Campaigners fighting to halt housing development close to a 3,000 year old Shropshire hillfort have raised fresh questions over the progression of the controversial sites in strategic county plans.
Now into the final stages of public consultation, Shropshire Council’s SAMDev plan includes the allocation of almost 200 houses within a stone’s throw of the ramparts of Old Oswestry, a Scheduled Ancient Monument. Located near the North Shropshire market town of Oswestry, it is acknowledged as one of Britain’s finest Iron Age hillforts, second in importance only to Maiden Castle while forming part of the Anglo-Saxon defence, Wat’s Dyke, also scheduled.
The Hands Off Old Oswestry Hillfort (HOOOH) campaign group has published new objections which question whether planners’ assessment of the hillfort sites has been fair and consistent in comparison with other sensitive sites now dropped from SAMDev. The objections are being considered by local councillors as they finalise their response to SAMDev this month.
The scheme, called the Oldport Masterplan, would see the eastern and south-eastern approaches of the hillfort infilled with an extensive swathe of housing, roads and infrastructure linking three separate sites.
A spokesperson for HOOOH said: “Shropshire Council planners have rejected housing further away and to the west of Old Oswestry, stating unequivocally that it will have significant detrimental impacts on the hillfort’s setting. You would expect at least the same assessment for the development at Oldport Farm to the east, which is much closer, coming within 80m of the monument.
“But Shropshire Council planners are taking a far more relaxed line, seemingly happy to accept development with the only proviso that it pays regard to the importance of the hillfort’s setting. This shows blatant inconsistency in planning interpretation. When you consider that the eastern aspect of Old Oswestry provides the defining and most prominent view of the hillfort from main routes like the A5, it makes Shropshire’s judgement look all the more unreasonable and untenable.”
Campaigners’ objections also cast doubt over the robustness and completeness of evidence supporting the Oldport Masterplan.
The promoter’s heritage impact assessment, published on Shropshire Council’s website as part of SAMDev reference material, has been widely criticised by experts. In a letter of objection to Shropshire planners, RESCUE (21st August 2013) describes it as ‘inadequate’ and non-compliant with planning standards. As well as underplaying the impact of development on views to and from the hillfort, it makes no mention of some 100 find spots listed on the Portable Antiquities Scheme website that lie within the setting, claim campaigners.
John Creighton, Director of the Society of Antiquaries of London, has also expressed concerns in a letter of objection, stating: “Old Oswestry is without doubt one of the best-preserved multi- vallate hillforts. Its setting in the landscape makes it visually stunning, and crowding its fringes with buildings would be very detrimental to this.” He goes on to make this plea: “More housing is desperately needed in the UK but balance and careful curation of the unique assets of our landscape are the responsibility of the planning committee and council. Please reflect on how you are discharging them.”
HOOOH said: “The heritage value of the hillfort and rich archaeology of its landscape approaches indicated by the numerous finds dating back to the Neolithic period are being grossly under-estimated, even dismissed, in order to facilitate and fast-track the Oldport scheme.”
HOOOH has asked for an independent opinion from media historian and archaeologist, Dr George Nash, who has produced a new, up-to-date heritage statement which summarises the impressive significance of the archaeology, geology and ecology of the hillfort and its surrounds. Among other things, it calls for a thorough, staged approach to the assessment of the site to establish the true extent of its archaeology and ecology.
Campaigners point out that previous reports on Old Oswestry commissioned by English Heritage with local and county council support have highlighted its significant heritage value – even advising an extension of protection to safeguard its wider setting. County planning documents also acknowledge that land to the north of Oswestry is unsuitable for development due to its environmental value and presence of the hillfort. The steer is for development to the south-east of the town, some 3km away.
HOOOH said: “Oswestry already has a longstanding plot of land identified as appropriate for development called the Sustainable Urban Extension south-east of the town. This has capacity for as many as 900 houses including the affordable housing desperately needed in the area. Plus there are lots of opportunities to create homes above town centre shops and through redevelopment within the existing planning boundary.”
But with pressure on for councils to find deliverable supplies of housing to meet targets, there are fears that the Oldport Masterplan could pave the way for the town’s next urban extension.
“The hillfort development is the thin end of a housing wedge which could see most of the hinterlands that belong to this nationally important monument disappear underneath brick and concrete,” warn campaigners.
In the face of unprecedented opposition to the Oldport sites, including a petition with almost 8,000 signatories, Oswestry Town Council was granted an extension to SAMDev’s original deadline (August 23, 2013) for further consultation on the unpopular proposals. This included a meeting with English Heritage whose views will be taken into consideration.
Campaigners say that correspondence obtained through a freedom of information request shows that English Heritage were firmly against all three of the Oldport sites during the initial stages of SAMDev. English Heritage stated at the time that development would be harmful due to its location within the close setting of the hillfort. But following a resubmission by the promoter last summer reducing housing numbers, although in the same location and within the same space, English Heritage has capitulated and is now accepting two out of the three sites.
“Local residents as well as the wider archaeological community expected a more robust defence from the so-called guardians of our heritage, not a climb-down. English Heritage should stick by the guidance they initiated and use, but now appear to be ignoring,” commented campaigners.
They added: “However, SAMDev is about local decision-making and listening to neighbourhood opinion. We expect Oswestry councillors to remember that they are deciding on whether the hillfort is the right place for housing. It is not a vote for or against English Heritage’s view. It is about listening to and representing the people who elected them to look after the town, whose families have an emotional connection down the generations with the hillfort.
“They have made their feelings very clear through consultation and the petition. Oswestry’s community want the historical legacy and beauty of the hillfort preserved, and that rules out housing. The pressure is now on Oswestry Town Council to respect and not betray their electorate.”