Legal challenge of Urnfield decisions will hold planners and developers to account

A legal challenge is being prepared against Guildford Borough Council’s approval of Tormead School’s implementation plans for the Urnfield development.

When the planning inspector gave permission for the Urnfield development she recognised that it would do some harm to the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), particularly Merrow Downs, and she issued a number of conditions which needed to be met before construction could begin.

These conditions included producing an ecological management plan to ensure badgers, bats and dormice are protected; in addition, drainage and construction plans and landscaping detail all had to be signed off by Guildford Borough Council. These are called “pre-commencement” conditions.

Looking into the Urnfield ground from the entrance, July 2023

Until these conditions are approved (as “discharged” by the developer) construction cannot begin on the Urnfield site.

This is what the site looked like a couple of days ago. Just in case anyone has been told mistakenly that construction has started.

Merrow Downs Residents’ Group has been scrutinising the plans submitted to meet the pre-commencement conditions since February this year, and in our view these have been found to be severely lacking in many respects.

The developer has been adding new features such as car park lighting. The pitch, running track and car park were all required by the planning inspector to be permeable, to minimise flood risk downhill on to Merrow Downs, but Tormead’s first plan showed an impermeable surface and we pointed that out. Two known badger setts were ignored in the construction timetable, and if we hadn’t stepped in could have been destroyed back in April when any cubs would have been underground. These are just a few examples.

Through regular correspondence and expert volunteer input, we have tried to ensure that what gets approved by Guildford planners is what the inspector intended to permit.

Merrow Downs with storm clouds gathering

At the end of June, in a flurry of website activity, approvals appeared for all of the conditions that Tormead needs to meet before starting work at the Urnfield. Not because the planners had carefully scrutinised the plans and judged them to be acceptable; the conditions had instead (according to the council) been subject to something known as “deemed discharge”. Under this procedure, developers can apply to have their conditions signed off after 8 weeks if the planning department hasn’t made a decision on them in that time.

We know how busy Guildford’s planners are, and we have some sympathy with that. But this is a highly controversial development which the planning inspector acknowledged would cause harm to a nationally protected landscape, the Surrey Hills. Residents had already done much of the scrutiny the planners needed to do. Our comments and concerns were supported by Surrey Wildlife Trust, GBC’s expert ecological advisers.

Without due consideration by planning officers, these “deemed discharges” would, if allowed to stand unchallenged, mean that some of the plans approved still conflict with each other, and are incompatible with other conditions attached to the permission. If GBC was unable to scrutinise the content of the applications properly, the right thing to do would have been to refuse the applications to discharge the conditions within their 8 week window.

But that isn’t the end of the story. We have been asking GBC for weeks to publish the “deemed discharge” paper trail on its website and have been met with silence. It took a letter from our legal advisers for the material to be published late last week. When it was, we noticed that the developer’s letters applying for deemed discharge for their plans failed to include one critical piece of information that by law they must include in such applications. In the view of our legal advisers, this means that the deemed discharge certificates issued by GBC are unlawful and must be quashed.

GBC can either do this themselves – by far the cheapest and quickest solution to put things right – or it can contest our challenge and force us to fight them in the High Court. As Council tax-paying residents we think they should fix this, as it is a problem of their own making.  If the deemed discharge application letters had been published when they were submitted, back in May, we could have spotted the omission earlier and saved everyone the hassle and cost of having to undo a legally binding decision.

It is a huge financial risk for a community group like us to challenge a local authority in the High Court. We are prepared to go ahead not only because we believe the nationally important landscape of the Surrey Hills is worth protecting, but because there are bigger issues at stake which should matter to everyone.

Meadow brown butterflies are prolific on Merrow Downs at the moment

Merrow Downs Residents’ Group is a group of local people who came together over the last three years because we believe that the special natural environment of Merrow Downs is worth fighting for. Now we find ourselves also fighting for greater transparency and accountability of our local planning system and those who use it. You could argue that this is in all of our interests, wherever we live, and whatever our views about the Urnfield.

If you also feel this is important, and you would like to contribute to our fighting fund, please visit our Gofundme page:

Thank you.

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