Nestled between a busy railway track and suburban houses in Crofton Park, south east London, sits one of the capital's oldest woods.
Gorne Wood once formed part of the Great North Wood that rose up 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. The beauty spot for decades previously served as the headquarters of a local scout group and a community park.
But for the past 20 years the almost three-acre Gorne, which is also designated a "Locally Important Geological Site" by London GeoPartnership, has been all but closed off from the world — apart from for five years when a church 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 activists trying to win it back for use by the local community — parts of it allowed by its owners to go to waste.
A Lewisham Council spokesperson said that Gorne's current owner, developer AA Homes, is due to appear before Bromley Magistrates in August 2022 for breaches of planning enforcement notices served by the authority over alleged dumping of rubbish on the site.
The bid to take back Gorne
But despite the long passage of time since they took over the site, developers have failed to win planning to build on Gorne — thanks largely to the efforts of local campaigners.
In 2017, AA Homes surveyed the land that campaigners suspect was in preparation for a planning application. But the application was never filed, after activists commissioned their own report showing ancient flora including sweet chestnuts, field maple and hawthorns grew on the site — trees protected from destruction.
Also, in 2018 the activists secured an Asset of Community Value designation for the site from Lewisham Council, which means AA Homes could not sell the land without first offering it to local community groups to buy.
Now the campaigners have launched a bid to take back Gorne. But while supported by a plethora of environmental groups — including London Wildlife Trust as well as the Campaign to Protect Rural England, which has put Gorne Wood on its list of 10 green spaces in London that need rescuing — they face a tight deadline to achieve their 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 Purchase Order (CPO) of Gorne. If successful, AA Homes, which has allegedly not responded to requests by the activists to lease the land to local community groups, would be forced to sell the land.
"Too valuable to be destroyed"
Says Anna-Maria Cahalane, a trustee of the Fourth Reserve: "This space is too valuable to the local community to be destroyed. We felt that we'd run out of options because AA Homes and Housing just don't respond."
But winning a CPO is no mean feat. The activists first need to show that they have funds in place to buy the land. As Lewisham Council says it doesn't have the money, the campaign group has taken matters into their own hands and are asking local residents and businesses to pledge £100,000. So far they have raised almost £25,000.
Once the group hits the target, Lewisham Council, on the campaigners' behalf, must apply to the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to approve the CPO on the basis that the 'community value of the land outweighs the housing value,' says Cahalane.
Strong local support
On paper, the campaigners have a strong case — particularly 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 (part of preparations at the time by the company to prepare the ground for development). Today, several local community groups, including Scouts, meditation and mums and babies groups, have expressed interest in renting land at the site, according to Cahalane.
Residents are also supportive. Last year some 400 locals signed a petition agreeing that Gorne Wood would be beneficial to the community. The vicar of nearby St Hilda's Church, Father Bates, said: "We consider the Gorne Wood together with the adjacent nature reserves, to be the singularly most significant part of the Brockley Green Heritage landscape."
Senior local politicians are also behind the campaign. Local councillor Paul Bell said at a council meeting in March: "If the money can be raised then we'll consider looking at how we can support the local community in purchasing the land."
Up against the clock
But all this is no guarantee of success, so the campaigners are preparing another line of attack: convincing Lewisham Council to re-designate the land as having Asset of Community Value (ACV) status.
Having this award is critical to the campaigners' CPO application. Getting ACV status requires proving that the land is better used by the community rather than for housing — a point at the heart of the CPO process. "If the CPO case goes to the Secretary of State it will carry more weight if it is an ACV," said Cahalane.
But the campaigners are up against the clock. Lewisham Council awarded Gorne Wood ACV status five years ago, mainly for its potential use by scout groups. But this award expires later in 2022, so the campaigners must renew it ahead of its CPO application being sent to central government.
The campaigners successfully secured green space in the past. In 2018 they convinced Network Rail to lease an unloved site adjacent to Gorne that has now been transformed into the Buckthorne Cutting Nature Reserve, a haven for wildlife and visited each year by hundreds of school children and families that sits. Linking Buckthorne and Gorne would potentially create a natural corridor rarely found in cities.
Learn more on the Fourth Reserve Foundation website, and pledge money to the campaign via Local Giving.
Londonist has approached AA Housing for comment.