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“Old Oswestry Hillfort” said it all on Facebook:
“But beware! On Thursday 17th December, the Council will be hoping to dumb down another looming error of judgement – one that flies in the face of the public they purport to serve and the express opinion of the country’s most qualified heritage experts.”
In some ways Council Leader Keith Barrow is the gift that keeps on giving for the dismal independent repugnate of Shropshireland. It is not specifically he who wants to damage a nationally important scheduled monument. It is the Council. Now that he has been found guilty of breaching the Council’s code of conduct the public is naturally calling for his resignation but that’s where the danger lies. If he succeeds in hanging on, people will think he’s the main problem. He isn’t. Worse, if (as seems far more likely) the Council throws him out they will seek to imply the stink has departed with him. But it won’t have.
Let the Campaign not focus on Mr Barrow. Let it focus on Shropshire Council (and indeed Heritage England) for supporting the unsupportable.
Shropshire Council’s grubby machinations wouldn’t normally attract attention beyond Shropshireland. However, they’ve voted to damage a nationally significant monument in defiance of national advice so they’re under national scrutiny. So let it be noted they’ve just found their Leader guilty of offending against “the principles of Integrity, Honesty and Leadership” in their Code of Conduct but that he remains Leader! His only punishment is that he must attend “training” to ensure such “oversight” is avoided in the future. Will that help Oswestry hillfort? You decide.
Meanwhile, the evidence they’ve made a huge misjudgement on the hillfort grows ever greater and creeps ever closer. A recent appeal decision in Bredon, Worcestershire involves the same basic issues: would a housing development within the setting of a listed building and an historic monument cause more harm than benefit? The Inspector there ruled yes. The significance of that is that anyone who knows both places will know that by any honest measure the harm at Oswestry would be far greater than what has been judged unacceptable at Bredon (by both an Inspector and Worcestershire Council!)
Perhaps, nevertheless, they’ll still insist it’s chalk and cheese and far more complex than the campaigners and distinguished national experts are saying. If so that may be yet another “oversight” on their part arising from the fact they’ve failed to read Section 72 of the Bredon decision which could surely also apply at Oswestry. Far from complex, it’s rather simple:
“In view of the weight carried by the heritage harm, this harm is the overriding factor, and is not outweighed by the benefits of the proposal. Due to this environmental harm, the proposal also does not represent sustainable development having regard to the policies in the Framework taken as a whole.”
News reached us last week that The Portman Hunt had been written to by the National Trust amid claims it’s horses and hounds damaged Hambledon Hill after the Hunt “left the recognised bridleway and came across the hill”. A National Trust volunteer was even quoted saying “They have now twice been guilty of blatant and wilful damage to a scheduled ancient monument. What, I wonder will it take to make them actually take real notice?”
Lest the National Trust or others are unaware, wilful damage of a scheduled Ancient Monument is a criminal offence in this country. So why on earth are the National Trust pussy footing around with letters when they should be straight onto the police? A quick internet search shows the hunt isn’t exactly a paradigm of virtue so its explanation that they merely “left the track to round up some dogs.” should be taken with a hefty pinch of salt.
After all its not even as if its a first offence on this site, photographic evidence of Portman Hunt members bombing about the hillfort on quad bikes exists from a previous time as you can see below.
Those of you with long memories will recall we highlighted a different hunt last year who decided riding multiple horses over a barrow was appropriate. A trend of disrespect and contempt?
Historic England’s Heritage Planning Case Database is seriously good. It enables amateurs to do what the professionals do (or should) which is to use planning decisions in one place as a guide to how the law should be interpreted in another.
It’s a work in progress and it doesn’t yet contain cases about hill forts but I did come across this, an application to build 59 houses on land at Partridge Green, West Sussex which will be kind of familiar to people in Oswestry (especially paragraph 53, see below, it’s enough to make you weep) – apart from the Inspector’s decision to refuse permission! Incidentally the people of Oswestry might care to note that in West Sussex there had been the usual blather about affordable housing yet the application included only 4 one bedroomed apartments and 35 three, four and five bedroomed houses. (A five bedder round there would cost you about £1.3 million).
