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After a two-year silence, developers are mounting a fourth bid to build housing in the landscape setting of one of Britain’s pre-eminent Iron Age hillforts.

Since being allocated in Shropshire’s local plan (SAMDev) in 2015, land near the hillfort known as OSW004 has faced a succession of planning applications and revisions, each attracting substantial and sustained opposition both locally and nationally.

Campaigners say that although housing numbers have seen a slight reduction, from 91 to 83, the latest scheme still constitutes ‘major development’ within the near setting of a scheduled monument. They claim that an even greater proportion of dwellings would exceed, either wholly or partly, the northern limit for new buildings that was agreed between Shropshire Council and Historic England as a condition of the site’s allocation for housing.

A change in ownership rights affecting access across the railway line also prevents the application complying with special conditions for development. 

Substantial harm

Campaign group HOOOH (Hands Off Old Oswestry Hillfort) insists that the revised application does nothing to mitigate what would be substantial harm to the setting and significance of the hillfort. They argue that Old Oswestry is a scheduled monument of great national importance, meaning that any development within the setting can cause substantial harm in contravention of planning law. English Heritage has described Old Oswestry as ‘one of the greatest archaeological monuments of the nation’. 

“We are at a frightening tipping point in Old Oswestry’s 3000-year history,”  HOOOH said.

“The proposals threaten a new direction of town growth that will devastate the hillfort’s surviving but fragile setting, after we have held Oswestry’s urban edge at a respectful and protective distance for generations.

“Housing will obliterate one of the best views of the hillfort for visitors approaching Oswestry from the east, leading to substantial harm to the heritage significance of the monument by destroying appreciation and understanding of the hillfort in its landscape setting as seen from this important vista.

“The town’s northern development boundary will creep ever closer to the hillfort to make way for this out-of-place housing, eroding the hillfort’s rural setting and devaluing its status and visual dominance in the landscape.

“More worrying still, it will give a potential foothold for further construction that will side-line the hillfort as the Oswestry Growth Corridor takes shape along the bypass.”

High quality agricultural land

Classed as greenfield and high quality (Grade 2/3a) agricultural land, OSW004 was originally allocated because the public benefits to meet housing targets were judged to outweigh the detrimental impacts on one of Britain’s archaeological jewels. But HOOOH says new targets have been scaled back in the forthcoming SAMDev revision, and more than sufficient land has been identified elsewhere to accommodate long-term housing growth in Oswestry.

“The over-ambitious housing targets and over-stated need for housing land that were the main imperative to build seven years ago no longer exist,” HOOOH continues.

“The push to develop now is purely down to a housebuilder keen to capitalise on the site’s very saleable proximity to a sleepy, green hillfort despite the devastating impacts on world-class heritage and on a landscape highly valued by the community. We trust the planning committee will see sense and throw it out.”

Campaigners point out that planning consent for housing just a short distance along from OSW004 on Whittington Road was recently refused because it would add to traffic congestion and safety issues at the junction with Gobowen Road.

HOOOH said: “An estate of 83 houses at OSW004 would make these traffic problems considerably worse. Joined up planning is needed to see that OSW004 is the wrong location for Oswestry’s sustainable development due to the disconnect with schools and shops, the additional traffic congestion, and the inappropriate use of land of high heritage and agricultural value.”

Dominate the landscape

Iron Age hillforts were strategically located to dominate the landscape and signpost tribal territory and power. Often referred to as the Stonehenge of the Iron Age, Old Oswestry ranks among the most impressive of Britain’s prehistoric sites. This is due to the earthwork’s unique and complex design, the extent to which the monument and surrounding landscape have been preserved, and their importance to our understanding of Iron Age society.

The historic farming landscape around the hillfort contributes greatly to how we experience Old Oswestry in its setting and how we can appreciate its heritage significance. This landscape is, therefore, an integral part of the safeguarding and conservation of the scheduled monument.

The housing bid has consistently met with mass objections from the public, local stakeholders, and influential national heritage bodies including the CBA (Council for British Archaeology), RESCUE (the British Archaeological Trust) and The Prehistoric Society.

High profile academics and media figures have also voiced their support for the campaign including Professor Alice Roberts, Professor Michael Wood, Professor Mary Beard, Bettany Hughes, Dan Snow, Tom Holland, Francis Pryor of Channel 4 Time Team fame, and the author Cressida Cowell. The campaign was also featured on Griff Rhys Jones’ ITV series, Griff’s Great Britain. 

The public deadline for representations to the planning application (reference   20/01033/EIA) is February 9. Full details can be found at https://tinyurl.com/44m38rna

HOOOH says that if anyone encounters problems making representations via Shropshire Council’s planning portal, they can email them to: planning.northern@shropshire.gov.uk

More information on the 10-year debacle over development in Old Oswestry’s setting can be viewed at www.oldowestryhillfort.co.uk

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