An Iron Age hillfort site in Shropshire which has been earmarked for housing has prompted a call for greater protection of Britain’s heritage landscape.
The idea was mooted by the MP Tim Loughton on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Making History’ programme which recently highlighted the plight of the impressively preserved Welsh Marches hillfort, Old Oswestry.
Invited experts discussed the hillfort’s legacy in light of plans by Shropshire Council to allocate a prominent area of its ancient landscape for a large housing estate. A decision on the proposed development is due soon from government Inspector, Claire Sherratt DIP URP MRTPI, who is examining Shropshire’s local plan known as SAMDev.
The eminent archaeologist and academic, Professor Sir Barry Cunliffe, a leading authority on Celtic and Roman Britain, said: “There are about 5,000 hillforts in the country. Old Oswestry is undoubtedly one of the prime sites in that group.”
Also featured were Dr Rachel Pope, a Senior Lecturer in Archaeology and prehistory expert from the University of Liverpool, and Bill Klemperer, a Principal Inspector with English Heritage.
They all agreed that the 3,000 year old hillfort ranks as a heritage site of extreme national importance, acknowledging that its surrounding landscape is intrinsic to this.
The beleaguered hillfort has taken centre-stage in an emerging national debate over the risks to heritage from indiscriminate development under the government’s simplified planning guidelines.
Introduced in 2012, the NPPF (National Planning Policy Framework) is founded on a ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’ aimed at kick-starting housebuilding to meet national targets and the country’s housing crisis. But critics fear that dangerous ambiguity in the new guidelines is facilitating the incursion of urban sprawl on heritage assets and their setting.
Referring to Old Oswestry as ‘the Stonehenge of the Iron Age’, Rachel Pope suggested that its role was more social than defensive, bringing people from the wider landscape to pool labour and resources and to work as a community.
Experts acknowledge that Old Oswestry’s cultural and archaeological significance is inextricably linked with its surrounding ancient landscape, currently under severe threat of urban enclosure.She highlighted the site’s multi-phase interest, from its Bronze Age origins in common with other hillforts in Cheshire and Wales, to the first arrival of the Romans in Britain in the mid first century BC. She said: “The decline of sites like Old Oswestry at that point is fundamental to understanding the transition to Rome.”
Barry Cunliffe also pointed to the importance of the monument’s setting and surrounding archaeology, saying: “The more we know about hillforts, the more we realise that it’s not just what’s going on inside the ramparts, but all the landscape around is potentially an archaeological site related to that hillfort.”
He said that as modern development gets closer, the more the hillfort is demeaned and drawn into it. “This is a proud, dominant site and should be seen as such, separated from the things going on around it by a cordon
sanitaire of green land.”
Tim Loughton, who is vice chair of the Archaeology All Party Parliamentary Group, went further with the notion of a ‘protective buffer’.
Referring to current planning law on setting as ‘a hugely grey area’, he said: “What we need around such important heritage sites as this is a sort of heritage greenbelt.” This would define and demarcate the surrounding history and archaeological importance of sites like Old Oswestry, acting as an exclusion zone to development.
While acknowledging the huge pressures on local authorities to build new houses, he also suggested that their prime concern is often flooding risk and congestion problems rather than heritage impact.
“We should be viewing heritage as just as important a consideration because once you destroy its context, you don’t get it back,” he concluded.
The scheduling of an ancient monument is largely confined to the physical structure with no continuity of protection into the all-important wider landscape. This leaves judgements on adjacent development at the mercy of case-by-case interpretation of NPPF and English Heritage guidance on heritage setting.
Rachel Pope said: “We draw red lines around these things on maps and say this is the heritage. But actually, it’s not about the monument, it’s about a landscape.”
Speaking to programme presenter, Dr Matt Pope, during a tour of the hillfort, Bill Klemperer of English Heritage described it as ‘wonderful’. He said: “The setting, the part of the landscape in which this place is experienced, is really important. The hillfort doesn’t exist in isolation.”
He was then challenged about English Heritage’s approval in principle for development within the hillfort’s setting, with 117 houses remaining in Shropshire Council’s SAMDev plan. Defending the decision he said: “It is a very small part of what we had originally been asked to consider. It does not mean to say, however, that we will simply agree to any sort of development there. It’s still a sensitive area.”
He went on to say that if the land is allocated and a planning application made, English Heritage would still have the option to recommend refusal if they felt it was not justified in terms of the design guidelines discussed with the local authority.
Old Oswestry’s plight caught the attention of the Making History team following national lobbying by campaign group, Hands Off Old Oswestry Hillfort (HOOOH).
*Full episode can be heard at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b052j57c