Anyway, here are some bits of the Inspector’s report that will ring a lot of bells of regret in Oswestry. Life just ain’t fair if you’re a Salopian monument with a quite extraordinary, aberrant Council. We’ve already suggested Oswestry hill fort would be safe in West Oxfordshire. Looks like that could also be true if it was in West Sussex.
76. Sustainable development is about change for the better. The appeal proposal would assist in the provision of much needed housing in the local area and District in general. This is a highly significant material consideration and carries substantial weight in the context of paragraph 49 of the Framework. It would also have a social and economic role to play in achieving positive growth now and into the future.
77. However, such benefits would be at significant cost to the intrinsic character of the countryside and its green, open, pastoral appearance; and would not preserve the setting of the listed buildings, thereby unacceptably harming their significance…..
78. The presumption in favour of sustainable development set out in paragraph 14 of the Framework applies only to sustainable development. Taking this conclusion into account along with all other considerations set out above, including the contribution of the proposal to addressing the shortfall in housing supply, on balance, I conclude that the adverse impacts of the appeal proposal would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits of granting planning permission. Therefore, the appeal should fail.
A comment just made by Dr George Nash….
Submitted on 2015/11/04 at 09:02
Dear Team, I have just asked the Chairman of West Sussex Council if Old Oswestry Hillfort and its surrounding landscape can be incorporated into West Sussex. We want this ancient site to be administered by a useful, honest and progressive cultural heritage team; West Sussex has said…..YES. Archaeologists and the general public please be aware that Old Oswestry Hillfort and its surrounding landscape is NOW part of West Sussex. [Dismal] Shropshireland you have been a disgrace to this and other heritage assets including the demolition of the only remaining purpose-built Telford-A5 tollhouse and the threat of damage/destruction to sections of Offa’s Dyke at Trefonen – time to go back to the drawing board and rebuild the confidence of the general public. The message from us West Sussex people to the planning officers and elected members of [Dismal] Shropshireland is…..GET LOST.
Press release from HOOOH, 8 October 2015, Attention: Immediate
World War 1 commemoration made ‘bargaining chip’ in hillfort housing bid
A major World War One commemoration is in doubt after being used as leverage for housing in the shadow of Old Oswestry hillfort, campaigners have revealed. English Heritage hoped to excavate WW1 practice trenches on the hillfort plateau in 2016 as part of a special programme of national events marking Britain’s First World War centenary. The project was set to research the relationship and activities linking Old Oswestry, Park Hall military camp and Oswestry-born, WW1 poet and soldier, Wilfred Owen, who was stationed at the camp in October 1916. It is thought that Owen trained on the hillfort’s practice trench network which replicated those used on the Western Front during the First World War.
But correspondence acquired through Freedom of Information by campaign group, HOOOH, reveals that the project hit problems during negotiations with the planning consultant and farmer behind the housing bid. Referring to the commemoration in a letter in November 2013, J10 Planning wrote to English Heritage’s estates manager: “My client would be delighted to support your aspirations, but feels unable to agree being positive until such time as he has managed to obtain support from your ‘whole’ organisation in respect of the development and betterment proposals. I trust you appreciate the difficult position my client therefore finds himself in.”
HOOOH understands that English Heritage will need the farmer’s permission to carry out the dig on the hillfort plateau which he tenants for cattle grazing. But according to latest information, campaigners say that the project remains on hold until agreement is reached.
Historic England (formerly English Heritage) has opposed two out of three proposed housing sites on farmland abutting the hillfort in Shropshire’s SAMDev local plan. However, it has signed a statement of common ground with Shropshire Council agreeing development on the third site, known as OSW004, subject to master planning conditions. Campaigners are shocked and disappointed that the proposed housing appears to be standing in the way of a poignant and important WW1 commemoration that would reinforce Old Oswestry’s heritage legacy. John Waine of HOOOH said: “This is a WW1 commemoration project of national significance with the potential of bringing huge value for Oswestry and the deeper understanding of WW1 history. Sadly, it appears that without the farmer’s permission, Historic England remains unable to excavate a trench on the hillfort plateau. Should this kind of negotiation, bartering WW1 memories for profits, play a part in a supposedly transparent planning procedure? Does it not completely undermine the integrity of the process? We believe so.”
