Marjan Desmet, Advisor
Natural England 29th July 2008
7 Ashford Road
Re: The Leatherhead Riverside Redevelopment Project and other Related Issues
Dear Ms. Desmet,
I understand that when an area along the Mole River in Leatherhead was designated a Nature Reserve your organisation took on some responsibility for overseeing activities within the reserve. This implies that you should have been informed of changes to the area. I further understand that any development within the area should have been referred to you and that consultation should have taken place. It appears that none of the above happened.
Further to our telephone conversations, I am submitting a summary of background details for your record. Many of the residents of Leatherhead are disappointed and dismayed at what has happened to part of our lovely, unspoilt Nature Reserve. I first became aware of the extent of the project in Mid-May when some of the members of the Leatherhead Residents Association began to ask questions. These members had gone to the trouble of locating the schematic drawings of the project. The drawings were not on public display in the MVDC Help Shop and there was a two-day wait before they were presented to them. These LRA members had spoken to the MVDC Conservation Officer and having received no satisfactory answers, they had also spoken to the press. These members confronted us with a long list of rare and protected species of plant and animal life found in the area. They had also compiled a list of features of the project they felt to be problematic or inappropriate. The Conservation Officer had treated the lists dismissively and denied that there was kingfisher’s
burrow in this part of the river.
To gauge opposition to the development, a petition was drawn up. A group led by Barry Davies, LRA member and Angling Bailiff of the section of the Mole River between Thorncroft and Town Bridges, began a campaign to find out how other residents felt about the development. Within a week there were over 300 names on the petition. Richard Burrows, MVDC Interim Director, advised us that further petitions, even if the wording were changed, would not help our cause. I watched one Sunday morning as people stood on Thorncroft Bridge and looked at the schematic drawing and said, “this section should not be touched” and signed the petition. Unfortunately, the petition was dismissed in its entirety. The reason given was that the trees that had been cut down in the area were not all as a result of the Pathway Project and the number of feet of pathway should have said square feet not metres. The petition stated that the under signers had not been consulted about the redevelopment of the River Mole Footpath, an area referred to by Jeremy Early as the ‘ Jewel in the Crown.’ This was the petitions’ intended message.
The MVDC gave a small group of LRA members the opportunity to meet with Richard Burrows. After that meeting the pathway was narrowed by one foot and a commitment was made to “review consultation arrangements for future projects.” Many telephone calls, letters to the press and council, and public meetings later, the council responded with a partial compromise. In response to a public outcry, the MVDC eventually eliminated a 40 square metre section of hard surfacing to the left of Thorncroft Bridge. The hard surfacing would have replaced a naturally overgrown area of nettles and wildflowers. Also eliminated was a kissing gate that was extremely controversial from the moment the public became aware of its intended use. A display of upright railway sleepers and a landscaped area was also deleted. It was the general view of people, that the design was out or keeping and proportion for the narrow corridor of this beauty spot and that in fact it would have been more appropriate for a theme park. Unfortunately, reaching these compromises has caused a great deal of stress to our community. Some people have had sleepless nights over this unhappy development.
The Leatherhead Tomorrow Health Check
It is important to consider how this controversial and inappropriate project came about. The original idea for the project came from the Leatherhead Tomorrow Health Check. Not surprisingly, over 900 of the 40,000 local people targeted by the survey chose the River Mole as their favourite Leatherhead asset. When these people were asked how they would change the area they suggested clearing the
pathways and clearing litter and graffiti, which had covered a certain wall for four years. As usual these are maintenance problems. Judging from the High Street and Church Street, maintenance is not a priority in Leatherhead. Unfortunately, the pathway was not properly maintained during the time that it was a Nature Reserve. Never in their wildest dreams did people expect the pathway to become a 7- foot-wide mini roadway with an artificial surface.
To be fair, according to the Health Check a few cyclists did request access to the footpath. Some motorcyclists also apparently wanted access as two were picnicking on the meadow near the river on Friday evening. What a few people desire is not always in the interest of the majority of people.
