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Surrey Countryside Champions – Save Merrow Downs Group

Andy Smith
By Andy Smith
26th April 2023

Merrow Downs is a much-loved green space that falls within the boundary of the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. But that wasn’t enough to save it from harmful development, as plans submitted by a local private school for a floodlit hockey pitch right next door to Merrow Downs have been approved under appeal.

We spoke to Kathy Atkinson, local resident and founder of the Save Merrow Downs group, to find out about the amazing work they are doing to save this beautiful area.

1. Thank you for taking the time to talk to us. Please can you summarise how the Save Merrow Downs group came about?

I had been working with a very small group of neighbours for more than two years to try and stop the development from being granted planning permission. The main concern was the impact of huge floodlights shining over the treeline and onto Merrow Downs.

After the Planning Inspector finally granted planning permission at appeal, I leafleted several roads near Merrow Downs to tell residents what was happening (many assumed that the original refusal still stood), and a number of neighbours got in touch, saying they wanted to try and protect this amazing part of the Surrey Hills.

2. What inspired you to take action and get involved?

I feel incredibly privileged to live so close to this part of the Surrey Hills. I walk, run, or cycle on Merrow Downs almost every day of my life. My kids have grown up spending time on the downs (they still do, even as grumpy teenagers!). My dog loves it and I know how important this area is to everyone who lives nearby or who comes to visit. I have a bit of background in environmental campaigning so when I discovered this area was under threat I couldn’t just sit by and watch.

Image of tree in green field in Merrow Downs

3. Why is protecting Merrow Downs so important?

We are so close to the town and yet it is a wide, gently sloping grassland that has amazing orchids, skylarks, and dark skies. From the top of Merrow Downs you can see all the way to Canary Wharf! Turn around and you are looking at the Surrey Hills. Merrow Downs is part of the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, so you might assume that level of protection would keep it safe. But if we start to chip away at the edges of the Surrey Hills then eventually, we could lose the whole lot. The proposed development would benefit a few people from a very limited demographic, but Merrow Downs benefits people from all walks of life and in so many different ways (physically, mentally, and socially).

4. What action have you taken so far?

Where do I start?! This campaign has been going on for nearly three years now and we have done a huge amount of work. We persuaded the Planning Committee to turn down the application, we worked to do the same with the Planning Inspector at appeal (unsuccessfully), we have built a website, got active on social media, and, most importantly, in the last few weeks we have taken apart the questionable material submitted by the developer to discharge the conditions of the permission. We have commissioned bat surveys and additional light pollution evidence and we have measured accurately the location of badger setts. We have shown that developers should not assume they can get away with misleading and flawed plans in areas as sensitive as this. The diggers were due to start work last week, but the developer has now got a huge task to try and get this project back on track. We are not giving up!

Image of dirt track and hedges in Merrow Downs

5. How can people support the Save Merrow Downs Group?

The most important way to help is to follow us on Instagram, on Twitter, and to subscribe on our website. Then like, retweet, share, and generally make some noise! We want the developer (Tormead School) to understand that this landscape is worth protecting and that people care about it. We think that digging up a chalk grassland in order to lay astroturf and then shining bright lights in a nationally protected landscape is old thinking. It doesn’t reflect the way we are moving as a society to understand how nature is critical to our future, not least in support of climate change mitigation. But also, for our general wellbeing and the economy.

6. Aside from Merrow Downs what’s your favourite Surrey green space to explore?

I absolutely adore Chantry Woods and St Martha’s Hill. St Martha’s because it’s where I got married, and Chantry Woods because the views south are incredible, the bluebells are astonishing and for many years we used to camp there on the municipal campsite with a big group of friends and let the kids run wild in the woods. It holds lots of great memories.

Image of a frosty field in Merrow Downs with a wooden sign reading "Merrow Downs"