Campaigners say new doubts hang over Shropshire Council’s handling of proposed housing by Old Oswestry hillfort as planners come under fire for alleged misuse of delegated powers (Shropshire Star report 30 May 2015).
The backlash comes as government-appointed Inspector, Claire Sherratt, revealed her findings (1 June 2015) on Shropshire’s development blueprint SAMDev. Despite overwhelming public opposition during three years of consultation, a large housing site (OSW004) in the shadow of the 3,000 year old Iron Age hillfort remains on the plan.
Meanwhile, Shropshire planners face claims that they are misusing delegated powers by rubber stamping contentious schemes where objections have been raised that should be referred to planning committee. The latest involves a legal challenge over the demolition of a 200 year old Thomas Telford tollhouse in Oswestry to make way for an ALDI supermarket.
Campaign group Hands Off Old Oswestry Hillfort (HOOOH) says this new revelation must call into question the integrity of decision-making in other areas, most significantly SAMDev. And scrutiny should go back to the very start to ask how development by the hillfort was ever included as a ‘preferred option’, challenge campaigners.
HOOOH member Maggie Rowlands said: “The latest crisis simply reinforces our grave concerns over the cavalier planning culture within Shropshire Council. It has virtually cast itself loose of the opinion of elected councillors and the public in order to fast-track insensitive development on heritage landscape and prime greenfield land.”
Campaigners suggest that hard steers by Shropshire planners and Cabinet, including the imperative of meeting five-year housing supply, may have fettered the discretion of councillors to motion for removal of OSW004 from the plan. This was despite being circulated with alternative heritage reports by HOOOH, produced to industry standards, calculating that development would have major impacts on the setting of the hillfort and views to and from it.
Heritage setting is recognised in national planning and Historic England (formerly English Heritage) guidance and protected in law according to the significance of the heritage asset. This should provide major weight against the approval of development affecting a monument of the national significance of Old Oswestry, whose landscape setting is an integral part of its heritage value and archaeology.
In spite of repeated requests, Shropshire planners refused to post HOOOH’s reports on the SAMDev website alongside the site promoter’s original heritage impact assessment. The latter was strongly criticised for being flawed by experts at RESCUE (The British Archaeological Trust) and was subsequently revised.
And while failing to answer HOOOH’s challenge that OSW004 did not meet five-year supply criteria due to ‘unresolved issues’, planners later revealed it was not part of five-year figures for that very reason.
“We are not surprised that Shropshire planners find themselves at the centre of these accusations of undemocratic conduct and calls for restraint,” said campaigner Dr George Nash.
“Based on recent media reports, it is clear that councillors at all levels and across the political spectrum are extremely disappointed in the way Shropshire Council’s planning department exercise their decision-making.
He added: “This now gives us additional teeth to challenge what we believe has been a calculated bias towards keeping OSW004 in SAMDev. We believe that the original heritage assessment that carried the site through several stages of the process must be the subject of a formal independent review. Oswestry Town Council asked for this over a year ago and was completely disregarded.“
Commenting on the Inspector’s decision, HOOOH says it is extremely disappointed that the Inspector has rejected the scale of public opposition to OSWOO4 and the strong heritage case against it. This included a petition with almost 6,000 signatures and objections by twelve leading British academics of archaeology in an open letter.
Campaigner Neil Phillips said: “The planning plight to develop 117 houses within the shadow of Old Oswestry Hillfort is the thin end of the wedge.
“The use of the NPPF to sanction development over the preservation of such significant heritage landscape was surely not the government’s intention. However, the ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’ is propping up greedy bids to build high profit housing with postcard views of hillforts, meres and parkland.
“Whitehall needs to intervene now before the Best of Britain disappears under brick and concrete in the present rush to build houses.”