Shropshire Council has been accused of heavy-handed tactics and a dismissive attitude towards heritage and public opinion in its handling of controversial proposals to build houses next to one of Britain’s most important Iron Age hillforts.
Originally scheduled in 1934, the 3000 year old Welsh Marches hillfort of Old Oswestry is a statutorily protected ancient monument. It was incorporated into the line of the later Anglo-Saxon defence, Wat’s Dyke, also scheduled.
But campaigners warn that Shropshire’s unitary authority is on the way to committing the worst example of cultural and environmental vandalism by riding roughshod over national heritage to meet housing targets.
Shropshire Council recently dropped two sites by the hillfort (with 59 houses) from its SAMDev* plan, which will allocate land for development across Shropshire to 2026. But it is holding on to a third estate of 117 homes at Oldport Farm (OSW004 off Whittington Road) in order to meet five-year housing supply.
Leaving council chambers after announcing the decision, Shropshire’s planning portfolio holder shocked campaigners by commenting that he did not ‘care if OSW004 goes through or not’, adding that he was only interested in the numbers and that the plan is ‘a good compromise’. Members of campaign group, HOOOH (Hands Off Old Oswestry Hillfort), say the remark illustrates Shropshire Council’s contempt for and disinterest in the protection and preservation of the scheduled ancient monument.
Under the NPPF (National Planning Policy Framework), local planning authorities must demonstrate they have a rolling five-year supply of deliverable land for housing. Shropshire Council currently has 4.95 years supply.
Kate Clarke of HOOOH said: “The Council is fully aware that there is a deliverable and uncontentious site just down the road which could help meet targets but is effectively being land-banked by the developer.”
SAMDev includes an allocation of 900 houses on Oswestry’s Sustainable Urban Extension (SUE), but only 63 are included in current five-year figures.
Miss Clarke said: “Shropshire planners should be negotiating a bigger five year contribution from Oswestry’s SUE which has had development approval for years. Instead, the Council is choosing to make up the shortfall by sacrificing historic greenfield sites where landowners and developers will see much bigger and quicker returns.”
Shropshire Council Leader, Keith Barrow, has also come under fire for recent press comments. Neil Phillips of HOOOH said: “He claims that no councillor spoke out against OSW004 at its recent meeting to ratify SAMDev, as if conclusive evidence that a glut of houses sweeping towards Old Oswestry can’t be such a bad thing. Their collective silence shows a shameful disregard for the electorate and for County and national heritage.”
The Conservative-led Council’s reluctance to defend Old Oswestry is echoed by North Shropshire MP and Environment Minister, Owen Paterson. In a recent letter to campaigners he wrote: ‘I know just how important this issue is. I hope you will understand that neither Minister nor Government officials can intervene or comment on individual planning applications because of Ministers’ quasi-judicial role in the system.’
But, citing the Ministerial Code, campaigners say that ministers are not prevented from representing constituents’ views on planning applications or similar issues given certain points of conduct are observed.
Mr Phillips said: “Mr Paterson may well be Environment Secretary, but he still has duties to his North Shropshire constituents. He lists helping to save Whitchurch community hospital as one of his proudest political achievements. Now he has an opportunity to add to this legacy by championing Old Oswestry which is an environmental as well as a heritage issue.”
The hillfort decision goes against overwhelming local, national and international opposition from the public, heritage groups, experts and academics, including over 10,000 petition and Facebook supporters.
It also ignores objections from English Heritage and Oswestry Town Council. Both recently strengthened their opposition in light of new expert evidence showing development would have major heritage impacts. This is contrary to a report commissioned by the site promoter assessing impacts as minor. The same report has been criticised by heritage authorities, including RESCUE (British Archaeological Trust), as being non-compliant in parts with NPPF standards, yet has been accepted by Shropshire Council in support of development.
The only contentious site remaining in SAMDev, OSW004 appears in the final plan currently out for six week public consultation on ‘soundness’.
Kate Clarke said: “The hillfort site has no community mandate and is being justified using flawed evidence underestimating the heritage impact. The community benefits do not outweigh the potential harm to heritage, and its historical significance makes this an issue of national interest. OSWOO4 does not even meet Shropshire’s own criteria for five year supply which excludes sites with ‘major unresolved problems. These are just the tip of the iceberg in demonstrating the unsoundness of keeping it in SAMDev.”
Neil Phillips adds: “The Localism Act is supposed to empower us to protect the places we value. But our views are being ignored in order to meet inflated housing targets and take measly cash windfalls for development.”
Shropshire Council would pocket £40 per square metre in Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) for the 117 hillfort homes if built.
The current SAMDev consultation runs until April 28. Unresolved sites will go to public inquiry over the summer for determination by the planning inspectorate.