– Historic England deals late blow to community’s 8-year fight to save the setting of one of Britain’s outstanding Iron Age hillforts from housing development –
Campaigners are up in arms at news that Historic England has relaxed its concerns over development in the historic landscape of Old Oswestry hillfort on the Shropshire/Wales border.
The government’s statutory heritage consultee is currently advising on a planning application by Galliers Homes for 91 houses in the near setting of the 3,000-year-old Iron Age monument.
The outcry comes as Historic England’s representation appeared on Shropshire Council’s planning portal just hours before the close of public consultation (on April 21). The current application is the third set of plans in 12 months to be submitted by Berrys, the planning agent, prompting floods of objections each time.
“Historic England’s response raises far more questions than it answers,” said campaign group, HOOOH, which has produced a 10-page document criticising the content.
“They are sanctioning proposals that do not comply with their own criteria and guidance. This includes conditions in a Statement of Common Ground signed with Shropshire Council in 2014 that allowed this highly controversial site to be adopted in Shropshire’s SAMDev local plan.”
Campaigners say the heritage body is backing down on key requirements, including a northern development limit to ensure houses do not extend beyond the line of an adjacent factory.
HOOOH said: “We seek proper clarification from Historic England as to why they are not keeping to these criteria. The northern limit they stipulated for built development is a clearly defined threshold, not something to negotiate with the applicant on the basis that proposals achieve partial compliance.”
The group’s exposé also criticises a lack of rigour and transparency over archaeological evidence, heritage impact assessments and photomontages submitted by the developer.
HOOOH says that Historic England’s representation is a complete abdication of duty, summed up in the heritage body’s comment: ‘This latest proposal is an improvement on previous ones, partly because it more fully complies with the Statement of Common Ground.’ Campaigners are also concerned that pressure may have been put on Shropshire Council’s archaeology and conservation team, whose representation, published a week after the consultation deadline, essentially defers to Historic England’s views.
“This is just not good enough,” HOOOH said. “Historic England, whose remit is to safeguard our shared national heritage, has a duty to ensure that any proposal wholly complies with the agreed conditions. They should be far more rigorous: a unique hillfort and archaeological landscape are at stake here.
Campaigners say they are shocked that Historic England has failed to object to proposals that would constitute substantial harm to a scheduled monument from development within its setting, as defined in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF).
“This has removed the main obstacle to planners approving the application, as it would be very difficult for Shropshire Council to justify approval against Historic England’s objection,” HOOOH said. “It is now up to our elected representatives on Shropshire Council’s planning committee to follow the democratic wish and refuse permission.”
Campaigners continued: ”Historic England has retreated from having serious concerns over the heritage impacts of the proposed development and is now parroting the developer’s statement about distances between the hillfort and proposed development, as if these are acceptable boundaries. They offer no explanation as to why these distances, which form no part of the Statement of Common Ground, are significant and carry weight for accepting development.
“This goes against Historic England’s own advice, principles and spirit of heritage protection regarding the setting of heritage assets, in particular those classified as designated heritage assets. It also goes against the principles for evaluating harm to heritage assets and their setting within the NPPF.
“Apart from the immediate damaging consequences for Old Oswestry, an exceptional type site for Iron Age understanding, this could set a very dangerous planning precedent for developers to ravage heritage landscapes integral to the story and experience of ancient monuments across England.”
HOOOH added: “Can we actually rely on Historic England to apply their own guidance on setting, which is a lifeline in protecting our fragile heritage? Throughout our campaign, HOOOH has witnessed double standards based on a weakened planning process that promises, but has scant regard for, public consultation and localism. It also appears to have allowed a statutory consultee to be manipulated during private meetings and by developer-led literature, which plays down the value of the heritage, that is, our heritage!”
Old Oswestry’s plight has attracted attention from around the world, prompting a 12,000-signature petition and support from national heritage organisations and leading academics including Michael Wood, Alice Roberts, Mary Beard, Dan Snow and Tom Holland.
The 3,000-year-old hillfort is widely referred to as ‘The Stonehenge of the Iron Age’ for its unique design and pivotal importance together with its hinterland landscape for the understanding of Iron Age society.
HOOOH said: “The local community, which has fought so long and passionately to protect Old Oswestry, is distraught that its hillfort could be both the victim of and a precedent for a new age of legalised heritage vandalism. We have consistently pointed out how Caerau hillfort in South Wales has been surrounded by urban housing. We are desperate that the relevant authorities wake up to the real dangers that this application near Old Oswestry would bring to the setting of the scheduled monument.
“Historic England has let us down. During the long eight years of this campaign, we put our trust in them as our heritage protectors, even when at times their choices went against our instincts. Now, at the eleventh hour, we feel angry that they have not stood their ground as set out in their agreement with Shropshire Council that should only permit development if it meets all criteria. Instead, they have engaged in closed-door negotiations with the developer and Shropshire Council and, ultimately, their decisions could be the thin end of the wedge to the gradual destruction of Old Oswestry’s setting from long-term town expansion.”
The group added: “The hillfort land allocation was approved in SAMDev back in 2014 under the pressure of meeting over-ambitious housing targets and 5-year housing land supply and because, we were told, there were no other viable locations.
“Five years on, the planning imperative for this most unpopular of development sites has been substantially weakened. The County’s 5-year housing land supply is in surplus and housing numbers for Oswestry are being majorly scaled back in the local plan review to 2036, while many potential new sites have come forward including a project to unlock land for around 1000 homes.”
HOOOH says that local housing delivery has recently been boosted after the green light was given to 600 homes on the Oswestry Eastern Sustainable Urban Extension (SUE). The group also points out that the sustainability criteria supporting the allocation of OSW004 in 2014 have been seriously undermined by a change in legal status of the Cambrian Line to an operating railway, effectively preventing access across and along the track for pedestrian and cycle access.
According to Shropshire Council’s planning portal, objections to the hillfort site (as of 1 May 2020) have reached over 250. The planning application can be viewed by searching the reference 20/01033/EIA at: https://pa.shropshire.gov.uk/online-applications/
Details of the planning application can be viewed by searching the reference 20/01033/EIA at: https://pa.shropshire.gov.uk/online-applications/. The public can still submit comments via email to: email@example.com
HOOOH’s rebuttal can be found at www.oldowestryhillfort.co.uk