April 2023: Briefing 2
Floodlights over Merrow Downs: update on the Urnfield proposals
The proposal to install eight tall floodlights on the Urnfield sports ground is undoubtedly the most controversial part of the development plans and was debated at length at the Planning Committee in 2021, which turned it down unanimously, and at the Appeal hearing (which overturned the Committee decision) in September 2022.
The developer did modify the original proposals, reducing the height of the towers from 15m to 13m, making these retractable when not in use, and limiting the usage to five months of the year. However, lower lights produce greater horizontal light spill and glare. Even a 13m tower will be clearly visible above the treeline at the top of Merrow Downs. The proposal to limit the use of floodlights to the winter months means that they will be visible precisely at the time of year when the trees are without leaves, minimising their screening potential.
The lights could be on for more than 12 hours of the day, from 7.30am until 8pm, the hours when Merrow Downs is most used, and for six days a week, five months of the year. People going for a walk, run or bike ride, or just enjoying some quiet time, will be looking up into the lights on the skyline and they will feel the impact of this industrialisation.
Species such as bats, owls, badgers and dormice will feel it even more profoundly. While bats and dormice do hibernate during the winter months, the dates for this are not driven by our calendar, but they are affected by the climate which, as we know, is changing. Animals that do not hibernate, such as badgers, use the Urnfield and the adjacent woodland year-round for foraging.
Our contention has always been that the developer has underplayed the full impact of the light spill from the floodlights, and that the Inspector approved the scheme based on this deficient information. We have commissioned a supplementary survey of the lighting design. Using exactly the same data files as those used by the developer’s lighting designer, we can now show the full impact of the light pollution from the proposed floodlights.
What level of light spill has been approved?
In her decision the Planning Inspector said the development should “seek to achieve” Surrey Wildlife Trust’s recommendation of a maximum light spill on to the edge of the woodland on the Urnfield side of 1 lux or below in order to protect bats. This level of lighting is equivalent to twilight, or a full moon.
The Inspector also stated in the conditions for approval that the floodlights needed to be constructed in accordance with the lighting report submitted by the developer in September 2021. This report sets out the technical details of the lighting to be used, and the construction of the retractable towers. Its starting point is the specification set by Hockey England for pitch illumination.
What’s the problem?
Firstly, the woodland edge at the top of Merrow Downs is not a fixed boundary; it encompasses the boundary fence and covers the edge of the sports ground itself, up a steep bank and right up to the edge of the running track in places. The developer’s lighting report itself suggests that the spill on to the woodland at the edge of the Urnfield running track is between 2 and 4 lux.
The problem with the lighting design approved by the Inspector is that even this assessment of light spill is based on calculations which look at the impact at ground level only, along the hockey playing surface. The impact in a vertical plane, from the ground upwards, was not calculated. In fact, the light spill will be experienced right from the ground to the tops of the trees in the woodland, and (because the floodlights would be built on a high ridge), through the woodland and below, on to Merrow Downs.
Why we do not believe it is possible to fulfil the conditions set by the Planning Inspector
We commissioned a member of the professional body, the Institute of Lighting Professionals, to fill in the missing information by calculating the light spill at a range of points in the vertical plane. These calculations show that, rather than a lux level of around 1, as intended by the Planning Inspector, the light spill at the woodland edge will range between a maximum of around 4 lux and up to 10 lux where the woodland is very close to the running track. That is between four and ten times the amount of light spill the Inspector assumed when approving the application.
If the developer is to fulfil the condition set – to implement their September 2021 lighting report – they cannot also meet the low levels of light spill at the woodland edge, as required by the Inspector. Even the most generous interpretation of her direction that the development should “seek to achieve….1 lux or below at the woodland edge…” cannot be reconciled with actual light spill of four or even up to ten times that amount.
In fact, the maximum light spill is still above 1 lux (1.3, to be precise) at 28m away from the running track – beyond the woodland and on to the open space of Merrow Downs.
In our view, this provides conclusive evidence that the conditions set by the Planning Inspector to minimise the harm of the floodlights to the environment and wildlife of Merrow Downs, as part of the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, cannot be met. We have advised the Council’s planners of this assessment.
December 2022: Briefing 1
Save Merrow Downs from floodlights
A group of us including members of Merrow Residents’ Association, members of Downsedge Residents’ Association, the Surrey Hills AONB team and a whole range of environmental and wildlife groups have been working hard for more than two years to prevent the building of floodlights next to Merrow Downs, which is a nationally protected landscape (part of the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty).
What is the proposal?
Tormead School is funding the redevelopment of the Urnfield sports ground (which is County School’s ground), including a much bigger car park, improvements to the pavilion, new cricket nets and various other bits and pieces. But the most controversial element of the plan is to dig up the lower part of the site (the section just behind the treeline at the top of the Merrow Downs) and lay a competition standard astroturf hockey pitch and running track. This pitch would have 8 floodlight towers (total height 13.6m) placed around it and these floodlights will be visible above the treeline for anyone on Merrow Downs (and beyond), including at the bottom of the downs and on the golf course.
