© 2017 The Harpenden Society
Previous issues of this newsletter have featured heather planting on Harpenden Common and the opening up of Marquis Meadow at Batford for easier public access. They are just two examples of the efforts being made by Harpenden Town Council to, in the council’s words, ‘provide an environment that is pleasurable for the local community and that promotes biodiversity and conservation’.
Under her recently upgraded job title as HTC’s ‘people and wildlife officer’, Heidi Mansell (below) is leading an ambitious ‘Commons and Greens Education Plan’ – albeit necessarily constrained by available funding – to ensure the attractions of the town’s precious green spaces are maximised.
That involves, as she explains, ‘raising awareness of Harpenden’s natural resources and encouraging residents’ involvement in conservation, where the aim is to create volunteering opportunities for people across the age range, in a programme scheduled to begin in October 2017. In addition, she says, there is an intention to increase opportunities for local schools to experience more out-of-the-classroom learning.
Improved habitat management and habitat restoration, for the wide variety of wildlife to be found in Harpenden’s green spaces, is also part of the programme’s remit, coupled with a drive to attract ‘new audiences’ to the flora and fauna of those green spaces.
Over a three-year period beginning in April 2017 a programme of community events throughout each year is planned, focussing in particular on Harpenden Common, Batford Springs Local Nature Reserve and Lydekker Park.
There will be three volunteer project days each month, mainly on Sundays from October to March, for each of which it is hoped a lead volunteer will be designated, though with HTC staff personnel to be made available initially, if required.
A specific initiative this year for Heidi and her HTC colleagues is to help and support the nascent Friends of Lydekker Park group being set up primarily by local residents in the immediate vicinity of the park, with a view to enhancing its natural attractions as a peaceful ‘green oasis’ within a few minutes’ walk from the bustling town centre.
Work is needed to maintain the park’s inherent attractions, says Heidi, for which ‘Friends’ group volunteers can play their part, for example in livening up and re-seeding the greensward and flowerbeds, and thinning the trees. She adds that eight replacement trees are due to be planted in the park next year.
Everything possible is being done to encourage Lydekker Park’s diverse bird population. That includes the ducks which intermittently frequent the pond at the north end of the park, which itself requires regular attention to keep it clear of unwanted algae and weeds such as glyceria. At the same time pond inhabitants, such as frogs and newts need to be encouraged. Frog spawn is a valuable food for coots and other waterfowl.
At the other end of Harpenden, work is planned at Marquis Meadow on the banks of the River Lea to plant more wild flowers, though backed by an annual selective grass mowing regime of the kind already followed over much of the town’s commons.
By way of ensuring that HTC’s green space programmes are meeting leisure users’ expectations, regular on-site impromptu surveys are planned, with follow-up ‘action’ recommendations where appropriate.
The Neighbourhood Plan – its value questioned
It is important to emphasise that the following is strictly the Editor’s View and in no way reflects a Harpenden Society perspective.
There is no denying that Harpenden Town Council’s Neighbourhood Plan (NP) – the subject of a lively Harpenden Society meeting in March (see page 4) – is well intentioned, as indeed was the government’s 2011 Localism Act, which prompted formulation of the NP and others like it elsewhere in the country.
It is touted as ‘YOUR opportunity to shape the future of our special town’ and purports to seek the views of residents ‘on some of the most critical issues’ that will affect them over the next 15 years.
In order to obtain those views, we were invited to complete a questionnaire, set out under five headings: ‘Social Infrastructure and Community Facilities’; ‘Transport and Movement’; ‘Environment, Sustainability and Design’; ‘Employment and Retail’; and ‘Housing for Harpenden’.
Many people I have spoken to were totally ‘underwhelmed’ by the form of the NP questionnaire – its simplistic ‘tick box’ format, requesting one of five degrees of agreement or disagreement with given short-sentence statements, as well as the naivety of many of those statements, given the real world of Harpenden in 2017. A perhaps extreme example, inviting judgment, is the statement that ‘Harpenden needs more public green space’. With Rothamsted Park, Harpenden Common, Kinsbourne Green Common and Batford Springs, as well as Church Green, Leyton Green and Lydekker Park in the middle of the town, we are surely richly endowed; no one could reasonably ask for more.
Another questionnaire statement which was surely not worth including, but for the exactly opposite reason, is ‘More town centre parking is needed’. The need for additional car parking in Harpenden is so blindingly obvious that it was surely unnecessary to canvas opinion.
Results of ‘tick-box’ opinion polls or questionnaires can nowadays be rapidly and conveniently analysed by computer of course. But whether their results can be interpreted as reflecting people’s genuine – rather than simplified – opinions is arguable. Admittedly, in the NP questionnaire, a space below each set of statements was provided with the invitation to ‘Tell us more….’. But one has doubts as to the weight carried by such individual comments when set against the ‘tick-box’ answers beloved of, dare one say, robotic statisticians.
Quite different questions about the value of the NP are those relating to its ‘strength’, something necessarily tied to the powers of Harpenden Town Council (HTC). Those powers are strictly limited, perhaps most notably on planning matters, where St Albans District Council is the decision-making authority, and Herts County Council makes the rules on highways and schools.
That is clearly why one of the most strongly-felt local issues, namely the question of building on Green Belt land, is barely touched upon in the NP questionnaire, apart from equivocally inviting comment on what is arguably a strategically-worded statement that ‘Housing is more important than protecting green spaces’. Would people’s answers perhaps have been different if the statement had been reversed, viz ‘Protecting green spaces is more important than housing’?
And, as was confirmed recently by a Harpenden Society member’s enquiry to HTC, the Neighbourhood Plan carries no local authority funding whatsoever. Its more crucial findings can be translated only into recommendations to SADC or HCC.
Those limited Town Council powers, on matters of funding allocation and on vital planning and infrastructure issues, in combination with the ingenuous nature of much of the questionnaire content, perhaps explain why there has been such a limited response. Disappointingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, only about 2000 questionnaires were completed and returned. And there has, as yet, been no indication of the demographic breakdown of respondents, by age, gender or length of time living in Harpenden.
So, the question must be asked: will the NP prove to have been worthwhile? Only time will tell. But many of those who care about Harpenden’s future must have their reservations on the matter.