It has been our experience to find that tiny kernels of ideas stated in the Health Check develop within the Leatherhead Tomorrow (now the Leatherhead Area Partnership LAP) Committee Meetings
into full blown proposals that the public do not recognise as their own desires. In its early stages, the pathway project plan was to tidy up the area and create a way for the disabled to access the river via way of the Football Club. Along the way the project became larger and the LAP found they needed an eight-foot wide path. In this case, and in two others, Surrey County Council (SCC) has suggested projects with larger scope than the LAP has intended. It is at this point that the project goes horribly wrong. It seems that accessing SCC funds becomes too tempting for the LAP to resist. (See Footnote One at the end of the letter for additional information concerning the LAP’s poor consultation)
Some groups have supported the council’s project but were probably kept in the dark (like the rest of us) concerning the finer details such as width, time of year for implementation, the nature and durability of material for the path. The Mole Valley Access Group was listed as consultees but were never shown a schematic drawing or told the dimensions of the path. It was reported (Town centre Forum) that members of the People’s Empowerment Partnership (PEP) Committee were ‘horrified’ when they discovered that it was to be a cycle path. The residents of Thorncroft Drive were reportedly consulted, but I have spoken to the 3 residents nearest the river and none say they were consulted. If the Ramblers Association and Natural England had been notified there would no doubt have been a better consultation process. During this process the members of the public who actually use the river would have been able to share with The Leatherhead Area Partnership their intimate knowledge of the area, and their fears for the loss of flora and fauna and the general natural amenity of the area. Barry Davis has spoken to hundreds of people who have simply said, ” Why does/did it have to be changed at all?” The goal to make the path wheelchair accessible was laudable. Imagine our surprise when a wheelchair user, who is on the path daily, said that he would not be able to use a kissing gate, because his hands are not strong enough to use a laser key. It took a concerted effort to convince the Conservation Officer of the folly of this gate. The gate was deleted in the end but not until it was brought on site to see how inappropriate it looked. Many wheelchair users and their families have come forward to say that the path was very accessible as it was.
The following is a summary of factors that cause concern for local residents:
• The work was carried out in the middle of the nesting season. We may have ended up with a simple roadway through a nature reserve but to accomplish that roadway took multiple large, noisy earth-moving vehicles making many trips daily across a once unspoilt terrain. Over two weeks of constant noise accompanied the project. The hammering sound of compacting machines could be heard 300 yards away.
• We were promised that the contractors, recommended by SCC, were sensitive to this kind of area and that hand digging would take place near tree roots. However, what happened was that tree roots were scraped as the path was bulldozed through as quickly as possible. There was not a break in the noisy activity for the days the work was done in the narrow, tree-lined area of the path. Pictures are available to show the damage to tree roots.
• A third of the path was disproportionately large in comparison to the narrow strip of land it now fills.
• The Fibredec material is ‘experimental’. It sits loosely on 2 layers of bitumen.
• The bitumen was applied messily and splashed over the edge of the path. This gooey black material was covered over with loose soil. When it rains some of it will end up in the river.
• Although Fibredec is thought to be safe near water, the manufacturer has plainly told several members of the public in telephone conversations that Fibredec should not be used in areas that flood in the winter. The pathway was under 3 feet of water in January and February 2008. There are pictures to show the path at Thorncroft Drive covered with water.
• Fibredec lasts between 5 and 15 years. Richard Burrows has told us that the existing path would have needed to be replaced in 3 years time. If the new Fibredec path lasts 5 years, we will have added only 2 years to the life of the path. With a total cost of almost £72,000, much of which pays for the path, the extra two-year life of the path is expensive indeed.
• Colas, the providers of Fibredec, recommend that the pathway should have hard edges. This measure lengthens the life of the path by preventing plant life from growing into the Fibredec, causing the breakdown of the delicate top dressing of crushed glass. Only a few feet of the path, near the river’s edge, have hard edges.
• The Council decided to leave the path with open edges so that the path would look more natural
as the plants grow over the edge. In the Help Shop it was explained to an inquiring public that the path would eventually look narrower as plants overgrew the edges. It will also begin the deterioration of the Fibredec.
• There is no guarantee on the path.
• While a pathway accessible for the disabled was an excellent goal, combining that with a pathway for cycles (dual-purpose path) in an area that was too narrow was foolhardy.
• Guidelines were not met but the agency that was consulted and paid to do a weir study acquiesced to the Council.
• For example, that the path should have been at least a metre from the river at all points. About 40 feet of the path abuts the river. The Environmental Agency relented.
• SCC Pathways Department partially funded the project if, and only if, it became a dual pathway.
• The recommended width of a dual pathway is 10 feet; the minimum acceptable width of such a path is 8 feet. However, this path is 7 feet wide with pinch points. At these points cycles and wheelchairs may meet on a less than 6 feet wide path between a large tree trunk and the river’s edge. The path is expected to overgrow the edges, making it narrower still.
• Although too wide for its setting, the path is too narrow for dual use.
• There is visual impairment in places where the path bends and foliage blocks the view.
• There is an alternative path for cycles behind Thorncroft Manor that could have linked up with the new pathway at the Football Club extending across the meadow into Leatherhead Town Centre. Here the path is straight, in an open area, with no visual impairment.
• The Cobham Angling Club, who pay for fishing rights to MVDC, were not notified that
access to the Mole River would be denied when the fishing season officially opened.
