Settings told to up sticks by landowners

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Three outdoor settings have been forced to find new premises after being evicted from their sites by the landowners.

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Natural Foundations in Essex

  • Settings in Essex and Wales asked to leave outdoor sites by their local authorities
  • Kindergarten in Kent told to move by the National Trust

Three outdoor settings have been forced to find new premises after being evicted from their sites by the landowners.

Natural Foundations in Chelmsford, Essex and Ladybirds at Dare Valley Park in Wales have been moved off the local-authority-owned land they had been operating from for years.

Meanwhile, Forest Kindergarten in Kent was told by the National Trust it would not be renewing its licence to use its site at Toys Hill for another year, saying increased use of the site of special scientific interest has damaged the environment.

KENT

The founder of Forest Kindergarten Sevenoaks, Caroline Watts, received a letter from the National Trust in the summer saying it would not be renewing the setting’s licence to use the site as the ‘sensitive habitat does not provide the freedom of access and flexibility that is a fundamental part of a Forest School’.

The Outstanding setting, which is registered for 14 children aged three to five, had to vacate the site by this half-term (October).

Thanks to support from the local community, the setting has secured a new site owned by a farmer, which opens this week. However, it has meant losing its Outstanding Ofsted grade.

According to the National Trust, the increased use of the site damaged the soil fauna through ‘repeated compaction’ and ancient trees have been put under stress. It also said that there is noticeable reduction in woodland plants and the forest floor has been diminished, affecting birds and bats as well as invertebrates and door mice.

However, Ms Watts told Nursery World that she believes the benefit of being able to use the woodland to the children’s experience and learning far outweighs the ‘relatively’ small impact on the site.

She also said they were very respectful of the 200-acre site, which is frequently used by dog-walkers and cyclists.

A spokesperson for the National Trust said, ‘We have tried very hard to accommodate the school at Toys Hill to help children experience nature and the outdoors.

‘The permissible area that Natural England allowed the school to operate in is located in an area of active tree conservation; the Great Storm of 1987 destroyed 95 per cent of the veteran trees at Toys Hill, which we are trying to protect. This means that special conditions are in place to protect the habitat, soil and undergrowth in an area containing some of the best examples of oak species in Kent.

‘We have met with the school and suggested two other potential sites in the local area. It has been a difficult decision not to continue operating Forest Schools at this location. We put access to our countryside and heritage at the forefront of everything we do.’

While the National Trust suggested two alternative sites for Forest Kindergarten to use, Ms Watts told Nursery World that neither was suitable – one was close to a road and the other is used for shooting.

Ms Watts added, ‘We secured over 700 signatures on a petition; however, the National Trust would not change its decision about renewing our licence.

‘Given that the trust is the largest private landowner in the UK, I suspect other outdoor settings could experience similar issues.’

ESSEX

Natural Foundations, an outdoor group for children and their parents, was given notice by Chelmsford City Council in February to vacate the space it uses at Sandford Mill. Following a legal challenge by the setting, the council granted an extension to 28 October.

The non-profit social enterprise caters for children from birth upwards and runs one session a day from the 32-acre site, where is has been based for the past three years. It also offers play therapy sessions.

Chelmsford City Council told Nursery World it gave Natural Foundations notice to leave the site as it plans to create an educational centre there, meaning it will no longer be suitable for the group.

While Natural Foundations has secured new premises – a former garden centre – owners Emma Syndercombe and Jo Cope will no longer be able to open an outdoor nursery as planned due to the lack of space.

Co-owner and play therapist Emma Syndercombe said, ‘We had a loose agreement with the council that we could use the site. However, gradually over time, the council has reduced the space in which we can operate. We have been told there is a rare lily growing on the site, which is why we can’t operate from there any more; however, the space we inhibited was nowhere near that of the flower.

‘We keep hearing different things about how the council plan to use the site once we have vacated it.’

A council spokesperson said, ‘Chelmsford City Council strongly believes in the importance of outdoor play to children’s health and well-being.

‘We support other organisations who share our goals and have provided Natural Foundations with space at Sandford Mill for a number of years.

‘A key part of our plan for the future is to create a brilliant educational site at Sandford Mill. It already opens for school visits and regular open days, providing families with a chance to interact with scientific equipment and items from our industrial heritage collections.

‘Eventually, we envision it becoming an exciting science centre which can be much more intensively used for the benefit of the whole community. This is not a commercial objective but a long-term plan to make much more of the valuable site at Sandford Mill, which is currently underused.

‘Unfortunately, this has meant that the site as it is developed will no longer be suitable for Natural Foundations. Sandford Mill is in a complex location, with deep water and limited access, and the scale of Natural Foundations’ requirements mean that we cannot integrate it into the site elsewhere.

‘We served the statutory notice on Natural Foundations in spring and after corresponding with them, agreed to extend the notice to give them time to find a new location.

‘The council and its officers are in the business of helping organisations that benefit residents, not campaigning against them, and offered to assist them in finding a new site.

‘It is clear from Facebook posts and the correspondence we have received from parents of children who use Natural Foundations that it is a much-valued asset to the community. We wish them all the best for the future and are sure that both Sandford Mill and Natural Foundations will thrive as they continue to instil inspiration, a love of nature and a sense of discovery in the children of Chelmsford.’

WALES

Wales’ first outdoor nursery and toddler group was told in the summer it must leave the council-owned four-acre site it has occupied for four years.

Ladybirds at Dare Valley Park in Aberdare, run by Ignite Up, was told by Rhondda Cynon Taf Council that it must vacate the site by the end of October.

Managing director of Ignite Up, Darren Lewis, a former PE teacher, said they didn’t have a lease with the council, but were a ‘tenant in kind’.

The setting provides places for around 30 children aged two to five.

It was the first outdoor nursery and toddler group in Wales to play host to the International Nature Pedagogy Symposia last year.

A petition to save the play space has achieved 882 signatures to date.

Nursery Worldunderstands the setting has been approached by several schools, landowners, charitable organisations and other local authorities to use their land and/or work in partnership with them.

Rhondda Cynon Taf Council was contacted for a comment but failed to respond in time.

Advice

Gareth Davies, chief executive of the Forest School Association (FSA), advises that Forest School leaders be clear in their communication with landowners, have good policies in place and manage sites well to help protect themselves.

He said, ‘Forest School leaders need to practise good communication with landowners and develop better business skills to help protect themselves. Part of that is about managing the expectations of the landowner and putting things in writing where possible.

‘The Forest School community often invest in their professional practice but not in their business skills.’

He added, ‘Forest School settings need to make it clear to the landowner what they will be doing on their site. All qualified Forest School leaders should have a Forest School handbook that includes policies relating to “access and/or landowner agreement”, “sustainable use of site” and “care of flora and fauna”. These should be tailored to each site as each is different in nature and needs. Communicating these policies to the landowner, and following good practice, should alleviate any tensions over site management.

‘Unfortunately, not all providers have these things in place. The FSA hopes to play a role in educating landowners about what to expect from Forest School providers and about what to ask from them when entering into an agreement. Badged FSA Recognised Forest School Providers have already had these things checked by the Forest School Association.’

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