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Green shoots in the Mission Room

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I picked up the post with my “helping hand”, no bending at first after a hip op, and managed to land it where I could reach. Advertising, advertising, – wow, what’s this glossy document?

The Hertford Heath “Neighbourhood plan”!

I can compare it to giving birth. The initial excitement, long gestation period, anxieties along the way, a doubt at times there would ever be an end. Then the wonder and joy of birth.

This shiny, informative, coherent, self-explanatory baby was possibly Hertford Heath’s future. And I had been a very small part of it getting it to this stage, completely out of any comfort zone I had experienced previously.

Moving from Cornwall to Hertford, a random choice, but based on leaving a seaside village in Cornwall, I thought the sea was what I’d miss most. All the rivers and especially the Lee basin, were an exchange for the sea.

I found a house in Hertford Heath. I didn’t know anyone. My first exploration was across the fields into Hertford long before I moved in. Brought up in a village, this quickly felt like home. Surrounded by country, woods, fields and many footpaths, I had a wonderful time exploring, and quickly became attached.

Three years on: when the first notices appeared announcing a meeting about the future of the village, despite being someone who avoided meetings, I already felt very protective about the place, so went along to the Mission Room which was full of people. I can’t remember details, but it was about having a say in future development of the village. Development! I didn’t like the sound of that.

Volunteers were asked for and I joined the group and was given the date for the next meeting. I think that one was in the College Arms or the Silver Fox. So long ago now. 2017?

What did I learn? Our size village was being allocated a number of houses to be built by 2030 something. If we didn’t make a plan of how that could be done in consultation with village members, development would be imposed on us.

There would be guidance in the form of Jacqueline. An expert in developing Neighbourhood plans, employed by the council to help steer volunteers through the required legal process.

We were shown completed documents of other local villages. They looked so professional. I looked around at the other volunteers, hoping one or two of them would have an idea of how we’d get from here to the dizzy heights of publication. I couldn’t see anyone emanating confidence, smiling and nodding ‘no problem there then‘.

We were asked to choose a group. I remember there were four groups. One was Business, another Infrastructure, the third Environment – which was where my interest lay.

I noticed quite a few in our group. ‘That’s good, safety in numbers.’ We had a recorder who would keep a record at meetings, all logged as part of the legal process we were following.

We lost her early on, to Australia I believe. We may have been a group of ten initially and ended up as six of us, one a late joiner whose group had dwindled away to the last man standing. He was very welcome. Jacqueline, the advisor on neighbourhood plans, would come to some meetings, always on the wing because she was responsible for so many groups and villages. She would make the legal or technical information intelligible – for me anyway – and describe the task which made it possible to do the digging, researching and exploring required to supply the information, which would then be shaped into the right legal format.

So from feeling overwhelmed, wondering what contribution I could make, I had the particular job of footpath and cycle path potential development. What a treat!

So, in between meetings, that’s what I would do, recording paths with photographic record, researching potential paths, exploring how they can be brought into being. In this research I made contact with Bob Foster, and Nicholas Maddox employed by the council, both with long official titles but in reality defenders of existing rights of way, and empowered to develop new paths in our part of Hertfordshire, always subject to the land owners permission.

A farmer, beleaguered by cyclists defying the footpath notices on the land he farmed, at first didn’t want to discuss footpaths, but eventually showed me a route he favoured which he was willing to discuss with the council to provide a shorter cross country route to Hertford.

Progress.

Brought back to earth, an email from Nicholas. It seemed the farmer rented the land and the land owner wanted no part of it.

On again it was much like that. A bit of progress, then disappointment.

My biggest objective was a route which started in the village heading toward Mangrove Road, but turning right along the cart track on potential golf course land (the track used to be a path to the farm) and going left towards Balls Park and once there into Hertford. Balls Park had been in the process of establishing footpaths for public use, and at one of the meetings with Bob in the council office, a colleague sitting next to Bob overheard our conversation, and said “We’ve just made provision for a footpath from the park to link with the side you’re working on across the golf course.”

Serendipity.

So far I’ve ended up against a brick wall as far as the golf course owners giving permission for the linked path on the grounds of public safety. This despite the many golf courses in the country sharing the large areas of land they own with the communities around them, both parties cooperating on safety measures. I submitted a proposal for the path at the recent golf course enquiry, but it wasn’t included in the provisions to be met in the permission to proceed. I met the land owner there, and had an opening to meet when I hoped to be able to encourage him to consider it. Unfortunately we have not yet managed to meet up.

I still have hope though.

Meanwhile other members of our group worked on industriously. We were very fortunate in having very capable, undauntable individuals in our small group with knowledge of the world at large and ‘can do‘ mentality. We met regularly, referring to other completed village plans at times and beginning to see the information we were gathering could be presented in this efficient professional looking format. This, I remind you, written from my perspective and having had no experience in anything like this previously. The others could have been confident from the beginning.

There were a few occasions when more volunteers were invited to join the groups and it’s a shame that, as far as I know, no one showed any interest.

I gained so much, personally and in experience in being part of this enterprise and am so pleased that my love of the village, gave me the confidence to volunteer.

I’ve got to know a lovely bunch of people, I have seen how slow change can happen and how from a standing start a document such as the Hertford Heath Neighbourhood Plan can be produced and how patient and certain of the cause you need to be to continue. I’ve been aware of the path officials have to walk to achieve results, and how respect for another’s point of view can sometimes create an unexpected shift of position.

My hope is that someone reading this, who might be feeling isolated in lockdown and perhaps think they have little to offer, will step up in the future when the occasion arises, know they have a right to do so and make a contribution which will repay them many times over.

There were key moments in the survey. The first was when, having been delivered to every household in the village, it was returned in sufficient numbers, for it to be acceptable as representative of residents’ opinions, and form the basis of the legal requirements.

A second key moment was when the call for sites went out, and two major land owners responded. One in the form of representation on behalf of the Robino brothers for the London Road site, and the other on behalf of Haileybury, on land they own opposite the college.

The response from the residents was a preference for the Haileybury site by a considerable majority; so that site has now been adopted as the one chosen for the development and as such became part of the legal document.

The third moment is the pre-submission summary, which has just happened and hopefully will get a favourable response from residents and so will move the process forward.

Without the resident’s response to requests for their views, the plan would have ground to a halt. It is good to know that enough people in Hertford Heath care about where they live, to take the trouble to respond.

There is a long way to go yet before a spade touches the ground, or maybe a digger lowers its bucket, but we’re making progress.

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