Picnic report…& endorsement from “spatial” expert workshop for retention of unspoilt character of Southern slopes

What a great summer picnic! This event on Dover Down field, the 6th since the Chaucer Fields Picnic Society was formed,  and the 4th in collaboration with the Abbots Mill Project and Canterbury Greenpeace, was one of the best yet. All the usual ingredients were to be found. Blessed with pretty good weather, we had a strong turnout of people of all ages and backgrounds, including people and families from the local and university communities (some familiar faces, some new friends); the sharing of food, drink, serious conversation and gossip; playing and unstructured fun for children, including tree climbing, hide and seek and exploration of all the nooks and crannies of this wonderful unspoilt fields, woods and hedgerow setting; and entertainment from various musicians on the Greenpeace stage, including Richard Navarro, Jack Barrack Cade, Pete Hicks and Luke Dodson. Pictures from the picnic are interspersed here.

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Semi-structured discussion of Masterplan

A further element in the picnic this year was a semi-structured discussion of the latest iteration of the Masterplan information, led by Dr William Rowlandson, the staff union (University and College Union)’s green representative. The discussion was shaped by the perspectives of people of different ages, with varying experiences of the fields, and from different roles and backgrounds in the local and university communities. Despite this striking diversity, it affirmed the value to all of the unspoilt fields and generated a clear consensus that buildings of any form on the fields should be strictly forbidden for the full duration of the pending Masterplan (to 2031) and indeed  beyond.

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This conclusion was  hardly surprising, since the prevalence of this view in both communities has now been well documented on innumerable occasions in the University’s own consultation processes (most recently, see the last CFPS Blog summary of the 2016 Conceptual Masterplan consultation report ); as part of  Kent County Council and Canterbury City Council led processes (the village green application review and the planning/green gap proposals  respectively); and of course, the university staff and student affirmative votes on the issue.

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However, it was still good to see this view underlined collectively with such clarity and force; to hear it being contextualised with interesting  ideas about how to enhance the green sustainability dimensions of other parts of the campus; and and to see it conjoined with the coming together of minds on what to look out for in the months ahead as the Masterplan process moves forward. There was shared tactical sentiment that it was crucial that both local and university communities watched, very closely, the University authorities’ words and actions as they unfold in the months ahead. Even if the process would likely be drawn out, complex and convoluted, it was agreed this vigilance was needed to ensure that any language used by the University authorities in seeking to portray itself as supportive of the host community and its own staff and students on this matter was not mere empty rhetoric or cynical spin.

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What was needed, it was agreed, was meaningful, firm and unambiguous commitment to ensure the protection of the unspoilt Southern Slopes (“Parklands”) landscape for the full duration of the Masterplan period (to 2031, crucially including the period after 2025, when the current University Estates Plan expires). If the fuzzy, equivocal buzzwords and vague  evocations (“enhancement”, “green assets”, “pavilions” etc) used in the 2016 Conceptual Master Plan were retained and carried through  in the stages ahead without proper clarification, it was recognised this sort of elastic and unfocussed language  could potentially provide dangerous discursive cover for damaging development. Structures and buildings on the Southern Slopes could potentially be smuggled through in the years ahead, claiming such ‘development’ involved ‘landscape enhancement’ or the strengthening of ‘green assets’,  an outcome against which all there where wholly committed.

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“Spatial Workshop” affirms need to protect Southern Slopes

Although not publicised at the time, it also emerged at the picnic that the University Corporate Communications department had convened, to take place a few days later, an expert invite-only  “spatial workshop” to discuss “place making”, “planning and environment”, “landscape and biodiversity” and “transport and movement”. A useful report of the event has now been made available, and can be seen here. This should be welcomed, and as the appendices show, it  turned out to involve a sensible balance of people with relevant authority, knowledge and experience –  with one exception.  Other than a handful of Estates staff,  a core constituency of the university community – its own academic and nonacademic staff, most obviously as represented through the UCU – had not even been invited. At the picnic and afterwards,  bewilderment was expressed on this glaring omission!

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Luckily, the discussion at the picnic helped partially address this, because Richard Norman, one of the picnic attendees,  had been invited to the “spatial workshop” in his capacity as a residents’ association representative. Richard was positioned to draw on the wider set of views – from residents and staff alike – that he had encountered at the UCU-convened picnic discussion, in articulating a position at the “spatial workshop”. (There has subsequently been a belated attempt to address this issue by addressing an invite to university staff to attend a separate “focus group” to discuss the meeting report (this seems likely to happen in september, but the date has not yet been made known).. Once again, such a “focus group” is helpful, but it was nevertheless a shame that the opportunity was missed to formally include staff representation at the July event, and thus integrate their input more systematically into the process.)

