New man on a preservation mission
DAVID GREEN meets the new director of one of Suffolk’s key heritage groups
IT OFTEN takes a newcomer to fully appreciate the beauty of Suffolk’s landscape and old buildings.
But Simon Cairns is not just an admirer; he is intent on fighting the relentless battle to preserve the county’s distinctiveness.
Simon, 44, is the new director of the Suffolk Preservation Society (SPS) – a landscape and historic buildings watchdog group – and is aiming to do his bit to help ensure that future development does not damage the essential character and beauty of this part of England.
He comes to Suffolk after more than 20 years’ experience as a town planner, in the private and public sectors and specialising in recent years in the care of the historic environment.
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“It’s a wonderful county and it deserves a very considered approach to what happens,” he said. “Our role is as stewards, or as a conscience, away from the political agenda where we can sometimes say ‘hold on, is this really the thing we should be doing and will it really yield the right long term outputs for the county’?
“Is it sustainable and will it protect all those things we hold dear, the subtle list of ingredients which make Suffolk what it is, different from Norfolk, Essex and other counties?
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“The unique thing about the SPS is that we have no axe to grind, we are apolitical. What unites us all is that we are motivated by the best interests of the county.
“SPS represents all those things we hold dear in terms of wonderful landscape and I personally feel driven by its aims.”
We meet at the society’s headquarters, Little Hall, a medieval building in the centre of Lavenham. As I ring the doorbell a group of tourists stand on the other side of the road while they hear from a guide about the building’s architecture and history.
I am ushered through to the Well Room with its wall-hung paintings, some of which date back to when the building was used as an art school for students from Surrey.
Simon tells me he has moved to Suffolk with his wife, Fiona, his children, Holly, ten, and Leo, nine, together with an elderly spaniel, from the Cotswolds.
From their new home at Mellis – in the “high Suffolk” plateau – they can see sunrises and sunsets, denied them previously because they lived in a valley. He was born and raised in the High Weald of Kent and Sussex and acquired an early appreciation of the timber-framed tradition of those counties. He believes planning should be a positive tool for improving the opportunities of communities and enhancing their environment.
“By promoting sustainable forms of development that respond to their unique context we can all work to truly make Suffolk the greenest county – in line with the project being run by the county’s strategic partnership,” he said.
Simon is delighted that the new coalition government has scrapped the targets for housing development adopted by the previous administration. More than half a million new homes were due to be built in the east of England by 2021 and Suffolk would have had to construct its fair share, partly by approving large developments in what is currently open countryside.
“We believe growth should be organic – that demand should come from the grassroots, not handed down from the top. For instance, it should be for each district to decide what it needs to meet demand for homes for local people,” he said.
“One of the things about Suffolk is that it is quintessentially self-effacing. It has a subtle list of landscape ingredients and a huge heritage which could so easily be damaged.
“People say Suffolk is flat but there are significant variations in geology and soil types and they do change the character of parts of the county.
“This is why we have got to make sure key qualities that make up the special character of Suffolk are protected,” he added.
Simon points out that many issues on which the SPS has campaigned over the decades continue to recur; electricity pylons over land, plans for major housing estates, development of the nuclear site at Sizewell.
“It is like groundhog day. All these issues come back to haunt us again and again. Other groups come and go and campaign on single issues but we have been here for 80 years, holding a county wide view and really working in the interests of the county as a whole. Inevitable its about being realistic but also being idealistic,” he said.
“We try to promote a debate – to encourage people to think about these issues. We all have children and they’ll need somewhere to live, somewhere to work close to home. We want to see Suffolk have a buoyant economy but one which is sustainable and does not harm the quintessential character of the county.”
Simon believes we have to find a “middle ground” over the impact of sea level rise and increased coastal erosion caused by global warming.
“We need to look at each case on its merits. The coastal system is incredibly dynamic and I’m not sure that we have all the information needed to make informed decisions.,” he said.
“We will undoubtedly lose some fresh water habitat. But there are some areas where we can’t afford to let go too easily – not fair to those who live or work on the coast.
“When it boils down to individual people and their lives we have to be responsible,” Simon said.
And what will be SPS’s policy on plans for Sizewell C?
“If it is in the national interest for Suffolk to be host to another nuclear power station at an incredibly sensitive part of the coast then we will be looking for mitigation measures in terms of the local environment and benefits for the local community,” he said.
“Suffolk has given an awful lot in terms of hosting Sizewell A and B. I would like to see the A station decommissioned as a matter of urgency because that would help the people of Suffolk to accept the premise that the nuclear presence is transitory,” he added.
SPS has about 1,500 individual members and also a number of parish council members. For more information log on to www.suffolksociety.org.uk