Dragon Interview: Susan Parker, Chair of the Guildford Greenbelt Group

Guildford Dragon article + 3 Comments

One of the leading players to have emerged is the leader of the Guildford Greenbelt Group – Susan Parker

Susan Parker

The Local Plan is undoubtedly contentious: it has roused feelings rarely seen in local politics, at least in Surrey.

One of the leading players to have emerged is the leader of the Guildford Greenbelt Group, even those who disagree with her stance must admire her energy. The Guildford Dragon NEWS decided it was time we knew a bit more about her…

Questions asked by Martin Giles

Tell me something about your background

I’m an Essex grammar-school girl, first in the family to go to university, and I trained as a Chartered Accountant after reading English at Oxford. After qualifying I stayed for about a year then went into the City, and spent some years in corporate finance – mergers and acquisitions, mostly with Samuel Montagu, now the HSBC Investment Bank.

After our second child was born I stopped working in the City and our family moved out of London to Guildford. We wanted our children to grow up in the countryside, not in the town, and my husband was prepared to commute a long distance in order to give them the benefit of a rural upbringing.

I then set up my own accountancy practice – as well as being a full time Mum. I’ve now got two children at university and some more time on my hands.

Which part of Guildford Borough do you live in and why?

We live just outside the village of Gomshall, in the Surrey Hills. The area is in the AONB [Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty], and is one of the most beautiful areas in the South of England. It is surrounded by sites of special scientific interest, National Trust land, common, woods and fields, with views from the downs across the Surrey Hills and into the Weald of Kent.

We spent a year looking for beautiful places to live within commuting distance of London and the borough of Guildford was the most beautiful, most rural and least spoiled by over-development.

What made you decide to start campaigning about the green belt?

I care passionately about the countryside; in the borough of Guildford that usually means the green belt. It is of enormous importance to us all, so it shouldn’t be treated as a building site by the housing industry.

It’s beautiful and other benefits include: air quality for towns; the capacity of the land to act as a sponge in flood zones; protection of wildlife and areas of biodiversity; recreation for the cities; and available agricultural land in the temperate zones for food production.

Existing businesses, residents and wildlife also have a stake in the future. The current rules, under the National Planning Policy Framework [NPPF], is heavily biased in favour of house builders and developers against all other members of the community. We should recognise that land outside the towns is not “unused”.

Why did you, together with other campaign groups, form the Guildford Greenbelt Group?

The Local Plan represents a fundamental developer-led assault not only on one site but on the green belt across the borough. This is a national problem but it’s particularly serious here. That’s partly because the green belt here is so very beautiful, but also because the proposed housing numbers are so high, much higher than in any other Surrey boroughs, and of those 13,040 proposed homes, between 62 and 72 per cent are proposed for greenfield sites outside the urban area. That will result in a swathe of development from Leatherhead to Aldershot, so that the green belt will be cut through with a rash of executive housing estates which will be hardly “affordable”.

So we recognized that all the campaigning groups have a common problem. The solution is not to say: “Not here but there,” rather it is to question the assumption that it’s necessary to build on greenfield sites.

How many hours a week, on average, do you spend on campaign activity? Where do you get your obvious energy?

It varies, but at times it seems like a full time job – often ten hours a day on GGG activity or the Local Plan, so say 50-60 hours a week. I spend the time because I care about the issue. Where do I get my energy?  I get it because it feels as though we can, together, make a difference.

Susan Parker in her garden near Gomshall

How has your campaigning activity affected your life?

My husband is heroically long-suffering, and he sees rather less of me than he should. The campaigning has become a significant part of my life and takes up a lot of time, mostly spent writing and reading, plus meetings of course. My garden is rather neglected now.

Why has the development of a Local Plan become such a contentious issue? Has something gone wrong or was it bound to cause disagreement.

I don’t think it was always bound to be contentious. The pressure on land is almost entirely driven by the developer-lobby. Why don’t people ask developers about their land-banks before they consider building on green belt? The government has listened to the housebuilding lobby and the rules have been changed.

But many boroughs are fighting alongside residents – in the way that Guildford did when it fought the South East Plan in the High Court. We could have an acceptable and workable Local Plan. This could work if the borough was prepared to minimise the housing number to the lowest possible number that an inspector might accept; to apply the constraints that are available – such as the green belt; to utilise brownfield land as fully as possible in order to ensure urban regeneration; and to minimise the land grabs for business growth. Why are we reserving ten hectares of green fields for new warehouses?