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What do we learn from the “Spatial Workshop” about expert and representative opinion regarding the appropriate place of the Southern Slopes/”Parklands” in the Master Plan? In fact, the report further adds to the massive stockpile of evidence concerning the strength of sentiment in favour of retaining these fields, woods and hedgerows as unspoilt space.  Two of the four groups which were organised at the event directly discussed this place. First,  Group 4, whose members included representatives of CCC, KCC, and local voluntary and amenity groups,  are reported as agreeing that “Parklands should be retained and not built upon” (op cit, p. 8).  Second, Group 1, whose members included Ruth Wilkinson, the incoming President of Kent Union (the students’ union), CCC and parish council leaders, and Richard Norman (residents’ association) are reported as agreeing that “Parklands should be retained” (op cit, p. 6). However, it is important here to understand that the latter, vaguer phrase in relation to Group 1 cannot and should not be interpreted as expressing a different view from that expressed by Group 4: Richard was able to confirm that this Group were also unambiguously committed to the rejection of any idea of placing buildings or associated structures on the Southern Slopes too.

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Recognising Shared Heritage: Towards a place on the agenda?

Finally, although not linking the matter directly to the Southern Slopes/”Parklands”, it is encouraging to see that elsewhere in the Worshop report, as part of the agenda for the  “Emerging Landscape and Biodiversity Strategy” two of the expert Groups (3 and  4) emphasised the need to look for opportunities to “reflect the historical landscape” (op cit, pp. 11 – 12). There is obvious and direct relevance here for Chaucer Fields and the Southern Slopes, because we know the extent to which the unspoilt landscape here reflects a particularly rich heritage, including its association with the wonderful Beverley Farmhouse; its enduring salience as a shared open viewing point of the cityscape (from long before the university existed); the legacy of field structures,  meadows and orchards (including apple trees still in place to the east); and  the existence on the land of part of the original, ancient “salt way” from the Cathedral to Whitstable (to the west). In Blogs written five years ago (see History Really Matters and Midsummer Notes: 6 Easy Ways to enhance Chaucer Fields as unspoilt Space) the potential not only to remember these things passively, but to bring them actively back to life by rescuscitating relevant language, including the original place names –  whilst also making new connections evoking local history – was proposed. Let’s hope that the existence of an explicit heritage strand in the “Emerging Landscape and Biodiversity Strategy” could help make some of these ideas real in the future.

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First Blog of 2014 – important Local Plan news and upcoming picnic

Dear all

Profusion of hawthorn ('may') across hedges

Profusion of hawthorn (‘may’) in Roper’s twitchell & Jack Cade’s carvet,  april 2014

This is undoubtedly one of the best times  of year to enjoy the unspoilt Chaucer Fields and the Southern Slopes. The grass is lush and verdant, the deciduous trees are visibly  springing to life with new foliage, and the hedgerows are full of blossom, most dramatically hawthorn (see above). Perhaps the best time of day to appreciate the fields is when this visual display is joined with the sound of birdsong, as day breaks. In a future Blog, I intend to upload recordings of the spring dawn chorus. But for now I’ll intersperse the Blog in the usual way with photographs which try to capture some  of the beauty of the Slopes in April, and show in simple ways how they can be enjoyed by children.

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scooter riding inside Roper’s twitchell, Cathedral in distance, Chaucer Fields, April 2014

Its been a while since the last Blog appeared. A key reason for this has simply been a lack of major news to report. Of course the unspoilt fields  continued to be used by local residents, visitors and the university community; but in policy terms, the first few months of 2014 have continued the ‘waiting game’ described in earlier Blogs as having characterised much of  2013. But as we move towards the summer, important local policy news is now beginning to emerge. I’ll first of all summarise the situation  on that, and then report an informal happening which will take place on the fields next month – the latest in our series of musical picnics.

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house sparrow, jack cade’s carvet, Chaucer Fields, april 2014

1. Policy development – draft District Plan submission finalised

As you will recall from earlier Blogs, Canterbury City Council’s emerging new Local Plan is fundamentally important for everyone who is concerned about the balance between ‘development’ and other priorities. That’s because the Plan’s content and specific policies will be the  key reference point in determining where and how building is to be encouraged or permitted, and where it is to be discouraged or prohibited for decades to come. It is crucial to recognise that the future of those parts of our landscape which are currently unspoilt and valued as such by local people for heritage, recreational and environmental reasons is at stake here: policy commitments to protect and respect such special places made in this document are going to be absolutely crucial in the years ahead.

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Climbing an oak tree in Dover Down field, Chaucer Fields, april 2014

As expected, in recent months  the remarkably high value attached by communities to the Southern Slopes  as unspoilt shared green space emerged strongly from the local consultation process. Numerous submissions stressing the importance of Chaucer Fields and the Southern Slopes as a whole were forthcoming  from individuals and knowledgeable local groups.

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Westgate towers viewed from Dover Down field,  Chaucer Fields, april 2014

The good news is that the mass of  evidence and argument put forward in this way  has now  been taken seriously by Canterbury City Council in specifying the content of the District Plan. Drawing on both lay submissions and advice from planning and landscape experts, earlier this month CCC officials initially suggested that Councillors needed to consider incorporating specific protections for the Slopes.