“The project has already been severely held back. If it’s going to happen at all, Historic England needs to crack on. HOOOH calls upon Historic England, the farmer and Shropshire Council to publicly state where they stand on this keynote WW1 project. We hope that common sense will prevail.”
HOOOH also points to recent press comments by Historic England underplaying the significance of views across land south-east of the hillfort in defending its acceptance of development at OSW004.
Rosie Ryder of Historic England said: “In the case of Old Oswestry, after careful consideration we decided that the views to the west, north and east make a greater contribution to its significance than views to where the council’s proposed site would lie, because that view looks directly towards the town.”
HOOOH says this rejects evidence it presented at the Inspector’s public hearing which clearly articulated the heritage significance of Old Oswestry’s relationship with the Iron Age tribal centre of The Wrekin to the south-east, and the ancient roads in this direction that Old Oswestry was located to protect and control.
Neil Phillips of HOOOH said: “You have to wonder whether Historic England might be taking this stance just to salvage the WW1 dig.”
The archaeological excavation of a section of the practice trenches was set to uncover both WW1 history as well as pre-history giving insights into the origins of the 3,000 year old hillfort. The last archaeological excavation on the hillfort was carried out in 1939-40 by Professor William Varley.
Old Oswestry’s network of WW1 practice trenches is one of few examples of its size and complexity that has survived complete. Even now, the trench layout can be clearly seen from aerial photography revealing its impressive scale and detail.
Based on other archaeological evidence, it is known that further extensive practice trenches exist elsewhere within the hillfort’s hinterland. The trenching catered for well over 4000 soldiers at any one time during the First World War.
*HOOOH: Hands Off Old Oswestry Hillfort
Kate Clarke on 01691 652918 or 07835 924069 or John Waine on 07972 113619
An open letter of objection by 12 leading British academics of archaeology can be viewed here: http://www.britac.ac.uk/news/news.cfm/newsid/1209
- FOI document can be found here: http://tinyurl.com/ppzd73e
- Recent press comments by Historic England here: http://tinyurl.com/psjl9jg
- HOOOH’s (Hands Off Old Oswestry Hillfort) evidence on heritage views can be read here: http://tinyurl.com/nmxju65
- Wilfred Owen, who was killed in action in November 1918, is believed to have written the poem ‘Storm’ while stationed at Park Hall Camp in the shadow of Old Oswestry.
- World War I sites are considered archaeologically significant, a view that is being reinforced as we mark the centenary of this most poignant period of world history.
- As part of the 2014-2018 Centenary, Historic England has initiated a major project to record the colossal ‘footprint’ left by the First World War on the fabric, landscape and coastal waters of England.
- HOOOH has been waging a two-year campaign against housing allocations in Shropshire Council’s SAMDev local plan that could open the floodgates to town growth into Old Oswestry’s ancient landscape.
- While two out of three sites were removed in February 2014, the largest for 117 houses (OSW004, off Whittington Road) remains following examination by government- appointed Inspector, Claire Sherratt. She is expected to submit her final report on the plan to Shropshire Council during October 2015.
- After objecting to OSW004 following public consultation on SAMDev’s ‘soundness’ in April 2014, Historic England has since signed a Statement of Common Ground with Shropshire Council agreeing to development subject to conditions mainly concerning design and layout.
- Campaigners have threatened a judicial review if Shropshire Council adopts SAMDev with OSW004 included, and is currently in talks with a planning lawyer.
- Situated just north of the Welsh Marches town of Oswestry, Shropshire, the Iron Age hillfort of Old Oswestry dates back to 1000 BC.
A campaign group has accused authorities of staggering double standards over development affecting Shropshire’s historic landscape.
The backlash comes as Shropshire Council’s conservation department and Historic England rally to object to development skirting Caer Caradoc hillfort near Church Stretton in the south of the County.
