Saving Pewley Down Fields – a tale of community action

By David Stokes

In early May this year, myself and other residents in central Guildford became aware that 37.5 acres of nearby farmland had come onto the market. Chalk downs habitats, and the many species of wildlife that depend on it, are disappearing fast, and although this land was designated as farmland, there had already been attempts to move it out of the protected green belt. Residents formed a group, Saving Pewley Down Fields, to try to buy the land to prevent development. Three weeks later, we had raised over £1 million and we outbid the final competitor, a Land Bank, to buy the land. 

How did we do it?

We think our ‘success factors’ included:

1. Having a few really committed people whose enthusiasm and positive thinking spread – a multi-skilled group of 12 who formed a steering group to do the work.

2. Gaining support of the Surrey Wildlife Trust as a conduit for the money, future leaseholder and manager of the land. Paying money into a recently-formed vehicle, such as a new company, would have been more difficult to set up and sell as a safe place to give money. Dividing the ownership of the land into small blocks of shares asks for problems down the line when beneficiaries with different ideals inherit the shares.

3. Having one principle donor, a local conservationist, who underwrote the initial bid.

4. Drawing on the wider community including not just neighbours but a School, Residents Association, local Trusts, local Borough Councillors, and even the estate agents (whose business could have been adversely threatened as the residents group made up many of their potential customer-base).

5.  Asking for ‘significant donations’ (£5k+) only in the first instance and lowering this to £1k as the campaign widened. This sounds a lot of money but, when compared to the effect of a substantial development on property prices, it is not so much. Appeal to resident’s basic instincts first, conservation second.

6. Asking for cheques! Yes we used cheques not bitcoin. These are refundable until exchange takes place when they will be cashed. As they are then not refundable, they are eligible for Gift Aid. An escrow account would do a similar job but more complicated and expensive. 

7. Using social media especially WhatsApp groups and Teams to connect and debate with smaller and larger groups. Explore the Facebook group and continue to follow the story.

Next steps

We are not there yet as the lawyers are now busy (and it is a very busy time for lawyers). There will be other lessons to learn as we move into the management phase of the project; tensions between conservationists and walkers have already surfaced. However, we are pleased that, for once, conservation needs prevailed over Land Bank owners who were prepared to pay three times the going price for agricultural land (a risk made more attractive by proposed changes to our planning regulations making such land very valuable indeed). 

Article by David Stokes, Saving Pewley Down Fields

Featured image from The Guildfordian

A note from ELF: We were so inspired to hear this story of successful community action and couldn’t wait to share it with our network! ELF believes that local communities have an important role to play in the protection of our environments and are often best-placed to do so. The multi-stakeholder group that saved Pewley Down Fields is a wonderful example of how, with some vision and teamwork, a neighbourhood can stand up and protect their corner of the natural world. If you and your community have a concern about your environment, get in touch with ELF as soon as possible – we are here to support your vision with the tools we have available.