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The recently restored bench at the north of Chaucer Fields, just south of Beverley Farm (close to University road) – one of the best used viewpoints

And this is precisely what has happened as the Plan has proceeded through the relevant decision making committees. It has been amended to explicitly recognise the value of the fields. And it has been good to witness that the issue has been treated as an entirely non-partisan one, uniting all strands of political opinion. First the CCC Overview Committee recommended the adoption of ‘open space’ protection for the Slopes; then the CCC Executive Committee followed, although reframing the proposed protections as a matter of  ‘green gap’ policy (because the land is technically outside the ‘urban envelope’, these policies are the more appropriate ones);and finally on 24th april, the full Council endorsed  this ‘green gap’ status for the Southern Slopes as part of its general approval of the Plan as a whole.This has taken shape despite a late formal objection to these protections being made by University management, as reported at the final  Council meeting  (although the substantive grounds for this objection are not currently known).

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Bluebells in the  Southern Slopes wooded area east of Chaucer Fields (nr. Elliot path), april 2014 . Both woods & fields would be protected under the draft  CCC  ‘green gap’  policy

The idea of a ‘green gap’ here resonates well with strongly held local sentiment that the fields should be suitably protected as a highly significant ‘green buffer’, ‘green belt’  or ‘green lung’ benefitting both local residents and the University community at large. More specifically and formally, this status (Policy OS5) would mean that any ‘development’ which “significantly affect[s] the open character of the Green Gap, or lead to coalescence between existing settlements”; or which would  result in “new isolated and obtrusive development within the Green Gap” would be explicitly prohibited.

Close up, Southern Slopes bluebells, april 2014

Close up, Southern Slopes bluebells, april 2014

This is all very encouraging news. However,  it is important to stress that the draft Local Plan incorporating these green gap protections for the Southern Slopes is not yet legally adopted policy. There are several further steps to be completed. Most importantly, these include  a 6 week period during which interested parties are  entitled to make representations concerning the Plan’s legality and “soundness” . The Plan also then needs to be scrutinised and signed off at national level by the  Planning Inspectorate (an executive  agency of the Department for Communites & Local Government). The Inspectorate will undertake a detailed and thorough review of the CCC Plan, supporting policies, and the representations received during the recent and upcoming consultations.

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Peacock butterfly, Inachis Io, Bushy Acres, Chaucer Fields, April 2014

 2. Collaborative Musical Picnic – 3.30pm onwards 11th May

On a less “heavy” note I am pleased to announce that plans for our next picnic  are now well advanced! This informal happening is jointly facilitated by CFPS and the Abbots Mill Project  (see Blogroll, top right). It is being actively supported by the Save Chaucer Fields group, Greenpeace Canterbury, and by environmental representatives from the UCU (the University of Kent’s main staff union) and from Kent Union (the student’s union).  We hope you’ll come if you live locally: 3.30pm onwards, sunday 11th may.

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Tree climbing with attitude, Bushy Acres,Chaucer Fields, april 2014

Tips include:

  • bring a rug etc, as the grass is rather long and can be damp in places
  • bring your own refreshments (and bags to take away rubbish)
  • bring props for games: popular in the past have been frisbees, kites, football, rounders and cricket (on those parts of the fields where the grass has been cut)
  • bring musical instruments if you feel inclined to play
Mowing the grass in the shadow of the Cathedral, Bushy Acres, April 2014

Mowing the grass in the shadow of the Cathedral, Bushy Acres, April 2014

Of course, many of the popular play activities undertaken on the fields at picnics and other times don’t require you to bring anything: including tree climbing, “it” and other tag games, hide & seek and  exploratory games – for children, but also anyone who is young at heart.

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Runner, Bushy Acres, Chaucer Fields, April 2014

Alongside these ‘do it  yourself’ activities, there’ll be the chance to:

  • learn about local environmental issues from the groups mentioned above;
  • listen to local acoustic musicians, including Richard Navarro, Jules Madjar (Canterbury Buskers Collective)Ivan Thompson (Hullabaloo etc), Katy Windsor, Frances Knight, and some musicians and singers from Roystercatchers;
  • join a procession involving  Dead Horse Morris’s “Jack in the Green”, the “incredible walking ivy bush” making a (reincarnated) return appearance after a couple of years;
  • hear Mark Lawson’s fabulous tales – another return visit, back by popular demand.
Whitstable's Mark Lawson in storytelling action

Whitstable’s Mark Lawson in storytelling action, Chaucer Fields picnic May 2012

The Jack will have already welcomed the rising sun on mayday, and paraded the streets of Whitstable during may day celebrations earlier in the week. The Jack is made of ivy gathered from various parts of the District, including ivy gathered from the Southern Slopes/Chaucer Fields. His constitution and  participation symbolises how respect for green space is a shared priority for local people from across the local area

Jack in the Green (walking ivy bush!)

Jack (walking ivy bush!) amazes local children, Chaucer Fields picnic, may 2012

Let’s hope the weather is good to us!

Hope to see you at the picnic

Sadly some fine trees were felled by winter storms. However, even logs provide  play opportunities for imaginative young minds!

Sadly some fine trees were lost or damaged during the winter storms in December 2013 and January 2014. However, in some places new viewing vistas of the Canterbury cityscape have opened up; and even logs provide play opportunities for imaginative young minds!

Chaucer Fielder

Chaucer Fields Picnic Society