Meanwhile, the two bodies have signed an outline agreement in Shropshire’s SAMDev local plan for 117 houses across the landscape of Old Oswestry hillfort in the north, despite fresh acknowledgement from leading academics of its national importance.
Shropshire Council conservation officer, Berwyn Murray, has argued that an application for 85 homes at Caer Caradoc will impact the hillfort and valley as well as a nearby grade II listed 18th century farmhouse. He cites concerns that the proposed development will “urbanise the currently open and agricultural wider setting.” John Yates, an inspector for Historic England, has also objected, saying that the hillfort would be “closer to the suburbs, and less rural” if the housing goes ahead.
Maggie Rowlands of campaign group, HOOOH (Hands Off Old Oswestry Hillfort), said: “We are encouraged that strong objections are being made in defence of these wonderful historic assets and rural landscape in Church Stretton. But the same arguments can and should be applied in the case of Old Oswestry given its widely-accepted national if not international significance.”
Nevertheless, Shropshire Council is refusing to acknowledge that Old Oswestry’s historic farmland setting faces similar degradation from development sweeping ever closer to the monument. It has stated it “does not accept that proposed development (OSW004) would result in substantial harm to the significance of the hillfort.” And it claims that “the sensitivity of the Old Oswestry hillfort and its setting have been recognised by Shropshire Council throughout the local plan-making process.”
HOOOH points out that the Council’s opinion has not been supported by any evidence and is in stark contrast to the assessment by a group of 12 eminent British archaeologists that housing would cause “irreparable harm to the hillfort’s setting”. They include Professor Sir Barry Cunliffe and Professor Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn, while RESCUE (British Archaeological Trust), the Council for British Archaeology and The Prehistoric Society have all made similar objections. Testifying to the hillfort’s significance, representatives among them have described it as the “Stonehenge of the Iron Age” and in the “Premier League of British archaeological sites”.
“We ask why so little support to protect this significant hinterland landscape has come from Shropshire’s historic environment team,” said Mrs Rowlands. “It appears that OSW004 is being forced on us by the political will of the Council to fulfil their housing quota in SAMDev at any cost.”
Tim Malim, heritage planning adviser to HOOOH, said: “There is an inexplicable lack of appreciation for one of Shropshire’s and the UK’s most important heritage assets. There is also a serious lack of understanding for planning policy and the heritage significance of the hillfort’s setting in believing that development at OSW004 is sound. The LPA is leaving itself wide open to legal challenges while there is such glaring inconsistency in the interpretation of planning guidance in relation to the County’s heritage.”
Campaigners are also extremely disappointed with Historic England’s capitulation over OSW004. Having objected during the early stages of SAMDev, the national body has since agreed principles for housing, subject to design approval, in a statement of common ground. This is despite its stated concerns over the loss of the hillfort’s rural setting to urban development and the disruption of views to and from the hillfort that contribute to the aesthetic value.
HOOOH says that Historic England’s contradictory approach is further highlighted by its objection to the allocation of land in SAMDev to extend an industrial park adjacent to Shrewsbury’s historic Battlefield. The heritage body is concerned about the impact of development on key views to and from the site, and potential harm to the registered battlefield’s wider designation. This is a directly parallel situation with OSW004 at Old Oswestry, say campaigners.
Mr Malim added: “We have submitted evidence to the LPA showing that there would be substantial impacts on the heritage significance of Old Oswestry from the urban encroachment of 117 houses. These include assessments using industry standard methods and Historic England’s own criteria on the setting of heritage assets.”
However, HOOOH says it is encouraged that rulings elsewhere are providing some clarity on the interpretation of harm to heritage setting under national planning guidelines (NPPF).
In 2013, the Court of Appeal overturned plans for four wind turbines on land at the 17th century Barnwell Manor near Lyveden New Bield in Northamptonshire. The judge ruled there had been a failure by a public inquiry inspector “properly to interpret and apply the relevant planning policies on the effect of development on the setting of heritage sites, which meant that the balancing exercise was flawed”.
The ruling has had notable repercussions for planning applications affecting heritage sites.
