Diggers could be descending on land skirting a 3000 year old scheduled ancient monument in Shropshire to build houses if county planners have their way.
Shropshire Council is continuing to press for plans to allocate three parcels of farmland for housing development in the shadow of Old Oswestry, one of Europe’s best preserved Iron Age hillforts.
If the sites go ahead, campaigners fear that setting such a dangerous planning precedent under the government’s relaxed National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) could trigger a ‘domino effect’ of similar planning bids, threatening heritage sites around the UK.
Despite fierce opposition through two stages of public consultation, including a petition signed by over 6000 objectors, the ‘masterplan’ for 188 houses remains as a preferred option in SAMDev, Shropshire Council’s Site Allocations and Management of Development plan. This will detail sites across the county for the development of new homes and employment land to 2026. A national heritage group has coined the term ‘Oswestry Democracy’ in reference to the progression of the Old Oswestry sites against a tide of public opposition voiced through consultation.
Situated close to the market town of Oswestry on the Shropshire/Wales border, Old Oswestry hillfort was registered as a Scheduled Ancient Monument as early as 1934 and incorporates the line of another ancient defence, Wat’s Dyke.
Campaigners argue that housing will have a detrimental impact on the monument’s setting which forms an intrinsic part of its archaeology and economic value through tourism.
As well as being at odds with NPPF and English Heritage guidance on development in heritage settings1, objectors point out that the hillfort housing quota could be absorbed within other SAMDev sites or future sites that come on stream, if in fact they are needed at all.
Oswestry site allocations are based on an approximate and so-called aspirational target for 2600 homes by 2026 which campaigners and Shropshire Wildlife Trust have questioned as inflated and unnecessary.
John Waine from the campaign HOOOH, Hands Off Old Oswestry Hillfort, said: “Shropshire Council has acknowledged that the 2600 figure is both arbitrary and inexact. This is the sand on which they seem willing to allocate new homes, setting a precedent for future build around this and other Shropshire heritage sites. Hopefully, they will reconsider that there is no justification for such a damaging prospect based on such an approximation.”
But with the SAMDev plan document due to be finalised by the end of 2013, campaigners are concerned that time is running out to stop the hillfort sites going forward. The promoters’ proposal – the ‘Oldport Masterplan’ – is regarded by planners as highly deliverable, fuelling fears that further housing around the hillfort may follow in the race for cash from the government’s New Homes Bonus scheme.
The majority of land surrounding the monument is in the hands of the same owner whose farmhouse and outbuildings are included for redevelopment in the masterplan. With the NPPF’s ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’ facilitating the current proposals and inflating the farm’s real estate value, this has raised questions over its future.
Campaigners warn that if the current sites go ahead, this could set the precedent for further sell-off of farmland around the hillfort, adding to the devastation of its setting.
HOOOH campaigners are urging supporters to sign their online petition and contribute letters of objection for an exhibition at the end of this month aimed at persuading Oswestry Town Council, which has not yet given its SAMDev response, to oppose the hillfort sites.
Historical development of Oswestry town has so far respected the setting of Old Oswestry (also known as Hen Dinas and Caer Ogyrfan), including views to and from the hillfort. Unusual for its relatively low lying site and proximity to an urban settlement, it has so far survived untouched by development with continuity of its farming context. Sheep and cows still graze its top and ramparts today.
Small scale excavations of the earthwork were carried out in 1939/1940 by W Varley and B.H. St John O’Neil, while the setting has undergone very little archaeological investigation. For example, nothing is known about the function of the enigmatic and unique ‘pits’ on the western side. The setting is also likely to conceal many world class finds and relics that could reveal more about life on the almost 3000 year old hillfort and the area’s history before and since.
Recent research on the Iron Age has been centred on how people lived in and used their landscape, increasing interest in the surrounds of Old Oswestry. An all too brief topographic survey by English Heritage in 2010 found man-made structures in fields to the north-east of the hillfort. The recent discovery in Shropshire (2011) of a well-engineered Iron Age road, thought to connect The Wrekin, near Telford, with Old Oswestry, indicates that there is likely to be a wealth of detail hidden below the soil in the fields below the hillfort.
“If houses go up, then access to important archaeology and further understanding of Iron Age culture will be lost indefinitely under bricks and concrete,” said Neil Phillips of HOOOH. “The sprawling infrastructure of the housing masterplan, with houses, roads, gardens, link paths and car parking, will severely erode a large part of the green farmstead setting which is an integral part of Old Oswestry’s appeal.”