What if…how better community engagement delivers better development

Last week Tormead’s Head sent the first email update of the new school year to parents, lamenting the “increasingly frustrating process” of the Urnfield development. We agree with that assessment, except that for us it has been frustrating from the very start. So, how could this project have been run, and what difference might that have made?

In a parallel universe, both the school and its agents would have taken more account of the connectivity of the site within the wider, nationally protected, landscape, and over time. They would have recognised that the Urnfield itself has a history of public use (eg. as allotments during WW2). They would have thought as much about the impacts beyond the site, for people, wildlife and the natural environment, as much as they thought about what they wanted onsite.

  • Tormead’s planning agents contacted 55 homes to fulfil their “community engagement” brief, prior to submitting the plans for determination by GBC. That this was considered adequate (by anyone) demonstrates the singular lack of understanding shown about the position of the Urnfield in relation to the surrounding countryside, and about how Merrow Downs is both used and protected. This has always felt like a project being run by those who do not understand the local context and who made little effort to learn or care about it. 
  • In this parallel universe, the school and/or its agents would have contacted not only homeowners living on the two residential roads next to the site, but they would have alerted all the local residents’ associations and publicised the objectives of the development much more widely around Guildford, recognising that the people who love Merrow Downs and who visit the downs, come from all over Guildford. And that many people feel strongly about this nationally protected landscape and would be prepared to fight for it. 
  • Community events might have been run by Tormead and County Schools together, to which not only residents and visitors would have been invited, but also key conservation groups such as Surrey Wildlife Trust, Surrey Bat Group, W Surrey Badger Group, Surrey Dormouse Group, and others. By engaging fully with this range of stakeholders, the pre application plans could have been shaped to try and ensure the needs of wildlife, people and the schools could have been aligned as far as possible.

This could have resulted in a planning application with much greater buy in from the local community, and better mutual understanding of why any concerns or contention remained.

Instead, a parochial approach was taken, with the focus almost entirely on the school’s aims and objectives, with (seemingly) no room for compromise and little recognition of the wider context of the Urnfield within the Surrey Hills, and of the national value of this landscape and its nature.

What else? Well, after the application had been submitted to the Planning Department, the Heads of both schools could have held evening event(s) to speak to residents, conservation groups and any other interested parties, to ensure all those with concerns felt they had a chance to speak directly to those leading the development. This could have resulted in fewer formal objections, and a better chance of approval by the Planning Committee, particularly when committee members heard about the fantastic community engagement undertaken.

All of this engagement could have led to a project plan that demonstrably addressed community concerns, and provided more widely accepted rationale where concerns were not able to be addressed. The outcomes for the project overall might have included:

  • Fewer challenges by the public to the application and later to the decisions to discharge the conditions attached to the permission
  • Discharge of conditions could have been completed much quicker (within the 8 week timetable)
  • with less ill feeling on the part of the community members who will have to live with the development
  • The development timetable and budget might have been achieved, delivering the promise to Tormead’s parents and pupils
  • No enforcement action would be required by the planning department, saving public resources and Tormead embarrassment
  • There would be likely to be fewer complaints to Tormead, both during construction and once the site is operational
  • Less harm to the natural environment of the Urnfield site and its surrounds, and possibly more imaginative solutions to mitigate unavoidable harms

Yes, community engagement costs time and a bit of money. But these costs are miniscule compared with the total represented by project delays, spiralling construction costs, additional legal fees (including expensive barristers), multiple and amended contractor plans, the personal and organisational reputational damage and increasing levels of anger amongst all parties. Not to mention the flawed implementation plans that we are left with and their harmful impact on nature and on the people who cherish this part of the Surrey Hills precisely because of its peace and natural beauty, providing respite from the urban environment so close by.

To quote many a school teacher, “Could Do Better”.

It is, sadly, so true in relation to the Urnfield project.

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