Campaigners have warned that housing development by Old Oswestry hillfort will leave an indelible stain on Shropshire Council’s reputation if approved on its local plan this week.
Campaign group HOOOH stated today: “If Shropshire Councillors approve the hillfort estate, it will be forever tainted by the climate of doubt over the integrity of the Council’s administration and planning procedures under Keith Barrow’s leadership.”
The comments follow the departure of the former Council leader under a cloud of controversy, including breaching the authority’s code of conduct over an undeclared conflict of interest and press reports of a new complaint against him allegedly being investigated by the police. Under his watch, planning officers have also come under stinging criticism for being ‘out of control’ with the use of delegated powers.
Councillors will meet on Thursday (December 17) looking to adopt SAMDev, Shropshire’s long-awaited strategic plan for housing and employment development to 2026. It includes a bitterly opposed allocation of 117 houses, known as OSW004, within just 300m of the 3,000-year-old Iron Age hillfort.
The proposed development has attracted nationwide attention including broadsheet and BBC Radio 4 coverage as well as being raised within the APPAG (All Party Parliamentary Archaeology Group). Widely condemned by national heritage and environmental protection groups, it has prompted objections from twelve eminent British academics of archaeology, including four Fellows of the British Academy, in an open letter to the government. But their strong objections and eminently qualified statement of the hillfort’s significance appear to have been ignored by Shropshire Council.
HOOOH says: “The setting of a hillfort as nationally important as Old Oswestry, whose significance has been attested to by some of the country’s most eminent archaeological authorities, is protected by the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) in paragraphs 128 to 133. Under these policy points, the Council should work to conserve the hillfort setting; development within the setting should be recognised as potentially causing substantial harm to the significance of the hillfort itself.”
HOOOH claims that FOI (Freedom of Information) correspondence reveals the pressure applied on Historic England to approve the hillfort masterplan by the planning agent acting for the site promoter, with what appears to be the tacit support of Shropshire planners. The group also claims that the Council’s apparent pro-development stance, on a site that should be subject to transparent and fair procedures within democratic local plan-making, was buoyed by what they interpret as partial and misleading comments by Mr Barrow.
At a Council meeting in February 2014, he stated OSW004 was being kept in SAMDev for 5 year housing targets although the site did not meet 5 year supply criteria due to ‘significant unresolved issues’.
HOOOH also claims that, in a column for a local paper, Mr Barrow seems to bring to light his relationship with the farm owners, referring to them as ‘good Oswestry people, not-fly-by night developers’ who will ‘still be farming the land around the hillfort when most of the objectors are long gone’.
A spokesperson for HOOOH said: “In light of the investigations into Mr Barrow’s conduct and sudden resignation from all his elected roles, can the Council guarantee that OSW004 is legally sound and has not been unduly influenced during Mr Barrow’s time in office?
“The recent negative press and gathering public mistrust towards Shropshire Council’s planning regime, in particular, is clearly acknowledged by new leader Malcolm Pate when he speaks about making the authority ‘more transparent, consensual and open.’ The Council will immediately fail this ‘new era’ promise if it takes OSW004 forward in SAMDev, and onto the inevitable dissection of its procedures and planning culture at Judicial Review.”
HOOOH says it is launching a crowdsourcing initiative following offers of funding for legal action from as far away as the US. Campaigners are staging a demonstration at Shirehall in Shrewsbury this Thursday as councillors meet to adopt SAMDev.