Andrew Batterton, legal director for global law firm, DLA Piper LLP, wrote in The Planner magazine earlier this year: “Even less than substantial harm impacts that fail to preserve setting and that contribute to significance of a heritage asset are now expected to be afforded considerable weight, creating a strong presumption against the grant of planning permission.”
HOOOH says if proper weight is given to Old Oswestry’s significance, the scale of harm from development in its setting, and to its community value as a heritage asset, then any unbiased balancing exercise regarding harm versus the need for housing must clearly rule OSW004 as unsound.
The SAMDev plan has been undergoing examination by Inspector Claire Sherratt for over a year. She is expected to submit her final plan to Shropshire Council in the next few weeks.
It’s a fair question. How did we arrive at a situation where tens of thousands – perhaps millions of people don’t want the hill fort’s surroundings developed and a very small number – perhaps in single figures do, and the latter may get their way? It has been a multi-threaded process but here’s just one of the threads, lest anyone forget. Years ago someone spoke to us unfondly of Peter de Figueiredo who has provided an expert opinion for the developers, citing this. Not sure if any of that is fair, we’re not saying it is, but what we can do is refer everyone to his paid-for opinion on Oswestry Hill Fort and suggest they decide for themselves if it’s fair or otherwise.
We love Section 5.3.9 about “views from” ….
” The sense of detachment the viewer feels, however, comes from the elevated viewpoint and the otherworldly character
of the structure (as described in paragraph 4.2.16-17 above), rather than
because of the particular nature of the setting. Hence the view over open
fields and woodland seen to the west may be very attractive, but it
contributes no more to the significance of the hill fort than the view of pylons
and traffic passing along the A5 to the east. Indeed the view of modern day
activity as seen in the buildings and roads that are spread more densely
across the eastern side can help the viewer to understand the continuity of
human occupation on the site and the links with its hinterland.”
and Views To (where he says it’s best viewed from very close, i.e. the only valuable setting is a very small one!) ….
“5.3.2 Distant views providing broad-ranging panoramas can be of particular
significance since they place the hill fort within its wider urban, rural and
topographical context. The relationship between the hill fort and its setting is
important to understanding the history of the area. Yet given the restricted
number of views, and the fact that many of them can only be glimpsed from
a travelling vehicle, their kinetic nature means that understanding of
significance relies on a matrix of views rather than a few static viewpoints.
This makes it difficult to model the potential impact of the proposed
development, since the setting changes in a dynamic sequence of vistas.
5.3.3 Localised views can provide more information about the hill fort itself, since
its form and structure is better revealed when the viewer is close to the
and this is just amazing …..
“A number of changes in the setting of the hill fort are identified. These have
been assessed in terms of impact on significance. Slight adverse impacts are
found in relation to kinetic views from the A5 by-pass and from a single
viewpoint on the B5069 travelling north. A beneficial impact is found in
relation to kinetic views from the B5069 travelling south. Other effects of
development are found to be either neutral or beneficial.
Mitigation measures are proposed in relation to archaeology; access to the
hill fort, car parking and interpretation; and landscape and ecology. These will
substantially offset the adverse visual consequences of development.
On balance this assessment finds that the consequences of development of
land at Oldport as proposed would have a neutral impact on the significance
of the Old Oswestry Hill Fort, providing that suitable mitigation measures are
taken. This would accord with Policy 134 of the National Planning Policy
Framework that states that where a development proposal will lead to less
than substantial harm to the significance of a designated heritage asset, this
harm should be weighed against the public benefits of the proposal.”
HOOOH Press Release 5th September 2015
Heritage groups ‘slam’ hillfort development in final round of consultation
Shropshire Council’s ‘master plan’ for housing within the historic hinterland of Old Oswestry hillfort has been pulled apart in new criticism by heritage experts.
Proposed guidelines for the 117 houses in Shropshire’s SAMDev local plan have been slated by RESCUE (The British Archaeological Trust) as ambiguous, inappropriate and contrary to national planning policy, and in parts as ‘impossible to implement’ and ‘a nonsense’.
The Prehistoric Society also condemns the proposals, stressing the national significance of the monument and its landscape and the harm that would result from development.
This latest backlash is in response to modifications made by Inspector Claire Sherratt as her examination of the plan comes to a close.