• Once the Conservation Officer had the opinion of wildlife ‘expert’, Jeremy Early, who was the photographer paid for illustrations on interpretation boards, the views for residents about danger to wildlife was ignored.
• Simon Cowell, founder of Wildlife Aid, told Richard Burrows that noise would cause birds to abandon their nest, but hoped the birds would return in another season. This was a sacrifice the council was willing to make.
• Many local residents know where the Kingfishers’ burrow is located and have watched the birds dive into their burrow from the Town Bridge for years. The ‘experts’ continue to deny its existence.
• Simon Cowell says that Kingfishers are particularly adversely affected by noise.
• Their nest is adjacent to ‘Graffiti Alley’. A pneumatic drill pounded this embankment for days to break up the concrete pavement along a 100 metre corridor.
• Fibredec cannot be laid in the winter because it is affected by frost. The area around Thorncroft Bridge is a frost pocket. This is part of the reason June/July was chosen as the time of year for the project. We think it would have been better to use a more durable natural material.
• By using natural materials for pathways over the years, the river has been allowed to overflow and repair itself naturally. Debris left behind is soaked up and assimilated into the embankment/path. The Fibredec pathway required a membrane to be placed under the aggregate. There is concern that this non-porous membrane will affect the river’s natural ability to cleanse itself.
• The Fibredec was not applied evenly and the bitumen showed through.
• Some of the pathway near the town centre had to be resurfaced immediately because it was done so poorly. The resurfacing seemed to be done hastily in the dark. That same night two of the handcrafted benches were wrenched out of the concrete and stolen. Workers were witnessed on the site making a great deal of noise at 10pm on Friday July 18th.
• To patch a week old path does not portend a happy future. The path near Thorncroft bridge was not repaired where the Fibredec was applied very thinly.
• Further patching has occurred near Town Bridge where workers cut through a cable and had to dig it up. Repairs were done with a material other than Fibredec.
• The summer was the time of year that was best for the contractor’s schedule. We think we should have waited until next year for the project, after all, the pathway had 3 more years of life. Alternately, we could have chosen a different contractor.
• By using such a delicate material in a flood prone area, which is subject to frost, the pathway is likely to begin breaking up in its early years. There is fear that the Fibredec and bitumen will wash into the river. This would have a detrimental affect of the river’s wellbeing.
• The Fibredec path allows the cyclist to move at a more rapid pace. It is only natural to take advantage of this ability to speed along. This speed will endanger pedestrians and wheelchair users.
• Many pedestrians walk with dogs on leads or children. You cannot predict the behaviour or movement of either. A Speeding cyclist would definitely put both in danger’s way. Leads stretched across the pathway would also put the cyclist at risk.
• The Conservation officer had warned in the February Town Centre Forum meeting
that the area would look stark as the trees were thinned. I did ask questions about this but was told to call tomorrow. In my dictionary a forum is “the place for the discussion that” should have accompanied that statement. The last thing you really want is a nature reserve that looks stark.
• Vandalism is rife in the area. This is due to its proximity to Pit Stop, a shelter for the homeless and jobless. We have sympathy for the homeless but deplore the negative impact they have on the amenities of the nature reserve. A well-known location, the Pit Stop attracts people from all over England. When the homeless people cannot abide by the house rules they spill over into the nature reserve, often setting up camps. Now that the town is an alcohol-restricted area, homeless people tend to sit and drink on the benches by the river. Some benches have been used for firewood, along with an interpretation board near Thorncroft Bridge. Benches and the soccer goal, used by the football club, have been found in the river. The MVDC has granted permission for Pit Stop users to fish in the river.
• Poaching and illegal fishing have been reported to the Surrey Wildlife Officer.
• Netting has been put across the river to round up fish. (also reported)
• When I reported this to the Conservation Officer, he said that happens all the time.
• People have been camping out along the river and on the islands
• We think steps to alleviate these activities should have been carried out prior to development.
• The Surrey Police are patrolling the area more frequently. Their priority, however, is the Town Centre and that is where most of their effort will continue to be exerted.
• It is difficult for police officers to witness offences because of a queuing system to get through to Guildford headquarters. Even when the PC’s personal number has been given, the telephone goes to messaging with no returned call.
• People, even one councillor, are afraid to visit the area.
• So far it seems that cyclists, more than anyone else, are benefiting from the pathway. The feeble and disabled wheelchair users have to be very brave to make use of the new path.
• Some effort has been expended to find out if an Environmental Impact Study has been done.There is no indication that one was carried out.
