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Today is a big day for Oswestry. English Heritage are meeting the Town Council to discuss the Hill Fort. It’s a worry because the Council’s wish to hide behind someone else is shining like a beacon and EH sound like they’re up for a compromise for they say they aren’t against the revised plan “in principle” because “it would only affect views from the Oswestry Town side of the hillfort”.
The question arises though, how does only affecting views from the Oswestry side make the development alright? EH’s own Guidance Paper on the setting of heritage assets states that: “The significance of a heritage asset derives not only from its physical presence and historic fabric but also from its setting – the surroundings in which it is experienced….” Is it not the case that 90% of the surroundings in which this asset is experienced are on “the Oswestry Town side of the hillfort”?
Let’s hope it all works out fine. Today is a good day for a good result because it’s now less than two weeks until the new Stonehenge Visitor Centre opens, stage one of a project to restore the stones to their “splendid isolation”, something that EH will rightly enjoy worldwide praise for. At Stonehenge it will never be said new development is OK as it’s only on one side of the monument!
Finally, as we said before, if the Council wants to stand up for “no new houses round the hill fort” (and pass it on to the future unscathed by the current ephemeral scrap of doctrinal policy that will by then be long-forgotten dust) they’d better say so plain and simple and not be persuaded to support “some new houses round the hill fort”. Posterity is watching them!
The above is from The Oswestry Town Plan, “an informed and influential guide to developers, setting out what matters most to local people” which expresses The Town Vision in which “important open spaces are protected and enhanced”.
So what does it show? An important open space that should be protected, for sure. But the setting of the hill fort? Absolutely not. Settings aren’t perfectly round. Nor can they be drawn on a map (they shouldn’t be confused with buffer zones round World Heritage Monuments) – they exist within the judgements of Planning Inspectors not on maps. Thus whoever drew the circle had neither the authority nor the ability to represent it as the setting – and didn’t claim it was.
So WHY did they draw that line just there, perfectly round (and offset so it is further from the hill fort in the North than the South?) What “informed and influential guide to developers” was it providing? In what way was it “setting out what matters most to local people”? We don’t know. But to repeat, it isn’t the setting for the reasons given and also because a setting as tiny as that for “one of the greatest archaeological monuments of the nation” would be a grotesque joke. By any basis of judgement the setting of that monument is far larger and building houses almost touching that circle as if it did portray the setting would be terribly wrong, don’t you agree campaigners and councillors? ‘Course you do! And yet ….
How did that happen? Where did the developers (and perchance some councillors) get the idea that building houses just there would be acceptable and would reflect what matters most to local people?
Oswestry Town Council has invited English Heritage to meet them “so we have all relevant information and views to hand”. But actually don’t they have “all the relevant information and views to hand” already? If they want to know what the public thinks they can read the Petition and if they want to know what they themselves think they can read their own past statement saying they aren’t in favour of anything that would damage the historical significance of the hill fort. And if they want to know if the development will do that they can go up there today and calculate if any of the new houses will be visible. If any will then the setting will be damaged! [Incidentally, we've found something a bit surprising about the setting. Come back here on Tuesday!]
So why would they seek further information when they have all they need? Well, they say “we need to hear first hand from English Heritage who are the national guardians of this site which has such international importance.” So it’s because EH are “national guardians”. However, they should know that EH officials are medically identifiable: hearts in the right place but arms twisted behind their backs. Yes EH is the designated Heritage Champion but it’s also the creature of its paymaster, the Government (and you know what they’re like). So if the Council thinks writing to EH will get them definitive support for no houses round the hill fort, they should beware. The ‘National Planning Policy Framework’ (by which EH is bound) has a “presumption in favour of sustainable development” (the implications of which are clear) and note the definition of conservation (of places like the hill fort) in that document. It doesn’t have the everyday meaning of “preservation”, it is defined as “the process of maintaining and managing change to a heritage asset in a way that sustains and where appropriate enhances its significance.”
So, if the Council wants to stand up for “no new houses round the hill fort” (and pass it on to the future unscathed by an ephemeral scrap of doctrinal policy that will by then be long-forgotten dust) they’d better say so plain and simple and not be persuaded to support “some new houses round the hill fort” by those clever heritage champion fellas up from that London (well Swindon probably, but London sounds more scarily authoritative!) On the other hand of course, some Councillors might secretly be in favour of putting some houses round the fort despite the fact the public is against it and are hoping to be able to say they “reluctantly accept the advice of the experts”. Salop, like Westminster and Whitehall, contains a wide range of characters.
Ladies and Gentlemen:
Why is it that when someone recently wanted to build 10 houses in Morda on the edge of Oswestry and 100 people signed a petition against it you said “no” on the grounds that the plans “went against the wishes of the community”
whereas when someone wanted to build 188 houses in the setting of a world famous hill fort on the edge of Oswestry and 6,000 people signed a petition against it ….. you just pushed ahead regardless?
