South East London community is trying to redeem their forest
Nestled between a busy railway line and suburban houses in Crofton Park, southeast London, is one of the capital’s oldest woodlands.
Gorne Wood was once part of the Great North Wood which rose in the aftermath of the last Ice Age. With some trees over 400 years old, Natural England, a non-departmental public body, recently designated the site as ancient woodland. For decades, the beauty spot served as the headquarters of a local Boy Scout group and a community park.
But for the past 20 years the nearly three-acre Gorne, which is also designated a ‘Locally Significant Geological Site’ by the London GeoPartnership, has been virtually closed to the world – except for five years when a religious group rented a hut. on the site.
Bought by a property developer in the 1990s from Railtrack, the site has been fenced off – and, say campaigners trying to reclaim it for use by the local community – parts of it have been left derelict by its owners. owners.
A spokesman for Lewisham Council says Gorne’s current owner, developer AA Homes, is due to appear before Bromley Magistrates in August 2022 over breach of planning enforcement notices served by the authority over alleged dumping garbage on site.
The attempt to recapture Gorne
But despite the long time that has passed since they took over the site, the developers have failed to win construction planning on Gorne – largely thanks to the efforts of local activists.
In 2017, AA Homes surveyed the land which campaigners said was being prepared for a planning application. But the application was never filed, after activists commissioned their own report showing ancient flora, including chestnuts, field maples and hawthorns, growing at the site – trees protected from destruction.
Additionally, in 2018 campaigners secured a Community Value Asset designation for the site from Lewisham Council, meaning AA Homes could not sell the land without first offering it to local community groups for they buy it.
Now campaigners have launched a bid to take over Gorne. But despite being backed by a plethora of environmental groups – including the London Wildlife Trust as well as the Campaign to Protect Rural England, which put Gorne Wood on its list of 10 green spaces in London that need saving – they face a tight deadline to achieve their goal. Goals.
Local campaign group, the Fourth Reserve Foundation, which seeks to protect the natural heritage of land adjacent to the nearby railway line, is seeking to win a Compulsory Order Form (CPO) from Gorne. If successful, AA Homes, which reportedly failed to respond to activists’ requests to lease the land to local community groups, would be forced to sell the land.
“Too precious to destroy”
According to Anna-Maria Cahalane, administrator of the Fourth Reserve: “This space is too precious for the local community to be destroyed.
But winning a CPO is no small feat. Activists must first show that they have funds in place to purchase the land. As Lewisham Council says it doesn’t have the money, the campaign group have taken matters into their own hands and are asking residents and local businesses to pledge £100,000. So far they have raised almost £25,000.
Once the group has achieved the goal, Lewisham Council, on behalf of campaigners, must apply to the Secretary of State for Levels, Housing and Communities to endorse the CPO on the basis that ‘community value of the land outweighs the value of the home, says Cahalane.
Strong local support
On paper, activists have a strong case, especially given the site’s community history. Scout groups used part of Gorne Wood for over a century until 2004 when AA Homes, the current owner, evicted them (as part of preparations at the time by the company to prepare land for development). Now several local community groups, including scouts, meditation groups, and mom and baby groups, have expressed interest in leasing land at the site, according to Cahalane.
Residents are also supportive. Last year, some 400 locals signed a petition agreeing that Gorne Wood would benefit the community. The vicar of nearby St Hilda’s Church, Fr Bates, said: ‘We consider Gorne Wood, together with the adjoining nature reserves, to be the singularly most important part of Brockley’s green heritage landscape.
Senior local politicians are also behind the campaign. Local councilor Paul Bell told a council meeting in March: ‘If the money can be raised we will consider seeing how we can help the local community buy the land.
Against the watch
But all this is no guarantee of success, so campaigners are preparing another line of attack: convincing Lewisham Council to redesignate the land as having Asset of Community Value (ACV) status.
Having this award is essential for the CPO application of activists. Obtaining ACV status requires proving that the land is better used by the community rather than for housing – a core point of the CPO process. “If the CPO case goes to the Secretary of State, it will carry more weight if it is an ACV,” Cahalane said.
But the activists are against the clock. Lewisham Council granted Gorne Wood ACV status five years ago, primarily for its potential use by scout groups. But that award expires later in 2022, so campaigners must renew it before his CPO candidacy is sent to the central government.
Activists have successfully secured green spaces in the past. In 2018 they convinced Network Rail to lease an unloved site adjacent to Gorne which has now been turned into the Buckthorne Cutting Nature Reserve, a wildlife refuge and visited each year by hundreds of schoolchildren and families who s sit down. Connecting Buckthorne and Gorne would potentially create a natural corridor that is rarely found in cities.
Learn more on the Fourth Reserve Foundation website and pledge money to the campaign through Local Giving.
Londonist has approached AA Housing for comment.