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Will the birthplace of modern democracy listen to public support for the Green Belt?

28 June 2013

Chobham Common's tranquillity makes it a vital habitat Chobham Common's tranquillity makes it a vital habitat © GanMed64

The borough famous for the site where King John signed the Magna Carta has embraced the era of e-activism.

Runnymede Borough Council’s first ever online petition will close on Monday (1 July) and could help determine the future of Green Belt land next to the wildlife haven of Chobham Common in Surrey.  Almost 2,000 people – including CPRE President Andrew Motion – have signed the petition urging the council not to remove Green Belt protection from the land to allow a housing estate to be built on it.

CPRE Runnymede campaigners helped set up the petition and believe the proposed 1,500 homes will have a devastating effect on the protected species of the neighbouring nature reserve [1]. These fears were echoed by Sir Andrew Motion, who said:
‘Chobham Common is one of our finest areas of lowland heath [2] and home to some of the most endangered species in England, including the silent-flighted nightjar. If the land next to the Common is removed from the Green Belt, the risk of wrecking the nightjar's habitat becomes very real.’

In March, Sir Andrew spoke out about the need to protect the nightingale stronghold of Lodge Hill in Kent. The former army base had been earmarked for 5,000 homes until a planning inspector reprieved the songbirds by rejecting the plans last week. [3]

CPRE Runnymede campaigners argue that the Chobham site’s rural Green Belt location makes it even more unsuitable for redevelopment. The attempt to remove the site from the Green Belt is part of a growing trend for housing proposals on these vital buffers against urban sprawl. [4] The borough’s plans also contradict a commitment given by Surrey County Council in March to do all in its power to protect the Green Belt. [5]

When signatures – including those of historian John Julius Norwich, Kate Ashbrook of the Open Spaces Society and UKIP leader Nigel Farage – passed 1,500, the petition reached the support needed to trigger a full council debate on the issue. Campaigners believe that saving this vital piece of Green Belt would be the perfect way to celebrate local democracy, just as the borough becomes the focus of global attention ahead of the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta in 2015.

Sir Andrew Motion’s speech to CPRE’s AGM on Thursday (27 June) concluded with a call ‘for a return to a planning system which is truly democratic’. On signing the Runnymede petition last week he urged:
‘Decision-makers must listen to public opinion on the Green Belt and make sure that Chobham Common retains its rural setting, and is able to go on offering a lasting legacy of beauty, tranquillity and wildlife.’

Notes to Editors
[1]    These protected species include rare ground nesting birds like the Nightjar – currently on the RSPB’s ‘red list’ as an urgent priority for conservation, and the Silver-Studded Blue butterfly which is considered one of the most threatened ‘priority species’ in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan. The Nightjar and Silver-Studded Blue will have their habitats devastated by the noise and pollution from the extra traffic the development will generate. The introduction of domestic cats and dogs into the area will also cause serious disruption to this finely balanced ecosystem.
[2]    Sir David Attenborough recently introduced a report called The State of Nature which gave a stark warning of the fragility of our heathlands, stressing their importance to the species that add so much to the character of our countryside. 
[3]    The planning inspector rejected the plans this week on the grounds that the social and economic benefits would not outweigh the harm to a site of national importance. As well as the nightingales, the site – recently designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest – supports six species of bat and rare insects like the shrill carder bee. The inspector also noted that despite being an ex-army site, most of Lodge Hill was not “previously developed” but rolling fields. This could have an impact on decisions in Runnymede, where the land in question is also a former defence site containing green spaces. Read the inspector’s letter
[4]    In March, CPRE’s Countryside Promises, Planning Realities report found that the Green Belt has been targeted for 80,000 new homes as a result of the emphasis on ‘economic viability’ in the Government’s National Planning Policy Framework.  Sir Andrew Motion has said: ‘We are seeing Green Belt put under pressure when there are thousands of previously used urban sites that we should be much more sensible about using.’

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