There are some limitations on the proposed use of the floodlights; they would be allowed for 5 months of the year (November to March) on six days of the week (not Sundays) between 7.30am and 8pm. When the lights are not in use they are supposed to be lowered. But these restrictions would still mean that we will be looking up into 8 floodlight towers on a dull, overcast autumn or winter day, and potentially at all hours of the day / early evening for 5 months of the year.
Tormead has presented its application as a partnership with County School. However, Tormead’s website and social media feeds state that this is about having, in their own words, a “home ground” rather than continuing to use the fantastic facilities they have been using for 10 years at Surrey Sports Park. We have argued that the development is driven by an inconvenience, not a genuine need. Tormead would still be bussing pupils up to the Urnfield, as they currently do to SSP. And they already have planning permission for a multi use games area onsite at the school, which they are choosing not to build, preferring to develop the Urnfield instead.
What’s happened in the planning process?
The planning officer at Guildford Borough recommended that the development should be approved by the Planning Committee. We worked hard to demonstrate the failings in the officer’s analysis and the harm to the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and to Merrow Downs users. In the end the members of the Committee agreed that this development was inappropriate at the Urnfield, as it is within the Surrey Hills AONB, and on a high ridge that is visible for miles around. They also recognised the harm to those who use Merrow Downs (which, like the Urnfield, is protected as part of the Surrey Hills). The Guildford Borough Council Planning Committee unanimously rejected the application.
We knew that wouldn’t be the end of it. A few of us met the Tormead Head, Bursar and the Urnfield Project Manager in early summer to explore whether there was a compromise solution (e.g. a hockey pitch but without floodlights). We were told very clearly that the floodlights were non-negotiable.
Tormead appealed against Guildford Borough’s decision and the appeal was heard in person by a Planning Inspector in September. We had good representation, lots of airtime and were reassured that the inspector asked all the right questions. Nonetheless she granted planning permission in late October.
So we considered a judicial review of the inspector’s decision, which needed to be lodged within 6 weeks (2nd Dec). Assisted by the charity the Environmental Law Foundation, and with some limited funding, we obtained a barrister’s opinion, which was that there were grounds to challenge the decision, related to the assumptions the Inspector had relied upon in approving the floodlights.
However, judicial review is an uncertain process, and a big, gaping money pit. To take the challenge right the way to the High Court (and possibly beyond) would have required a slush fund of up to £50K, assuming we could limit any cost exposure in the event of losing. In the six weeks available we simply couldn’t generate that kind of money, and the personal financial risks were too high.
So what now?
As we haven’t been in a position to initiate a judicial review, we have exhausted the options within the planning process. However, this is not the end of the matter. We have commissioned a review of the calculations relied upon in Tormead’s lighting plans which has demonstrated what we have been arguing all along – that these are significantly flawed and do not present reliable data on the true impacts of the proposed floodlights on the woodland at the top of the downs or on Merrow Downs itself, which is a nationally important landscape and receives over 100,000 visits per year. Because the floodlights would be on top of a ridge, anyone on Merrow Downs would be looking up into the light source. That’s to say nothing about the impacts on wildlife within the woodland (and the wisdom of digging up that amount of carbon and water storing chalk grassland to lay an artificial surface – but that’s another story).
There are still avenues open to challenge the way in which the conditions the planning inspector attached to her permission are approved. Bats use the woodland but have been insufficiently surveyed (and are protected by law). Tormead’s reputation is also at stake, if they are reliant on proposals that can be shown to be deficient and/or incorrect. So we intend to continue to fight the floodlights, to ensure the openness and unspoilt skyline of Merrow Downs is protected for future generations.
Last week we instructed Leigh Day solicitors to help us and we will be securing some further evidence from a specialist bat ecologist. I have set up a gofundme account to try and raise a small amount (Save our Downs); the purpose of this note to you is not to ask you to contribute, although obviously if you would like to, that would be great, thanks! Just as important though is that we continue to keep this issue alive, and to question – and where necessary challenge – the “evidence” that is driving this proposal. Once the floodlights are built these will be a permanent feature on the downs.
None of us is arguing that school sport isn’t important; but so are unspoilt green spaces and dark skies. I would argue this is of greater benefit to the wellbeing of more of our young (and not so young) people than is access by a relative few to a “convenient” artificial hockey pitch. Especially when we already have these facilities in and around Guildford.
If you’d like to know more, or get involved in the campaign, please text me. Everyone can contribute, but if you have skills and experience in PR, website management, environmental law, or social media then we could definitely use your help. In the meantime, thanks for reading.