Would it be a good idea to publicly explain why your reactions to the two cases are so different?
And while you’re at it perhaps you could also explain why your planning Cabinet member’s statement that
“taking into account what the public have said we have proposed some new options that better meet the needs of the public“
shouldn’t be taken as meaning ….
“we are determined to ignore what the public have clearly said”.
Oswestry is turning into a fantasy world. Eddie Bowen, from Bowen Son and Watson, one of the development agents, has said:
“There is a golden opportunity here. At the moment nobody knows what will happen from a farming point of view, but once this is done that is it. There would be a public open space around it [the hillfort] and that will secure it for the future.”
In case you don’t quite take it in, he is saying that building houses round the hill fort will provide a protective ring within which no-one will build houses! Seasoned observers of developerspeak are saying they haven’t heard such stuff since the days when those masters of the dark art, Tarmac PLC, used to claim that opencast mining round the Thornborough Henges would be good for them!
Not that anyone should be surprised by tricky words at Oswestry. It was there that the Reverend Spooner was educated. They say he once said “You have hissed all my mystery lectures”. Maybe the people of Oswestry should say to Eddie: “We ciss on your ponservation claims….”
At Oswestry Guildhall a few days ago plans for the proposed housing development near the hill fort were displayed. A Mr Roberts (who is working on some of the plans) said “It’s been a useful day. From our point of view it was about providing information to the various people who weren’t previously party to some of the plans….. I think a number of people in the town have the idea that the hillfort is being developed, but it’s not – it’s land near the foot of the hillfort, not the hillfort itself.”
But hang on, who actually thought that? Don’t the vast majority of Oswestry people know very well the hill fort can’t be built on and that it’s the setting that’s being targeted? It’s not a case of people misunderstanding a harmless proposal. It’s a case of people understanding a damaging one all too well.
The police recently made a plea for an Oswestry chip shop to employ bouncers to keep troublemakers at bay. Maybe there’s a case for the Council to employ bouncers round the hill fort to keep developers at bay. They could do a lot more damage than a few late-night drunks…..
There are to be “top-level talks” between “interested parties” about the hill fort. For what purpose? “To look at how greater public involvement could be brought into the issue” and “to explore the issue in more depth”…. but that still prompts the question: WHY?!
After all, the public (in the form of the Hands Off Old Oswestry Hillfort campaign) don’t need to explore or be involved in something they don’t want to happen. Nor does Oswestry Town Council – which says it won’t agree to anything that would damage the historical impact of the hillfort. Nor does Gabowen Council which says it opposes anything which would impinge upon the setting of the fort and nor does English Heritage – which is duty-bound to champion the settings of such places – or (at worst) to manage a process of change if it’s inevitable but not to facilitate, initiate or negotiate it when it isn’t!
So who needs this meeting? No-one that has the Hill Fort’s welfare in mind. All they need is an email saying the proposal has been withdrawn! Only those that want the development to go ahead could want a meeting. As we’ve pointed out previously there’s the tactic, as ancient as humanity, of asking for more than you want in order to be able to negotiate a lesser amount that you always had in mind. Let’s hope that tactic fails and that those who don’t want the setting of the hillfort damaged at all don’t get talked into settling for anything less.
A guest article by campaigner Diana Baur.
With support from countless high-profile historical experts, including Professor Mary Beard and Professor George Nash, nearly 6,000 people from Oswestry, Shropshire, and another 1,000 global supporters have asked English Heritage to outlaw completely ANY BUILDING AT ALL on the land around this magnificent Ancient Hillfort and keep it safe from development. Aren’t they entitled to get the wholehearted support of EH?
There are plenty of alternative potential sites on which to build houses both in and around Oswestry, but with its spectacular views of the Hillfort a development on this farmland would of course ooze prestige and the intended executive houses would bring high profits for the developers and large council taxes for Shropshire Council as well as government support grants for the next six years. So, all in all, heritage vandalism apart, it’s win, win, win. It’s an established fact that as its value wanes, money is becoming ever more influential. Like a robber, it ties the hands of our consciences, values, principles, compassion and judgement behind our backs. As with any drug, the greater the dependence upon it, the greater it’s influence in this respect.
Thank goodness that the belief in the importance of their hill fort that the people of Oswestry are expressing so forcefully is shared by EH, who say: “Old Oswestry is a hugely significant archaeological resource. Its importance is derived not only from its prehistoric legacy, but also from its contribution to later periods of history. Its incorporation into Wat’s Dyke marks a chapter in the formation of early medieval Britain and it played an important role in the first of two world wars that so dramatically shaped the world in which we live. Old Oswestry is also important for the richness of its wildlife and is a key component in maintaining the biodiversity of the local area”.