Concerns Not Related to the Path
It is impossible to over emphasise the significance of protecting a place that is both a Conservation Area and a part of a Nature Reserve. A great deal has been said and written about this area. It is much loved and praised. For this reason all activity in the area should be monitored extremely carefully.
During our quest to find out as much about the project as possible, we became aware that a row of 20-foot tall May trees had been cut back to 3-feet tall. The 100 to 200 trees had created a screen between the football field and the nature reserve. This screen had been planted for a purpose. It benefited the wildlife in the area, the football club, and the residents in homes nearby and across the valley on Elm Bank. The SCC Parks Officer had carried out the work to rejuvenate the trees that were probably in poor condition. There was no indication that the matter was referred to the Conservation Officer. If he had realised the importance of the floral screen, he could have pruned the upper branches of trees and taken out the worst of the group. Alternatively, a new row of trees could have been planted and allowed to grow while the old hedge slowly died. The trees appear to be on football club property.
Cutting back the trees has had the following consequences:
• The football pitch is in full view of the Conservation Area.
• The noise from the football pitch can be heard in the conservation area.
• Wildlife is affected by noise. If some birds are disturbed by noise they will abandon their nests.
• Noise from the football pitch echoes across the valley and becomes a nuisance to nearby residents.
• Light Pollution from the floodlit football pitch was noticed by nearby residents immediately.
• Bats in the area would suffer from the light. ( in the May 23rd meeting Simon Cowell said the damage would have already been done.) Bats are protected animals.
• The football club loses on average one ball per week. The balls end up in the river and cannot be retrieved. This cannot be good for the river or the club’s bank balance.
• We had no blossom in May.
• It is not helpful to find that the trees are now healthy and will be mature in ten to fifteen years.
Building Done without Environmental Impact Studies
There is currently a building project in progress west of the Town Bridge. The contractors have damaged the new path and dumped materials in the river a few metres away. It is doubtful whether an Environmental Impact Study was done.
Swans Not Safe in Nature Reserve
Leatherhead lost its pair of swans to a wildlife sanctuary elsewhere when the female swan had her wing damaged by a drunkard. In April a new pair of swans swam down near Thorncroft Bridge and began the nesting process. They have since disappeared. A second pair was noticed in July. They have also disappeared. It is unknown if the Redevelopment of the River path has frightened them away or that the rumour that poachers are eating them is true. Whatever the reason, a nearby swan sanctuary does not consider the Nature Reserve between Town and Thorncroft Bridges a safe place to re-home a pair of swans. This is very sad considering the swan is the symbol of our town and the area is a Nature Reserve.
There are many things that have happened in the Nature Reserve that cannot easily be changed. We hope we have learned from the mistakes that were made.
• We think it is time that people are truly consulted. When a significant project arises from theLeatherhead Tomorrow Health Check the public need to be revisited to see if the LAP’s interpretation is correct. The Leatherhead Town Centre Forum is not an adequate sounding board for new projects unless organisations are given specific material to take back to their group and and feed back is received and listened to. This should occur at an early stage of the project, before ideas are fixed in any way.
• The MVDC has indicated a desire to improve consultation and we hope they carry through with that objective.
• The Conservation Officer has committed himself to monitor the cycle activity on the pathway
• We would like to see the part of the pathway between Thorncroft Bridge and the meadow removed from the cycle path. This would mean that a cyclist either takes the alternate path or dismounts at that point. We do not want to wait for an accident to happen. It should be done immediately.
• Any project in or near the Nature Reserve should require an Environmental Impact Study.
• Planting grass along the edge should narrow the part of the pathway removed from the cycle path. It should be the width to allow two wheelchairs to pass. That section should not be a dual pathway.
• Now that access to the river has been provided, we would like to see all activities on the river, legal and illegal, properly monitored by the Council.
• We would like a maintenance program that truly works.
If Natural England agrees with our objectives, we would be thankful for any suggestions you have to help us accomplish them. We hope you will be able to place this information in the proper to hands to deal with our concerns.
(Footnote One- In reference to page two)
In only one of the LAP projects did further public consultation (beyond the Health Check) take place. The controversial Church Street Redevelopment Project had two formal public consultations. However, too much of the scheme was predetermined before it came before the public. Although adopted, 3 residents groups and the Chamber of Commerce still oppose this project in its present form. In the case of the Mole River Path Re-development, no further public consultation ever took place and no schematic drawing was ever placed before a public group. The Conservation Officer apparently told the Leatherhead Forum that he had the drawings in his brief case if anyone wanted to see them. No one was ever told of width of the path, the materials of which it was to be made or, the fact that noisy, seven-foot wide machines would force their way through the nature reserve in the nesting season. A director, Richard Burrows, and his successor, Laura Taylor, have both admitted that the ‘consultation’ had its shortcomings.