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Letter: Newlands Corner – Surrey County Council Should Look Elsewhere for Savings

That will be a 'no' then to the plans!From Mike Pugh

I attended Surrey County Council’s (SCC) so-called ‘information’ meeting last Wednesday night at Holy Trinity church. It was a packed meeting with attendees filling the church and its gallery. The panel of presenters were given a rowdy reception by the audience who were, without exception, strongly against the proposals for Newlands Corner.

I should like to make three points:
1. The protagonists deliberately glossed over the contentious Phase 2 development;
2. ‘The play trail’ is an inappropriate waste of council funds;
3. Charging for the use of the car park is discriminatory and the wrong way to fund the cost of maintenance of the open space.

Phase 2

The SCC councillor on the panel explained that the proposal for the development of Newlands Corner is to be phased: the most contentious elements, unanimously opposed at the meeting, being the construction in Phase 2 of a large restaurant/shop/visitor’s centre and coach park.

Various objections were made at the meeting on the Phase 2 proposal, and the councillor backed off, saying that options for this were still under consideration and that Phase 2 could only go ahead if planning consent was given by Guildford Borough Council (GBC) as the Planning Authority.

I am concerned that if outline permission is given for Phase 2, then the principle would be approved, and it would only be a question of detail. I am even more concerned that, in response to a question from the floor, the councillor refused to confirm that Guildford Borough Council (GBC) would, in fact be the appropriate Planning Authority (and not the SCC), but stated repeatedly that ‘productive’ discussions on the subject were ongoing between the two authorities. As the questioner pointed out, if these discussions result in SCC being the ‘judge and jury’ then there would be every likelihood that Phase 2 would go ahead in one form or another.

The play trail

There was also considerable opposition to the construction of a ‘play trail’ in the woodland to the rear of the carpark, being described by members of the audience as being, unwanted, inappropriate and better located in an urban park.

In an unconvincing defence the team cited a report that said that 10% of children in the UK did not have access to the countryside. But what does a play trail have to do with the countryside? Turn around – the other side of the car park is the countryside.

If parents want to introduce their children to the countryside, it’s right there, with plenty of safe open space to run and roll downhill. Why carve up the woodland?

The play trail would be unsupervised. No responsible parent of an under-eleven year old would leave their child alone, to face possible bullying by older, more aggressive children, or if playing alone, to unwanted attention by unsavoury adults in the bushes.

So parents would need to follow their children around the trail. Play trails such as were being promoted at the meeting, would be better located in open spaces, in full view of parents/guardians.

This would leave the woodlands at Newlands Corner intact for escorted exploration by families and individuals, with just the need to provide all-ability paths to guide them, with discrete flora/fauna ‘information stations’ at appropriate points. Much cheaper, and far more environmentally sympathetic.

Charging for the use of the car park

With no Phase 2 in the future, and no play trail, the capital expenditure in Phase 1 would be limited to upgrading the toilet facilities and a low cost ‘all-ability woodland trail’. This would represent a substantial saving in the SCC’s £0.4m capital allowance that is included within its current Medium Term Financial Plan (MTFP).

Management of Newlands Corner is by Surrey Wildlife Trust (SWT) under contract to SCC.  The SCC councillor said that the council needed to save £1m on its budget and that there was a plan to reduce its support to SWT inter alia by making the operation at Newlands Corner self-financing.

The proposed parking tariff (£1 per hour up to a maximum of £4) will inevitably impact on the number of visits (SCC states some 550,000 per year in 122,000 vehicles), as many will object to any charge on principle and families on low income may well find it unaffordable.

This is no way to meet SCC’s stated “vision of providing facilities that broaden the range of people who visit, encourage them to stay longer and become more engaged in activities on the site to learn and have fun with health benefits”.

It is worth pointing out that a similar attempt to charge for use of the car park some years ago led to an organised boycott, which was sufficiently successful to persuade SCC to scrap the scheme. If SCC reintroduces charging, I am sure that a second boycott will be implemented. So let’s consider an alternative way of financing.

When informed at the meeting that the cost of running this operation last year was £157,000, there were gasps of astonishment. When asked to justify this sum, the SWT representative on the panel admitted that there were no precise records on which this figure was based, but that it was more a pro-rata, estimated fraction of its costs in managing a large number of sites within the county.

Let us assume that this highly improbable cost is incurred again this year. SCC’s forecast revenue from Council Tax for 2016/17 is £626million. The 2016/17 SCC tax levy on Band ‘D’ properties is £1,268. The cost per Band ‘D’ household, for financing SWT’s level of costs in respect of Newlands Corner, works out at the princely sum of about 31p per year.

Higher/lower bands would have comparably modest higher/lower costs per household.  In my view this is a very small cost to council tax payers for the continued free enjoyment of the open space provided at Newlands Corner, and SCC should look elsewhere for contributions to its £1m budget saving.

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One Response to Letter: Newlands Corner – Surrey County Council Should Look Elsewhere for Savings

  1. Valerie Thompson Reply

    March 13, 2016 at 4:35 pm

    I too was at the meeting and followed up my comments at the time with letters to two of the county council representatives there, querying, among other things, whether sufficient consultation had been done to justify employing the professionals who presented their ideas for the play-trail.

    This question has not been properly answered, leading me to believe that, as ever, this is a ‘done-deal’ and any so-called consultations they now make are for show, only. If they have spent money on consultants before asking the general public for their views, then they may have acted illegally.

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