‘Now is the time to expand our AONB’ by Andy Smith
This article was first published in the winter 2020-21 issue of our magazine Surrey Voice.
We are extremely fortunate here in Surrey to have our own Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) stretching along the North Downs for the entire width of the county. The landscape of the Surrey Hills AONB – with its chalk escarpments and lush grasslands, its oak woods and wildflower meadows – is something of ‘an English rural idyll’, despite being just a short distance from the sprawling metropolis of London. And being an AONB gives this important stretch of Surrey countryside a high level of statutory protection as AONBs are second only to National Parks in their protected status.
With local authorities panicking over where to put the thousands of new homes the government is demanding should be built in the South East, the London Metropolitan Green Belt is no longer safe from development pressures. There are already plans in place for more than 10,000 new dwellings to be built on Green Belt land in Surrey under the ‘Local Plan’ process. This means that large swathes of Surrey’s countryside and green spaces are at greater risk than at any time since the Green Belt came into being 65 years ago. If the Green Belt is so vulnerable to inappropriate development at this time, then it is more important than ever that the precious landscape of the Surrey Hills – our very finest countryside –should continue to be properly protected.
Recently, Natural England – the Government body responsible for the natural environment – concluded its review of the AONB boundary in Suffolk, resulting in a very welcome enlargement of the protected countryside in that county. It is expected that the Surrey Hills AONB will be next for a boundary review after the Suffolk Coast & Heaths AONB. If a Surrey Hills reviews goes ahead it should lead to an expansion of the area of preservation to cover the surrounding countryside, much of which is currently designated by Surrey County Council as an ‘Area of Great Landscape Value’ (AGLV), an important designation but which lacks the high level of protection that the AONB enjoys.
Welcoming the news from Suffolk, Heather Kerswell, Chair of the Surrey Hills AONB Board, said: “This very positive news from our colleagues at the Suffolk Coast & Heaths AONB is a step forward in a long process. The Surrey Hills were designated as worthy of national protection in 1958 but the boundary drawn was incredibly tight, difficult to understand or to manage. Many beautiful areas were inexplicably excluded. This makes the Surrey Hills very vulnerable, especially in east Surrey, which is particularly important as it is on daily international display from the M25.”
She added: “We want to see the boundaries redrawn to include these beautiful areas and give them the protection they deserve. We particularly want to see the hills in Tandridge included up to the boundary with Croydon, where we could link to the new London National Nature Reserve of South London Downs. Natural England agreed ten years ago to carry out this review and promised that Surrey Hills would follow on from Suffolk heaths so we look forward to an early start to the review, which we will support in every possible way.”
The Surrey Campaign to Protect Rural England has for a long time been calling for the AONB to be enhanced and strengthened through a boundary review. The Surrey Hills AONB currently covers around 25% of Surrey but if the AGLV is added that would increase its coverage by 11% (around 82 square kilometres). Back in 2007, CPRE Surrey commissioned a review of all the land abutting the AONB and we were able to show that the adjacent landscape could be considered of equivalent quality to the protected area of countryside. That review enabled CPRE to set out the case for incorporating all of the surrounding unspoilt land within the nationally protected area in order to protect it from encroachment and to ‘future-proof’ its sustainability.
CPRE’s review was followed in 2011 by a further study, this time commissioned by Natural England themselves, which drew similar conclusions and which recommended extending the boundary. Expansion of the Surrey Hills AONB to include the AGLV is vital because it would help to secure permanent protection of unspoilt countryside in five of Surrey’s eleven districts – Tandridge, Reigate & Banstead, Mole Valley, Guildford and Waverley – and to free many open spaces from the threat of development. CPRE Surrey’s Chair, Kristina Kenworthy, has written to Tony Juniper and Marian Spain, respectively the Chair and Chief Executive of Natural England, about the long promised and eagerly awaited review of the Surrey Hills AONB boundary, and urging swift action.
As Kristina explained in her letter to Natural England: “Our members feel passionately about the Surrey Hills AONB, and if Surrey is to maintain its allure then its landscapes and habitats are going to need this additional layer of protection and sensitive management. We would seek to assist in any way that we can to make this possible and urge that you do not delay this process further given the immense pressures that Surrey faces from many quarters.”
In her reply to Kristina, Marian Spain makes clear that Natural England is in favour of the review but the final decision will have to be taken by Defra. So we have recently launched an online petition at change.org aimed at persuading Natural England and Defra to prioritise the review of the Surrey Hills AONB. If you agree that we need to secure our most beautiful countryside for the sake of future generations, please sign our petition. For more information please go to https://www.cpresurrey.org.uk/ and https://www.surreyhills.org/boundary-review/
Andy Smith is Director of the Surrey Campaign to Protect Rural England