BUT EH are suffering. They have been progressively deprived of funding. See the article by their Chief Executive Simon Thurley titled “We are stuffed”! http://www.spectator.co.uk/arts/arts-feature/8920601/basically-we-are-stuffed-english-heritage-simon-thurley-interviewed/ That is perhaps a clue to how they behave. For instance, Professor Sir Barry Cunliffe is on the governing commission of EH, but has not replied to letters asking for support to save the Hillfort.
The party in government has its own short-term agenda –namely to be re-elected. Re-election strategies, namely meeting our housing shortfall abound. Developers are frequently at variance with preserving cultural heritage, as they choose prestige sites to command high house prices. In the circumstances it is unsurprising that EH is likely to choose to keep its teeth in a glass by the bed, its one good eye focused firmly on the pillow and, when asked, only dance to the tune that is played by its paymasters – or at least always make sure that the chorus line fits that requirement.
This is what nearly 6,000 good people of Oswestry very much hope is not happening, but appears to be in view of EH’s less than strong response to the plans to build around The Hillfort. They have recommended that plans for two of the three sites in question are not taken forward ( ie Site OSW002 (Land off Gobowen Road) and Site OWS003 (Oldport Farm, Gobowen Road) – at least, not in their current form. But they remain mealy mouthed on the third site. Site OSW004 (land off Whittington Road) – “Any development will need to take into account the local topography and integrate well with the existing built area together with creating a new, sympathetic urban edge for the town and its wider rural surroundings…… English Heritage would welcome continuing involvement in the detailed design and master planning of this site.”
WHY ARE EH MEALY MOUTHED ABOUT THE THIRD SITE? To repeat: With support from countless high-profile historical experts, including Professor Mary Beard and Professor George Nash, nearly 6,000 people from Oswestry and another 1,000 global supporters have asked English Heritage to outlaw completely ANY BUILDING AT ALL on the land around this magnificent Ancient Hillfort and keep it safe from development. Aren’t they entitled to get the wholehearted support of EH?
It’s obvious, even from space, there’s no need to extend Oswestry towards the Hill Fort, except to make money for someone.
Yet the Council persists, using every old chestnut in the book…
There’s the tactic, as ancient as humanity, of asking for more than you want – hence the proud announcement that discussions with English Heritage have resulted in “a significant reduction in the scale of development“. In other words be grateful it’s not worse. The Ministry of Transport used that habitually 3 decades ago – “look, one of our rejected options for the new road was straight through your houses!”
They’ve also tried the “It’s for the good of the victim” approach perfected by mining company and self-proclaimed enviro-saints Tarmac plc at Thornborough Henges, suggesting the development could provide “a vast improvement to access and parking at the Hillfort” and the never missing appeal to the pocket of the locals: “which can only be good news for the site and the wider visitor economy of Oswestry.”
All three tactics pretty much insult the intelligence of the listeners – for take another close look at the satellite view. It really doesn’t need doing just there, does it? Except to make money for someone. Diana Baur has penned a letter that expresses the reality so clearly that it’s worth reproducing here:
“English Heritage is a government funded organisation and the government have housing targets. Discussions between English Heritage and the “promoter of building sites” will be a one-sided discussion. It will not be democratic and so is unlikely to be in in the interests of the people of Oswestry.
The very fact that some “scaling back” of the plans has apparently already taken place suggests that the voice of reason might just have peeked its head over the parapet.
The trouble is the voice of reason is cloaked and choked by the gods of “profit” and “targets” and “self-interest”- gods that currently stalk the corridors of council chambers and Whitehall itself.
If we are to walk tall into a new post-industrial age leaning heavily upon the goddesses of “community” and “common sense”, then we need more than just a scaling back. We need a whole new outlook on what is valuable in life.
The rampant gambling that led to the crash of 2008 is still going on. We don’t need a bit of “tweaking at the edges”. There needs to be a complete change of heart. The hillfort represents one of those extremely valuable things that makes life worth living and that must be preserved.”
Here’s an Environmental Impact Assessment (not sure for whose benefit, everyone’s presumably.) It has “been carried out in accordance with the English Heritage Guidance Document – The Setting of Heritage Assets” but it has used a particular scoring system to assess “kinetic” views. It’s a very long document, not easy for amateurs or councillors to follow but Page 62 is nice and clear for them, and soothing ….
Page 62. Summary of Impacts on Key Views
The scoring system adopted follows the Design Manual for Roads and Bridges Cultural Heritage Environmental Impact Assessment methodology, as adapted by ICOMOS for assessing impacts on the outstanding universal value of World Heritage Sites
[But is that entirely the most appropriate scoring system to use here? I guess that will become clear from the results it throws up. - Ed.]
The Assessment of the proposed masterplan development shows that the impact on key views will be as follows:
Slight beneficial 1
Slight adverse 2