Natural England presented a paper which set out a summary of the findings and recommendations of the Interim Review of Suitable Alternative Greenspace in the Thames Basin Heaths.
The meeting was reminded that the methodology for the review had been presented to the JSPB Members in February 2015, and Footprint Ecology had been commissioned to undertake the review. The draft report had been completed in June 2015 and following a consultation period, a significant response had been received with detailed comments received from the majority of local planning authorities and many of the project partners.
The main findings of the report were:
· Data available from 27 SANGs suggested they were absorbing a high level of use, but that it was not possible to be sure if those people would otherwise visit the SPA.
· There was no clear evidence that SANGs use had either increased or decreased over time.
· Ratio of dogs per person on SANGs was broadly similar to that on the SPA.
· Approximately 75% of SPA visitors arrived by car, which was replicated by some SANGs
· Eight SANGs had at least 90% of visits lasting less than an hour (compared to 64% on SPA).
· Across SANGs as a whole there was little difference in visit frequency compared to the SPA, but some sites had particularly high numbers of daily visitors.
· A number of SANGs had relatively high proportion of visitors also using SPA.
· Route lengths on SANGs were significantly shorter than on the SPA, suggesting SANGs were not necessarily providing the kind of routes visitors were using on the SPA.
· Postcode data showed that the SPA drew people from further afield than SANGs, and that in general larger SANGs drew visitors from a wider area.
· Total SANGs area was equivalent to 11% of the SPA (8% discounted).
· Promotion of SANGs on the web was poor.
· The modelled draw of SANGs and the SPA (based on nearest parking) indicated that SANGs and SPA overlapped well.
· Gaps in current SANGs provision appeared to be between Farnborough and Woking, the northern half of Guildford and towards the west of the SPA.
· The distribution of developments for which SANGs had been provided suggested that there were areas where the development appeared too far from the SANGs.
The main recommendations in the report were as follows:
· Future focus should be on larger SANGs.
· The path networks beyond SANGs boundaries needed to be secured and maintained.
· Promotion of SANGs on the internet needed to be improved.
· SANGs guidelines needed to be clearer on how to estimate additional capacity on sites with existing access.
· Guidelines for surveys for SANGs sites should be clear on frequency and methodology.
· Provision of long routes was important.
· All parts of walks should be available to dogs off leads
· The need for standardisation in the way LPAs recorded developments linked to SANGs.
· Recognition that it was likely that the effectiveness of SANGs would increase over time with access management warding and better promotion of SANGs..
It was noted that the SANGs approach was still relatively new, and many of the SANGs sites had been still in the process of development when the visitor surveys had been undertaken. This alongside the fact that the SAMM project had not commenced wardening of the SPA at the time of the surveys, meant that the findings were likely to have understated the potential longer term success of the sites under review.
The JSPB received a report from officers which set out in detail the comments and concerns not addressed by the revisions to the report. The report had been re-titled ‘An Interim Review of SANGs in the Thames Basin Heaths’ in recognition that the evidence base was not yet robust enough to draw definite conclusions over the success of the approach.
The Thames Basin Heaths’ SPA affected authorities had concerns with respect to the credibility of the Footprint Ecology report into the effectiveness of SANGs. In particular it was considered that the evidence relied on and the methodology and approach was inadequate, imprecise and insufficient to enable a robust outcome in respect of the objectives of the study.
Throughout the report there were a significant number of (unsupported) assumptions, assertions and sweeping conclusions. It was not, therefore, considered to be a robust assessment of the effectiveness of SANGs. If published in its latest draft form, it could undermine the current approach that was in place through the use of Avoidance and Mitigation Strategies at local authority level.
In the light of this, the affected authorities did not wish to see the report published in its current form. It was noted that the provision of SANGs was only one part of a package of measures designed to mitigate the impact of net new residential development on the Thames Basin Heath SPA. Other measures such as Strategic Access Management and Monitoring had not been considered in the report.
The JSPB was reminded that the principal reason for mitigation works was the protection of the SPA. However the report had inferred that there should be a separate green infrastructure which went beyond the purpose of SANGs as an alternative to the SPA.
The overriding concern were the limited number of SANGs which had been surveyed, the out dated survey data used and the increase in size of the SANGs and the length of the walks which were intended to replicate the use of the SPA. However SANGs were not intended to replicate SPAs but to provide an alternative.
Members considered the following options
· Option 1: To agree the report and publish it in its current form.
· Option 2: The report be published as currently written, but a forward be added to explain the context, in terms of limited evidence, and the early stage of SANGs deployment and that it was only intended to provide an early indication of successes and areas for improvement for future sites.
· Option 3: Footprint Ecology be re-commissioned to re-write the report (using the existing data).
· Option 4: The report to remain un-published and be used as an internal report for the JSPB.
In addition to the concerns raised by officers, Members considered that the report lacked input from the elected Members and had the potential to undermine the strategy for the protection of the SPAs.
It was proposed that in accordance with Option 4, the report to remain unpublished but that it be used as the basis for further work by a Task and Finish Group with the aim of reporting back to the JSPB on its findings for the future use of the report.
(i) the report of the Interim Review of Suitable Alternative Greenspace in the Thames Basin Heaths by Footprint Ecology to remain unpublished;
(ii) a Task and Finish Group be established to consider the report and its future application;
(iii) the Task and Finish Group be asked to report back to the JSPB within 4 months; and
(iv) the Task and Finish Group to comprise
Cllr Angus Ross (Wokingham Borough Council)
Cllr Mike Goodman (Surrey County Council)
Cllr James Radley (Hart District Council),
Cllr Moira Gibson (ex officio) (Surrey Heath Borough Council)
Simon Thompson (SAMM Project)
2 Officers (to be identified)