Campaigners fighting to save one of Europe’s foremost Iron Age landscapes and rare World War I military archaeology from the bulldozer are asking for a fair hearing and transparent process as an application to build houses is made.
Documents recently posted on Shropshire Council’s planning portal reveal that housing giant, Galliers Homes, is behind proposals to build a large housing estate within the setting of Old Oswestry hillfort.
Though no site plans have yet been published*, Galliers is seeking to deliver the scheme in two phases of 50 to 60 houses each. Berrys is named as the planning agent for the development on land at Oldport Farm off Whittington Road in Oswestry.
But campaign group HOOOH warns that the public will expect a robust and even-handed determination process by Shropshire Council, saying it must fully account for the site’s national heritage significance and environmental value without bias.
This comes after the land (OSW004) was allocated in Shropshire’s Local Plan (SAMDev) using a flawed and inadequate heritage statement and with no environmental assessment despite its outstanding heritage status and archaeological landscape sensitivity. The allocation was also contrary to the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) Chapter 12 on “Conserving and Enhancing the Historic Environment” and Shropshire Council’s own policies to protect the county’s heritage.
HOOOH says: “In addition to decimating an Iron Age landscape of incalculable cultural value, the scheme would squander high grade agricultural land belonging to a registered historic farmstead for housing that could and should be built elsewhere. The government’s stated priority is for development on brownfield sites in preference to greenfield, especially high tariff greenfield like OSW004 within the setting of a nationally significant hillfort.
“Urban sprawl in this spot will add to noise, air and light pollution, detracting from a heritage asset and tourist attraction with global appeal. It will also exacerbate traffic congestion on Shropshire’s busiest trunk road lying just metres away, as well as adding to the gridlock on routes to the Marches School on the other side of town.
“Of all the places to target housing in this vast county, this enigmatic hillfort and landscape lauded by experts as the Stonehenge of the Iron Age should not be one of them.”
Campaigners point out that Oswestry Civic Society has been promoting the concept of turning the hillfort’s setting into a country park in its 2050 Vision for Oswestry.
“Local people favour the retention of farming as a green lung around Old Oswestry, rather than opening the landscape up to urban sprawl. Oswestry Town Council continues to object to development at OSW004, with the Whittington Road providing a distinct and sensible boundary between the town to the south and the countryside to the north.”
Campaigners say that Shropshire Council has had to acknowledge the high sensitivity of the location for development by requiring an Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) following a screening process with relevant council departments and consultees.
In a letter to Berrys (August 6) confirming the decision, Shropshire planners point to the significant impact of building: “The proposal would result in development that will involve the change of use and re-use of agricultural land and represents development which is considered in principle to be significant and potentially complex and high magnitude in relation to change of use and scale in relation to the surrounding landscape and its current characteristics.”
In addition to resolving substantial environmental and landscape character issues, the proposed housing scheme will also have to meet onerous masterplanning conditions regarding design, layout, massing and heritage impact mitigation. These have been stipulated by Historic England in a Statement of Common Ground which, critically, still provides scope for the heritage body to object to the application.
The masterplan submitted for the SAMDev process included additional sites (OSW002 and OSW003) adjacent to Oldport Farm, both excluded by Shropshire Council from the final allocation. Campaigners say that a new, ‘from scratch’ masterplan is needed for the present application, effectively removing the basis of Inspector approval three years ago.
The timing of the application comes immediately after updates to the NPPF (published 24 July 2018) designed to ensure permission is only given for sustainable development which does not harm the environment. But critics have warned that the revisions might in fact facilitate aggressive house building on greenbelt and in prime locations.
HOOOH said: “The development would clearly change the setting of two scheduled monuments – Old Oswestry and Wat’s Dyke – while lying within one of the most visually and archaeologically significant zones of the hillfort’s ancient landscape.
“Running underneath OSW004 is a rare system of WW1 practice trenches associated with Park Hall training camp, similar to the buried trenches on top of Old Oswestry. The hillfort’s eastern landscape is distinguished by other historical assets including Thomas Telford’s landmark London to Holyhead (A5) road, the Cambrian Heritage Railway and Vyrnwy Aqueduct. Over 100 findspots of artefacts and heritage assets are recorded within the vicinity of the hillfort supporting the known archaeology. In addition, Oldport Farm is listed as one of Shropshire’s historic farmsteads.”
