Two years of bitter opposition to Shropshire Council proposals for housing by Old Oswestry hillfort come to a head tomorrow (December 16) at public inquiry.
Campaigners will travel to Shirehall, Shrewsbury, to make the case for removal of the controversial site for 117 houses (OSW004) from Shropshire’s SAMDev plan.
Setting out the County’s development vision to 2026, the plan is currently undergoing examination for ‘soundness’ by the government’s appointed Inspector, Claire Sherratt.
The debate over OSW004 will focus heavily on whether its inclusion, which has attracted substantial opposition from around the globe, is based on proportionate evidence.
Campaign group, HOOOH (Hands Off Old Oswestry Hillfort), maintains that Shropshire planners’ consideration of evidence has been highly selective and significantly weighted in favour of the developer’s from an early phase.
The site promoter’s Heritage Impact Assessment (HIA) has been criticised by RESCUE (British Archaeological Trust) and HOOOH for being partially flawed. This prompted Oswestry Town Council to ask for a full and independent review of the site’s archaeological appraisal. With the publication of an industry standard report by HOOOH demonstrating that visual and landscape impacts of development would be major, the town council subsequently withdrew its support for OSW004.
Despite this, Shropshire Council retained the site promoter’s HIA within its publicised evidence base right through to plan ratification. The site promoter has since revised and updated its heritage impact reports in apparent response to campaigners’ criticisms.
HOOOH has also revealed that the development is strongly opposed by senior academics in British Archaeology, who have written an open letter to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. Signatories include Professor Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn (Emeritus Disney Professor of Archaeology, University of Cambridge), Professor Sir Barrington Windsor Cunliffe CBE (Emeritus Professor of European Archaeology, University of Oxford) and Dr Geoffrey Wainwright MBE (Hon. Vice President, Society of Antiquaries).
In addition, campaigners understand that the All Party Parliamentary Archaeology Group is soon to discuss how it is that, despite National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) guidelines, a housing development has been proposed so close to a monument as important as Old Oswestry.
Dr Rachel Pope, Senior Lecturer in European Prehistory at University of Liverpool, will be representing the concerns of the academic community at the hearing tomorrow. She said: “I cannot understand why this area remains in Shropshire’s SAMDev plan when it is very clear to me that the setting of a monument like Old Oswestry is to be protected.”
Archaeologist and HOOOH campaign adviser, Dr George Nash of Bristol University, said: “Government strategy over the past two years has been to weight national policy in favour of development under its watered-down and ambiguous NPPF.
“The HOOOH team and their archaeological advisers are not seeking for every potential development site in Shropshire to be challenged, nor are we NIMBYs. We merely care about our heritage and respect fair implementation of the rules by English Heritage and the Local Planning Authority. But their back-pedalling and double standards over this internationally important late prehistoric site has impregnated an already sceptic public with great mistrust.”
He adds: “A David and Goliath battle is in prospect between those seeking a fair, just and transparent decision on the future of a small corner of English heritage and those who wish to destroy it.
“The outcome for Old Oswestry hillfort will have major repercussions on how we perceive our ancient landscape and how weighted against heritage our national planning policy really is. If the decision is in favour of development, then we are yet another step closer to planning oblivion.”