What’s in a Name?

Names matter – and it matters how they are used. I live in Normandy – that’s Normandy in Surrey rather than Normandy in France, by the way – an important difference when you are setting your SatNav. At least I thought I lived in Normandy, until earlier this month when Guildford Borough Council (GBC) published its latest draft Local Plan. This includes proposals to create a massive building site on the green fields between the two settlements of Normandy and Flexford, taking the whole of the resulting conurbation out of the Green Belt. Then I realised that according to GBC I actually live in Flexford; or at least that I live in Flexford for the purposes of assessing my village’s contribution to the openness of the Green Belt, but that I live in Normandy and Flexford for the purposes of evaluating whether I live in a sustainable community or not…

Confused? So was I. However, when I tried to understand how on earth GBC could justify removing prime agricultural land and woodland, rich in wildlife, from the Green Belt and turning it into a ‘strategic site’ for housing and other development I realised that they had applied a double standard. Two of the key concepts that underpin the Local Plan are ‘sustainability’ (i.e. an area’s suitability for development) and ‘sensitivity’ (its importance in terms of protecting the Green Belt). Individual settlements are ranked on both counts, and development is favoured in the most ‘sustainable’ ones, with a higher threshold where there is ‘sensitivity’. I discovered that for the purposes of assessing ‘sustainability’ Normandy and Flexford have been treated as one settlement, whereas for ‘sensitivity’ they have been treated as two. This could almost have been designed to give us the outcome we have. It means that in terms of ‘sustainability’ all the assets from the two settlements (e.g. transport links) are aggregated – which maximises its score on this count. However in terms of Green Belt ‘sensitivity’ it means that the open area between the two settlements is disregarded – which reduces our score on that one.

So why on earth did GBC resort to this intellectual duplicity in putting together its Local Plan? It transpires that as long ago as 2014 a developer who had managed to secure an option on the land had come to GBC and offered to build a secondary school on the site alongside the 1100 houses. Proposed sites for a secondary school in the earlier version of the Plan had been rejected by Surrey County Council (which has responsibility for secondary schooling across the county) so this was a godsend for GBC. As Councillor Paul Spooner, the leader of GBC, has said to local residents in explaining the present Plan, the ‘strategic site’ at Normandy/Flexford is “an enabling development to fund a much needed secondary school”. In other words, if we let a developer build us 1100 houses, they will let us build a school on their site.

By law land can only be taken out of the Green Belt in “exceptional circumstances”; it remains to be seen whether the Planning Inspector will accept that a developer-led initiative of this nature passes that test. Given that previous planning decisions in this area have all acknowledged the importance of its ‘openness’ we residents may have some cause for encouragement. The true need for secondary school places in Guildford Borough is also unclear and will be challenged. However, at a political level the assurances given by both Cllr Spooner and his predecessor that they had heard the protests about the removal of land from the Green Belt, and that they understood their constituents wanted greater protection for it, now ring very hollow.

In the case of Normandy and Flexford exactly the opposite has happened. Despite residents’ protests over the 2014 version of the Plan (which proposed that the same parcel of land be ‘safeguarded for future development’) the development has now been brought forward into the present Plan itself. Apparently over the last couple of years GBC has felt able to have discussions with the developer about this prospect, but as recently as 24 February 2016, when Councillors met with local residents to discuss planning and other matters, they felt unable to share it with us.

To put all this into context, the existing population of the two settlements of Normandy and Flexford is 1784 (2011 census). GBC’s proposal is for an additional 1100 households (on this one site alone; others also feature in the Plan), which at the Office of National Statistics 2014 estimate of 2.4 people per household gives a new population figure of 4424, an increase of over 175%. Such a massive development would completely destroy the existing nature of the community. Filling in all the open space between Normandy and Flexford would eliminate the rural aspect that contributes to the ‘openness’ of the Green Belt (which under the National Planning Policy Framework (paragraph 86) is a reason to prevent development).

The Plan also states that “There are also considered to be positive impacts on providing services to the existing villages of Normandy and Flexford” but no evidence is given to support this. Instead, one is left with a distinct feeling that it is only once GBC have sacrificed the two settlements and the bulldozers have moved in that the reality of what has been done will start to emerge. The residents will face up to 15 years of disruption to their lives as heavy vehicles try to negotiate already chronically overcrowded roads to get access to the site – not to mention the additional 1650 cars on the road that will accompany 1100 new houses – and existing services come under further stress. The area is already very vulnerable to flooding, and building here can only make things worse. The Plan talks about infrastructure improvements – funded, naturally, by the developer – but there are no guarantees that market conditions will stay the same over the 15 years and that it will not be the community – rather than the developer – that pays the price.

So, what’s in a name? It seems that village names can be manipulated to suit political purposes, just like anything else. This might make some people at GBC feel pleased with themselves, but for local residents it just leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

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