PRESS RELEASE: Outrage at Shropshire councillors’ unanimous vote to adopt hillfort housing on SAMDEV plan

Shropshire Council voted unanimously yesterday (Dec 17) to adopt SAMDev with OSW004, a nationally criticised site for 117 houses in the setting of Old Oswestry hillfort.

HOOOH said: “Given that Shropshire planner, Dave Wallace, referred to the development having a ‘soft edge’ at the Inspector inquiry, we can thank each and every one of the Shropshire councillors for signing the hillfort and Oswestry up to creeping development gradually devouring Old Oswestry’s eastern landscape. This will most likely revisit the vision that has been touted for almost a decade by the farmer’s planning agent, J10, for an urban extension north of Oswestry.”

“With signs that the family farming the site is down-sizing its operations there, I think we can safely say we were misled by former Council leader, Keith Barrow, when he defended them in the press, claiming they are not ‘fly-by-night developers’ but will ‘still be farming the land around the hillfort when most of the objectors are long gone’.

“Needless to say, the public and the heritage world is outraged, and the fight continues. In light of new information we have received in the last couple of days, we are discussing a number of possible routes of action including a Judicial Review.

“We warned ahead of the meeting that adoption of OSW004 would be ‘forever tainted’ by the well-publicised recent controversy over the authority’s governance and bullish planning culture. Unfortunately, this vote will now ensure that it is, as the Council continues to ignore the expressed wishes of the local community and a petition which has over 10,000 signatures.”

John Waine of HOOOH said: “After the SAMDev vote, my response is one of disappointment, but then the council never looked like it was in a hurry to follow the newly elected leader’s call for a new era of openness and transparency. It was, sadly, business as usual. Thank you to everyone who came along to the demo – we made a noise! We, at HOOOH, are certainly not down-hearted and will continue to fight the proposal at every stage with everything we’ve got. We have got huge support locally, professionally, academically, and legally – so this is but the beginning of a new battle. We look forward to it – watch this space.”

One of the campaign’s heritage advisers, Dr George Nash, said: “We were told today that Shropshire Council is looking for change and consensual conduct, a statement echoed by members of its Conservative cabinet and other councillors. Electors also want to see greater honesty, transparency and fairness from their administration, as well as respect for local views.

“I had hoped that some of this change would have included the removal of OSW004 from SAMDev. It didn’t. But is this a major setback for our campaign – a resounding NO. Although this morning was, in the eyes of certain members, merely a formality, we will fight on. Within the planning process there will be a challenge at every stage. The War is yet to be won!”

During public questions, HOOOH representatives were cut short while making their statements, including Dr Rachel Pope before she was able to register the campaign’s thanks to the Council for having removed two sites close to the hillfort ramparts from the plan. Campaigner John Waine was audibly heckled by a number of councillors as he attempted to read his statement.

In his response, Councillor Malcolm Price (housing portfolio holder) referred to a photo on the chamber A/V screen showing a purposely cropped view of the hillfort and its setting.

HOOOH said: “Mr Price did not hold back in expressing his extreme disappointment that campaigners had not thanked the Council for removing two sites (OSW002/003) close to the hillfort ramparts that had previously fallen within the frame of the picture. Clearly, the Council felt there was no need to actually show assembled councillors the location of OSW004, the site still in SAMDev and in dispute, lying just outside of the frame.

“For a Council rattled by recent bad publicity over its governance, and promising a new era of transparency, showing this partial view to assembled councillors is a spectacularly poor start.”

Campaigners also point to new Council leader Malcolm Pate’s reference in his acceptance speech to Shropshire being a ‘rural county with lots of sheep that don’t bring in any Council Tax’.

“This suggests that Shropshire Council under Mr Pate’s watch will be pursuing a ‘housing at any cost’ policy. This is certainly backed by their approval of the hillfort estate,” said campaigner, Neil Phillips.

He continued: “We cannot believe that, in a County this size and during a process that has given them ample time to review sites, the Council is making one of Shropshire’s most significant heritage assets a slave to housing targets. Surely there is space for 117 houses elsewhere?

“With the backing of Oswestry Town Council, we asked Shropshire Council in June 2014 to meet with stakeholders to resolve the town’s housing delivery and find alternatives to building by the hillfort. They refused, saying ‘there isn’t a negotiation to be had which removes the need for site OSW004 from the SAMDev Plan’.

“The comment made on behalf of the Council by former Leader, Keith Barrow, that they are ‘not building on the hillfort’ shows the Council’s constructive ignorance of the value of heritage setting. And the Inspector’s verdict that OSW004 is sound exposes the damaging pliability of the NPPF to prop up unreasonable and insensitive development.”

*Ahead of the meeting, HOOOH wrote to Mr Pate suggesting that removal of OSW004 from SAMDev might be a convincing gesture that the Council truly wants change from the ‘dictatorial cabinet’ cultivated under his predecessor.

In the letter, HOOOH wrote:

“As Council Leader in waiting, we know that you have spoken in the press of your hopes for a new era of transparency and consensus at Shropshire Council.

We believe that immediate and credible evidence of this intent under your leadership would be for the Council to remove OSW004 from the SAMDev plan before its adoption this Thursday.

It is more than evident, given the national scrutiny that this controversial site has attracted and intense opposition right to the highest level of British heritage, that the campaign against development is not a Nimby crusade.

Dr Alex Gibson, President of The Prehistoric Society, is the latest influential and prominent figure to add their name to the eminently qualified list of British archaelogical academics opposing OSW004 and providing testimony to its national significance (see letters attached plus HOOOH press statement yesterday).

Their willing defence of the hillfort and unequivocal statement of its national importance have taken local campaigners by surprise, as I am sure it has the Council. Described as ‘The Stonehenge of the Iron Age’ on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Making History’ programme earlier this year, we have perhaps all underestimated just how special and significant Old Oswestry is in terms of national heritage. But we are now clearer than ever before: it is a most precious and unique asset to the County’s tourism, economy and cultural identity.

With calls to consider applying for World Heritage Site status for the hillfort, we should heed their estimable and most qualified of advice. We should be ensuring that the County’s strategic vision signed off in SAMDev tomorrow preserves the opportunity to make more of the site, not usurp it for housing and further potential urbanisation.

During the SAMDev consultation, Oswestry Town Council, who are opposed to OSW004, wrote to the Shropshire planning team asking them to consider implementing wider protection for the hillfort’s setting. They also backed a call by HOOOH for all stakeholders to meet to discuss housing delivery in Oswestry and alternative sites that would spare the hillfort. These requests were ignored and rejected, suggesting that there is an established imperative for strategic growth into the hillfort’s eastern landscape that public and stakeholder consultation was never going to budge.

That we should be cherishing, protecting and celebrating the hillfort is patently obvious to our international observers. They have been very vocal that housing will spoil its ‘kerb appeal’ and detract from reasons to visit.

So we urge that you call on Council members this Thursday to rethink and remove the OSW004 allocation. This will go a long way in bridging the gap that has opened up over recent months between the Council and electors. There can be no more timely or symbolic a move in demonstrating that a change in culture is truly meant at Shropshire Council and to mark your legacy as Leader.

Otherwise, no action on OSW004 will signal ‘business as usual’, leaving public distrust of the Council’s governance at an all-time high and confidence in the government’s Localism and public consultation at an all-time low. This is surely not what you want, if the aspiration tomorrow is to close the door on the old regime and clear the way for positive, public engagement in the next important consultation, the Big Conversation?”

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