Rushmoor Borough Council, Hart District Council and Surrey Heath Borough Council have been boosted by the news they are to receive £250,000 for joint working to research and assess alternative measures to deal with the implications of new homes in a Special Protection Area.
The Thames Basin Heaths Special Protection Area (TBHSPA) is a heathland habitat, which supports three protected birds - the Nightjar, the Woodlark, and the Dartford Warbler. This can limit development because of the need to avoid and mitigate the potential recreational impact of residents of new homes on the heathland.
The three neighbouring local authorities together form a Housing Market Area (HMA), with strong links across authority boundaries in relation to where people live and work, and have a long history of working together on cross boundary planning issues as they draw up their local plans.
They are also part of a wider group of 11 local authorities affected by the TBHSPA, which means that, under rules enforced by Natural England, they must find eight hectares of Suitable Alternative Natural Greenspace (SANG) for every 1,000 new residents - which, although delivering recreational spaces, is also a constraint on building new homes.
The funding, spread over two years, will enable the three councils to employ a project officer and specialist consultants to work with Natural England, and other TBHSPA local authorities, to explore and challenge planning constraints relating to the need to protect the Special Protection Area from disturbance.
The three councils have worked closely to deliver cross boundary SANG issues, but there are concerns that there are huge constraints to delivering development and new SANGs in the HMA area, given that the current approach to mitigation is ultimately finite.
Rushmoor is mostly urban with any undeveloped land being SPA, Sites of Important Nature Conservation, Sites of Special Scientific Interest, MOD land or within the boundary of Farnborough Airport. Surrey Heath Borough Council and Hart District Council have similar challenges.
Opportunities for delivering SANGS are reducing sharply, with Rushmoor Borough Council, as a last resort, having to make the difficult decision to close Southwood Golf Course to create a SANG at the end of last year.
Ultimately the lack of SANG space would lead to a halt to any new residential development, which would mean a desperate shortage of new homes, a sharp rise in house prices, and town centre regeneration coming to a virtual standstill.
The money for the project will come from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.
Councillor Martin Tennant, Rushmoor Borough Council’s Cabinet member for Environment and Service Delivery, said: “It’s absolutely essential that we start tackling the planning issues around SANGS because we are all running out of space and our borough needs to grow and prosper and build new homes for our children
“We’re pleased that the funding for the joint working project has come through, but we are under no illusions how tough it will be to come up with solutions for this thorny issue.”
Councillor James Radley, Cabinet Member for Services at Hart District Council, said: "Hart welcome the opportunity of working with our neighbouring authorities and with other partners to identify new and innovative ways to mitigate the adverse impacts of development on sensitive and ecologically important sites.
“Some of our neighbouring authorities are constrained by a lack of suitable open countryside to turn into country parks. Where we can, Hart are happy to help out by sharing the SANG sites that we are able to open up with residents from a wider area. However, it is unlikely that such an approach can work indefinitely. I want to put on record that personally I do not see restricting people's access to heathland to be an appropriate solution, I expect us to be looking at alternatives, such as habitat regeneration."
Regulatory Portfolio Holder for Surrey Heath Borough Council, Councillor Alan McClafferty said: “Surrey Heath faces difficult issues around planning and housing development due to the SPAs and SSSIs that exist across the borough. We welcome the joint working project funding, which should be a positive step in making progress in this area.”