As well as comprising high quality (Grade 2) agricultural land, the site also maintains an ecological link between pond networks north of Oswestry supporting protected newt populations. The hillfort itself is a Local Wildlife Site (LWS) and part of the Oswestry Uplands, one of 159 National Character Areas (NCAs) in England designated by Natural England for their special landscape, historic and environmental value and distinctiveness.
HOOOH says that the development bid will be closely scrutinised by national environmental and heritage organisations and academics that have been backing its campaign since 2013.
HOOOH reinforced its objections to OSW004 at the end of 2017 as part of Shropshire Council’s current local plan review – see here: http://oldoswestryhillfort.co.uk/
*As of 13 August 2018
• HOOOH (Hands Off Old Oswestry Hillfort) has been waging a five-year campaign against housing allocations in Shropshire’s SAMDev plan that could open the floodgates for town expansion across Old Oswestry’s ancient landscape.
• Three sites forming a masterplan for 230 houses within Old Oswestry’s south-eastern setting were included by Shropshire Council in the SAMDev ‘preferred options’ consultation in March 2012.
• In February 2014, following overwhelming opposition, two of the three sites (OSW002 and OSW003) were removed from the plan-making process. But the larger part, OSW004 with 117 houses, was retained to meet 5 year housing supply, according to the then Council Leader, Keith Barrow. It was later revealed that the site did not meet 5 year delivery criteria at the time. (Keith Barrow resigned from the Council in December 2015 when he was found to have breached the council’s code of conduct after failing to disclose a conflict of interest relating to his personal and business relationship with the director of another company. Reported here: http://www.bordercountiesadvertizer.co.uk/news/15853766.Shropshire_Council_leader_Keith_Barrow_resigns_from_his_post/)
• In April 2014, Historic England objected to OSW004 during public consultation on SAMDev’s ‘soundness’, but went on to sign, behind closed doors, a statement of common ground with Shropshire Council. This effectively converted its objections into a framework of acceptance subject to a full archaeological assessment and resolution of design and layout.
• The SAMDev plan was submitted for examination by government appointed Inspector, Claire Sherratt in August 2014 and was approved in October 2015 with OSW004 included. Despite further protests by campaigners, the plan was ratified and adopted with OSW004 by Shropshire Council on 17 December 2015.
• The 3,000 year old multivallate hillfort is a scheduled monument and recognised as one of the most important as well as the best preserved hillforts of its type in Britain. The medieval defence, Wat’s Dyke, also scheduled, incorporates Old Oswestry as it crosses north-south through Oswestry town.
• Historical growth of Oswestry has left a slender but critical ‘green’ cordon of separation between the town and hillfort. Development of OSW004 could set a precedent for urban expansion across the hillfort’s eastern.
• Professor Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn, Professor Sir Barry Cunliffe and other eminent archaeological academics wrote an open letter in December 2014 to the UK government objecting to OSW004. They state: “If the bar for acceptable development under the NPPF does not protect the setting of even our most significant heritage sites, then we set a potentially calamitous precedent for the greater part of the nation’s historic environment.”
• OSW004 lies within the most archaeologically significant quadrant of Old Oswestry’s setting, straddling historic farmland that would have sustained centuries of hillfort communities and currently preserves open views to the monument. This area of its landscape, fanning east to south, cradles evidence of Neolithic, Iron Age, Roman and medieval activity, as well as the footprint and archaeology of military use during two World Wars linked to the nearby Park Hall Camp. The Oswestry-born war poet, Wilfred Owen, is believed to have written the poem ‘Storm’ while stationed at Park Hall Camp in the shadow of Old Oswestry in October 1916.
• As well as 12,000+ objectors via petitions, the hillfort housing bid has been opposed by numerous stakeholders, heritage and environmental groups. They include Oswestry Town Council, Selattyn & Gobowen Parish Council, RESCUE (The British Archaeological Trust), Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), The Prehistoric Society, The Society of Antiquaries of London, Oswestry & Border History & Archaeology Group, Shropshire Wildlife Trust, Heritage Action (Heritage Journal), & Dr Mike Heyworth MBE, director of The Council for British Archaeology (CBA).