What does the future hold for the Surrey Hills?
- Credit: Archant
Last year the Surrey Hills celebrated 60 years as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty but would changing its status to a National Park help safeguard its future? We attended the Surrey Hills Symposium to find out more
Surrey Hills was the second area of England to be designated an AONB, with the Gower Peninsula, South Wales, being the first. Despite Surrey being perceived by some as an extension of London, within its 420 square kilometres of natural beauty, 40 per cent is woodland and 25 per cent open access land.
Over 140 full time farmers make their living in the Surrey Hills, with many other agricultural practitioners playing an active role in the landscape. It remains an important rural area of England’s landscape, and attracts over 30 million visitors annually.
As one of the UK’s 46 AONBs, the Surrey Hills is protected by the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 to conserve and enhance its natural beauty. The Glover Review, prompted by Environment Secretary Michael Gove, investigates whether such designated landscapes are fit for the future. Mr Gove commented, “The creation of National Parks almost 70 years ago changed the way we view our precious landscapes. Amid a growing population, changes in technology, and a decline in certain habitats, the time is right for us to look afresh at these landscapes. We want to make sure they are not only conserved, but enhanced for the next generation.”
The review, led by writer Julian Glover, explores how accessibility to these landscapes can be improved, how those who live and work in them can be better supported, and what their role is in growing the rural economy.
While Michael Gove considers the wider UK map, there are rumblings more locally about the possibility of the Surrey Hills changing status from an AONB to a National Park. A recent symposium at the University of Surrey, presented by Tom Heap of BBC’s Countryfile, included a panel of eminent speakers who discussed the future of the Surrey Hills and possible benefits of changing status. AONBs are areas of countryside that include villages and towns. They have the same legal protection for their landscapes as National Parks, but do not have their own authorities for planning control and other services as National Parks do. Instead they are looked after by partnerships between local communities and local authorities. There is also some kudos about being declared a National Park, a name that people know and respect, but are these points enough to make the change?
On the panel, and speaking as a fourth generation Surrey farmer, Hugh Broom from Westcott explained why the land itself is so important: “We farm 320 acres. We have cows, sheep and 60 acres of woodland from which we sell logs, and also a very successful asparagus business. We do our best to reduce chemical usage on the land and have used over 4,000 tons of food waste brought down from London over the past four years. This is great for the crops, and so much better for the soil than using nitrates,” he said. “My interest in this debate is how we are best using Surrey’s land and how are we conserving its goodness. Would a National Park change the way we manage our farm? I think probably not, but we are happy for the change, as long as there is no added bureaucracy.”
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Professor Tim Jackson, director of the Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity at the University of Surrey, added, “The land is the lungs for our system as humans. Surrey is a heavily wooded area, and all the trees and forests are critical to our well-being, both scientifically and aesthetically. If the change in status to a National Park is going to add protection for all of those things, then we would surely welcome it. In the planning we need to consider how to put the values of the land back into the hands of the people, and create a structure where local people can get involved.”
The symposium covered issues and concerns on planning, housing, farming, the infrastructure, the management of the M25, and many other issues that drew passionate responses from Surrey residents, environmentalists and business people.
Sarah-Jane Chimbwandira, director of Biodiversity, Evidence and Policy at Surrey Wildlife Trust and Surrey Nature Partnership, and a trustee of the Surrey Hills Society, was concerned about the need for change in status.
“I don’t want us to get distracted by long debates on the transition to a National Park if it means we take our eyes off other concerns in the Surrey Hills,” she said. “The need for additional housing is a big issue in this area, and we need to address problems with our infrastructure to cope with that. People think that becoming a National Park will tighten up planning laws, but as I understand it, AONBs enjoy the same status.
“The Surrey Hills is an incredibly beautiful area and deserves the glorious status of National Park, but only if it brings additional benefits – I don’t want it to usurp the good work already in place.”
Whether the Surrey Hills remains an AONB, or changes status to a National Park, there is no disputing the affection with which this beautiful landscape is held. A fascinating, lottery funded book called The Surrey Hills – Our Changing Landscape marks the 60th anniversary of the Surrey Hills AONB and the 10th anniversary of The Surrey Hills Society. Its author, Ken Bare, vice chairman of the Surrey Hills Society, sums up the future of the Surrey Hills with these words:
“It’s more than the landscape, it’s more than just the fields and countryside. It’s the way the area works. It has to be a living, working landscape rather than just a museum.”
• Surrey Hills AONB celebrating 60th birthday - As this extraordinary piece of protected countryside celebrates 60 years since being designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, we look at the Surrey Hills through the ages