Campaigners fighting proposals to allocate housing sites close to Old Oswestry hillfort in North Shropshire are claiming their first victory following a crucial council meeting.
Members of HOOOH (Hands Off Old Oswestry Hillfort) and tens of protestors packed out Oswestry Town Council’s Guildhall as councillors met to consider their final response to the controversial sites.
Shropshire Council is looking to give the green light in its SAMDev strategic plan to almost 200 houses, called the Oldport Masterplan, within the immediate setting of the 3000 year old Iron Age hillfort.
But in a surprise move, the town council agreed to revise its draft response to county planners following criticism of evidence supporting the hillfort sites through the SAMDev consultation.
John Waine of HOOOH pointed out that the promoter’s Heritage Impact Assessment had been described as ‘inadequate’ by RESCUE (The British Archaeological Trust).
This view is backed by HOOOH’s alternative heritage statement written by Dr George Nash, a prehistory expert and member of the Institute for Archaeologists (IfA). Dr Nash’s report indicates that current archaeological and heritage reports are incomplete, selective and severely underestimate the significance of Old Oswestry and Wat’s Dyke, which would both be affected by the proposals.
In its SAMDev response, Oswestry Town Council is calling for development at Jasmine Gardens (OSW002) to be removed ‘on the basis of its proximity to the Ancient Monument and the harmful impact it would have on its setting.’
Although it is objecting to houses on Oldport Farm (OSW003) in their current form, the Council is not demanding they are removed, and is accepting the largest parcel of houses off Whittington Road (OSW004) unopposed.
But in response to HOOOH’s objections, the Council has added a binding condition requesting that Shropshire Council follows ‘due diligence to ensure that the heritage assessment [is] compliant with NPPF [National Planning Policy Framework] through an independent evaluation.’ It also asks that Dr Nash’s heritage report of December 2013 receives the same evaluation and comment.
However, campaigners were close to an even bigger U-turn when Councillor Duncan Kerr proposed a motion, seconded by Councillor Sandy Best, to completely withdraw approval of OSW004 which includes 117 homes.
Referring to national planning guidance, Mr Kerr made the case that the community benefit from the proposed housing did not outweigh the potential harm on the hillfort’s setting. Met by enthusiastic applause from the public, the proposal was rejected by the closest of margins (7 votes to 5) following comments by Councillor Martin Bennett that HOOOH believes included misleading information.
In counter argument, Councillor Bennett queried the rationale of opposing the sites given the limited influence of town councillors on planning decisions which he felt should be left to due process and resolution by the Inspector at Public Inquiry. He also referred to a Supreme Court case which had ruled that development would need to eviscerate the setting of a scheduled monument to constitute substantial impact.
“Based on this test case, as Councillor Bennett called it, the inference was that it would be futile to oppose OSW004,” said Neil Phillips of HOOOH.
“The reality is that English Heritage often takes the view that substantial harm will occur even when proposed development is several kilometres away from a scheduled monument, such as a wind farm or waste plant with a high chimney”
He added: “We believe that Councillor Bennett’s steer on heritage impact was misleading to say the least, but could not be challenged by the public as it was made in closed session. We are seeking clarification from English Heritage on the soundness of his comments.”
In addition, Councillor Bennett, also a Shropshire councillor and former town mayor, warned of the high legal costs to Shropshire Council of opposing developments likely to fail at inquiry.
Mr Phillips continued: “This is an illogical argument for pushing sites like Old Oswestry through SAMDev. Clearly, the sensible move is to drop a highly sensitive and controversial heritage site to avoid wasting public money defending an ill-judged decision at public inquiry.”
Mr Phillips also pointed out that adherence to proper planning process would probably entail a full Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) involving not just archaeology but other planning disciplines, with costs more than likely falling on the landowner.
He added: “SAMDev has already sanctioned removal of housing sites on the other side of the hillfort and further away, citing the potential harm to Old Oswestry’s setting as a factor. Surely it is better to drop the Oldport proposals at the current strategic stage without penalty, rather than commit these problematic sites to development management where costs and outcomes are far more unpredictable?”
Sites OSW021 and OSW063 on Oakhurst Road, west of the hillfort, were rejected after phase one of SAMDev consultation in Spring 2012. Despite overwhelming opposition, all three Oldport sites were taken forward to stage two last Summer (2013) and remain in the process.
HOOOH will be holding a seminar and exhibition in Oswestry on February 22 where experts will make the case for protecting Old Oswestry from development.