Instead of this, there is a philosophy at the heart of our local council – and our government – that says economic growth can only come from building, no matter what economic or other damage is done by that building. It ignores everything that we already treasure. We must resist this.

How do you apportion any blame between the government and the borough council and why?

Our local council has wrongly embraced the government’s concept of economic growth through building, ignoring voters’ wishes. They aren’t applying constraints because they want money from housebuilding  for example Community Infrastructure Levy [CIL] or Section 106 payments from developers, New Homes Bonus from government or new council taxes. They won’t use brownfield because money for infrastructure will be less than from using green fields – as a matter of government policy: there are no homes as part of the North Street redevelopment.

Land in the UK is a speculative commodity. Developers are more interested in short-term profit than housing people. We should use the million empty homes, plus those owned by absentee overseas landlords. They are reported to buy around 80 per cent of new-builds in central London. If land-banks were used within three years or permission lost, pressure on land would disappear. So central government policy is wrong.

But for now it is our council that is pushing housing on our green belt and we can change this.

What do you say to young local people desperate to get on the housing ladder? Isn’t losing a little bit of green belt a price worth paying for more affordable homes?

I think that it is dishonest of those who are promoting housebuilding to suggest that affordable homes will be built as a result of this housing policy, a policy which allows developers to dispense with the affordable criterion if not “viable”. Those who need homes should realize that green belt will not be used for affordable homes, it will be used for £1m+ executive homes.

Using the green belt almost precludes building the affordable homes needed – more profitable, larger homes will be built. We need smaller units which are cheaper. The laws of economics means these will only be built inside settlements.

How is the Guildford Greenbelt Group funded?

So far members have generously donated most of what we need. We have a small membership fee per member and that has given us a fund for technical advice, printing of documents in due course, and publicity costs etc.

When it comes to any enquiry, there may be cooperation between parish councils and other groups to provide funding, and should more funding be needed, we could seek pledges from members. But at present, the costs have been low, and everyone is a volunteer – our time is free.

Whatever new housing figure is agreed they will have to go somewhere. Shouldn’t the villages in the borough take their fair share?

The main problem is that the housing number is currently too high. If we had a reasonable number, and expectation that brownfield sites within the borough would be used for housing, then the impact on other parts of the borough would be radically less.

That said, I think all the villages, parish councils and residents’ groups accept that it is reasonable to accept a small amount of growth within the village settlement boundaries, especially for affordable homes for local people, as well as within urban boundaries on brownfield land.

It is the scale of the proposed development that is wrong. Nationally the number of new homes built on green belt land last year was 5600. GBC want to build a disproportionate percentage, around 15 per cent of this total each year on our green belt, while we have around 1.5 per cent of England’s green belt land. Why build so many?

Are you pessimistic or optimistic about the future of the borough’s green belt areas and environment?

I am not sure, but on balance think there is some limited room for optimism.

There is a change in the mood of the borough. There is increasing recognition that the development lobby has rigged the arguments up to now and that the terms of the debate need to change.

We should all be prepared to stand up and be counted for what we believe: that includes applauding councillors brave enough to defy the whip. It will mean GGG members standing for election next May. I think we can challenge this situation. And I think we can win.

3 Responses to Dragon Interview: Susan Parker, Chair of the Guildford Greenbelt Group

  1. Colin CrossReply

    September 23, 2014 at 8:59 pm

    Susan is quite remarkable on many levels and we are so fortunate to have her in our
    midst at this time of our greatest need.

    Every word of this interview reveals her total application to the cause of our villages and the green belt surrounding them.

    She is right, we can win, it will be tough but the consensus of common sense that
    is personified by GGG (Guildford Greenbelt Group) will prevail. It has to.

    Colin Cross is a GGG member and the Lib Dem candidate in the forthcoming Lovelace by-election.

  2. Lisa WrightReply

    September 23, 2014 at 9:34 pm

    I would like to thank Susan Parker and the Guildford Greenbelt Group (GGG) team for tirelessly exposing the long list of flaws, manipulated data and legal abnormalities in the huge Draft Local Plan Documents. And for standing up in council meetings to detail the problems and solutions in the draft plan.

    I really hope that Guildford Borough Council welcomes the responses from GGG as a valuable asset in deciding Guildford’s future.

  3. Bernard ParkeReply

    September 24, 2014 at 2:50 am

    We need more people like Susan Parker. Unfortunately such people are few and far between these days.