us all, however, that we have lost some remarkable and attractive buildings from Leatherhead in recent years (such as Michael Manser’s Golden Grove House [built 1960], White Lodge, Overdale, Highlands House, etc.) and that we have arguably failed to deliver any quantity of truly notable buildings as our own modern contribution to the townscape and to Mole Valley. As Leatherhead and its surrounding area becomes densely developed in an almost universal style of orange brick, white upvc windows and cream render, in several cases poorly built and quickly problematical, are we missing a trick? Is it good enough just to say “We would build to a better standard but our investors want cheap”, as we were – depressingly – told at a recent meeting? Are our hands really so tied, or can Mole Valley pioneer a better way forward in its new Local Plan than the trends currently blighting housing countrywide? Earlier this year, journalist Julia Kollewe wrote:
“Weak mortar, faulty drainage, unfinished fittings… For many buyers of newly built properties in Britain, their dream home quickly turns into a nightmare. Last week, it emerged that residents had to move out of a recently completed Manchester apartment block, Islington Wharf Mews, because it breaks fire safety rules. But their tale of woe is far from unusual. More than half of buyers of new-build homes in England have had major problems with construction, unfinished fittings and faults with utilities, according to housing charity Shelter. The government branded the housing market “broken” in its housing white paper last month.”
…and architect Steve Mouzon condemned our residential blandscapes:
“The British production housing taps the lowest common denominator of dead traditions, copying them in cartoonish fashion. We should not be surprised at the resulting mind-numbing boredom.”
On the theme of boredom, we are concerned to see so many applications to convert retail land and rural employment sites to housing – does Mole Valley (and in particular its overcrowded northern section) risk ultimately becoming people storage for London, with few buildings other than houses; the antithesis of the ‘model village’ where people enjoy a varied environment and a choice of things to do? Leatherhead has lost some of its familiar community ‘parts’ to housing recently – the police station, the Leatherhead & District Working Men’s Club / Social Club, Harrington’s the Baker, etc., and potentially soon The Royal Oak in Kingston Road. Change isn’t necessarily a bad thing, of course, but are we sure this move to become much more substantially residential is a good one? If many more stables, farms, forges, pubs, shops, etc. become houses, have we waved goodbye to quality of life for existing and future residents, and in the process will we be saddled with far greater long-term problems than just housing people?
We are also failing to properly protect our ecological assets, surely against all of our beliefs and wishes and local and international guidance – the controls are there, but in spite of an excellent Local Plan that this one is set to replace the reality is clearly that breaches occur and when they do the violations are too often not remedied. We have in Leatherhead examples of a buffer zone ignored, tree protection ignored, a condition of removing a tarmac surface ignored, illegally felled trees not replaced, rural views lost, openness blocked, Green Belt sites deliberately manipulated in order to be claimed as brownfield, etc. If we cannot afford to monitor and survey effectively and if we have no stomach or funds for legal action (both of these reasons for lack of enforcement and action have been given to us), with the best will in the world, will even the most exceptional of Local Plans not be undermined?
We must also acknowledge that many of our roads, pavements, footpaths, waterways and road signs are in very poor and dangerous condition, unable to serve current let alone future populations. We have major problems with traffic gridlock, potholes, litter, fly-tipping, pollution, overgrowth and lack of tree/fence/stile maintenance – how will this work any better with an increased population?
Mole Valley still has a great deal to offer as a true gateway from London to the Surrey Hills and on to the south coast. It has enormous existing strengths and plenty of potential to improve – what a great position to be in! It has stunning countryside, important ecology, good leisure provision, world-class businesses (micro and macro), outstanding buildings, fascinating history and archaeology, successful festivals, enviable literary, dramatic and musical associations, numerous excellent national charities, good transport links, great food and drink, impressive youth projects, etc. This success could be its downfall, and in places it is already clinging on for dear life to its sense of open rural space and its visual attractiveness, so famous all over the world and referred to in your video. Maybe THIS must be our priority in Mole Valley – our ‘USP’, if we are to be ruthless. If we lose this, we lose quality of life, appeal to tourists, aspects of our commercial viability and so on and so forth, almost certainly for all time. If this is Mole Valley’s ‘given’, we must boldly endeavour to get this message across and make all other requirements work around it, with imagination and style and a real sense of vision.
We showed the image below to the Transform Leatherhead team as part of a Powerpoint presentation, and for us it sums up our response – we have so much of worth in Mole Valley, and many fine people devoted to protection and interpretation of its best aspects, but as a whole community we are regrettably failing to consistently cherish, protect and promote it with any real sense of pride and courage. Think ‘Gateway to the Surrey Hills’ and then look at the image and see if you feel inspired. Does this, at the entrance not only to Leatherhead but to Mole Valley, suggest that Mole Valley is a thriving district that cares deeply about itself, its future, its culture, its history, its environment?
Box Hill was saved from development in 1914 by Leopold Salomons; Norbury Park was saved in the 1920s; Sweech House was saved in the 1940s; key mature trees in the area were given and planted. People acted with foresight so that we can enjoy open space, nature and high-quality built heritage today, and we urge similar foresight now. Public consultation is vital, but there will also be ideas out there that we are unlikely to think of – brilliant innovations that may be able to tackle the key issues with such genius that we will be remembered as a generation and a district that sought and found truly remarkable solutions.
It is our role to defend the Green Belt. We believe that it was put in place by our predecessors with thoughtfulness and an acute awareness of the vital importance of many aspects of countryside for the mental and physical health, and frankly survival, of human communities. It is lost very easily (surprisingly) – most causes can be subjectively classed as constituting ‘very special’ or ‘exceptional’ circumstances, so there is a slow but steady march on Green Belt land that currently looks unstoppable.
In conclusion, we do not think that Green Belt land should be considered for housing or any other development within the new Local Plan – this was the clear cry from the public in response to the Housing and Traveller Sites Plan Consultation, and we were told that this cry had been heard and acknowledged and respected. Green Belt was established for very good reasons and we should not simply vote it away because it suits our short-term desires or need to respond to political pressures. We must be very sure of ‘need’ and then intelligently and sensitively convert, re-develop and improve where necessary and to the absolute best of our ability, in order to provide a truly sustainable and enjoyable way of life for those who already live here and for those who need in the future to make Mole Valley their home. We would also ask what the Local Plan can achieve to address the difficult but critical issues outlined above regarding infrastructure and the lack of resources for the effective monitoring of new development.
If we can help, we will be happy to do so.