Michelle Obama and the Urnfield

During the 2016 US election campaign FLOTUS famously coined a phrase, “When they go low, we go high”, referring to bullying and aggressive communications tactics being employed in the campaign.

Some of the increasingly angry and puerile comments being made on Instagram (@savemerrowdowns22) in response to local residents’ legitimate concerns about the assumed discovery of asbestos at the Urnfield (and the implicit likelihood, therefore, of its removal in order for the project to continue) reminds me of Michelle Obama’s advice. She’s clear that “going high” doesn’t mean forfeiting any passion or rage that you may have about a cause, but it’s about channelling it to positive use.

The latest exchanges on social media demonstrate that those closely connected to Tormead do not understand why local residents feel they should be told about what’s going on on the Urnfield. It is, after all, a private site, and we should trust the school to manage the project with integrity and to do the right thing. Without question.

But that devalues the role of public scrutiny. Dare I mention the post office and blood products scandals, or illegal water company discharges? Perhaps not.

Rather than engage in petty and snide social media exchanges, I’d like to channel Michelle and help Tormead and its extended community (including parents and partners of staff), to understand better why the local community cares, and why it might actually be in the developer’s interests not to discount local concerns quite so readily, and to communicate more generously.

Having been involved in many complex planning cases, it’s always a shock to see developers being taken aback by the extent and depth of local interests in a development project. They often simply didn’t realise anyone really cared about this field/landscape/species/waterway. Who knew?!

This shouldn’t be the case at Urnfield. Tormead has been well aware of the extent of local residents’ concern about the development from the moment the application hit Planning, during the first lockdown of 2020. The Urnfield ground sits snug up to two quiet, residential roads, lies within the cherished Surrey Hills National Landscape and is adjacent to an area of public land visited approx. 100k times per year (mostly by local people). Merrow Downs is the gateway to the wider landscape of the Surrey Hills. It is treasured. This time of year it is covered in gorgeous nature. So please don’t be surprised by people trying to protect it.

Anyone who’s ever held a public-facing role knows that often it’s better to over-communicate than to keep people in the dark, perhaps because you think they don’t need to know, or don’t have a “right” to know.

Attaching rights to information is a slippery slope. The developer here must surely have realised by now that local residents are determined, skilled, and well connected. And they’re not going away. Communicating with them more than you feel is absolutely necessary is likely to pay dividends in the long run, because it will build trust in the developer. Trust which, right now, is at rock bottom.

Building trust leads to fewer complaints, fewer objections (potentially) as the development progresses, and possibly even – heaven forbid that we could offer anything useful! – better outcomes for the site’s nature and wildlife. For the community that will continue to live next to the site, and for that which uses the incredible landscape surrounding it. That’s surely a benefit worth realising.

Thanks, Michelle.


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