Modifications to the hillfort allocation, known as OSW004, have been taken from a statement of common ground negotiated between Shropshire Council and Historic England (formerly English Heritage). This effectively reframed robust objections by the heritage guardians to the soundness of the site into an agreement to develop subject to a range of master planning conditions.
In its response, campaign group HOOOH has challenged the fairness and transparency of introducing, outside of public consultation, a signed agreement for a highly contentious development aimed at passing Inspector examination.
RESCUE dissects the 300-word policy statement in a detailed representation highlighting points of non-compliance with the NPPF (National Planning Policy Framework) on heritage setting and sustainable development.
The heritage protection group claims that Shropshire Council has not met its obligation to give great weight to the conservation of heritage assets of the highest significance, which includes scheduled monuments such as Old Oswestry.
It quotes NPPF paragraph 132 stating that significance can be harmed or lost through alteration of the heritage asset or development within its setting. RESCUE concludes that housing would ‘obviously adversely affect the setting of the scheduled Old Oswestry hillfort despite any mitigation proposed.’
Citing the national significance of the hillfort, RESCUE goes on to say that development would be unsustainable since the LPA ‘has not demonstrated that OSW004 is vitally necessary to meet its objectively assessed development and infrastructure requirement.’
RESCUE also criticises design principles for delivery of the site, including the ambiguity and inadequacy of master planning which simply states a requirement for ‘high quality design and appropriate integration within the sensitive historic landscape.’ It argues that the principles are highly subjective and impossible to implement impartially without prior exposition and predefined guidance to define and manage them.
Highly critical that a full archaeological investigation is being left to master planning stage, RESCUE continues: ‘It is inappropriate and also contrary to national planning policy to allocate this site for development without the archaeological significance of the site having already been established through appropriate assessment and evaluation.’
The group slates yet another design principle to ‘consider measures to improve the access, interpretation and enjoyment of the hillfort and the wider historic landscape.’
While pointing out that this cannot be implemented without defining the scope and responsibility for such measures, RESCUE asserts: ‘It is simply not possible to envisage any situation whereby a development on this particular site could improve anyone’s enjoyment of the hillfort or the wider historic landscape. The principle is itself a nonsense.’
Moving on to question the proposal for a landscape buffer and screening to ‘create a clear settlement boundary’, RESCUE argues that this is incompatible with the existing character of the hillfort’s open landscape.
The group also criticises the principle of ‘ensuring long distance views to and from the hillfort within its wider setting are conserved’, saying that this contradicts the requirement for screening. It concludes: ‘Conservation of views cannot be maintained if development proceeds on this site, so this principle is impossible to implement.’
In a letter of representation for The Prehistoric Society, president Dr Alex Gibson disputes the same point on preserving long distance views, saying: ‘This cannot be achieved by constructing 117 dwellings within the immediate setting.’
Underlining NPPF guidance on the importance of the setting of designated assets, he also cites Historic England conservation principles for sustaining ‘historic, evidential, aesthetic and communal values’ that contribute to the significance of places.
Dr Gibson writes: ‘The designation of the monument indicates that it has high historic and evidential values, and it is clear from the strong and vocal campaign that the communal value is also extremely significant, both within the local community and further afield. The aesthetic value, of a designed earthwork in a strategic position within a glacial landscape, must also be considered high.’
The Prehistoric Society also questions policy wording requiring that the ‘form, massing, height and roofscape design’ of the development should minimise landscape impact. It argues that the terminology is more suited to urban zones in reference to harmonising with existing architecture, and therefore inappropriate for a rural landscape where there are no pre-existing buildings against which to judge impact.
Stating like RESCUE that OSW004 must be removed from the plan, Dr Gibson sums up: ‘To compromise the setting and impede views both from and to the monument must be considered as significant harm.’
Neil Phillips of HOOOH said: “Between them, these responses completely dismantle the SAMDev policy statement and design principles that supposedly make the hillfort development sound. It defies reason as to how OSW004 can be kept on the plan.”
Meanwhile, Shropshire Council has stated publically that it ‘does not accept that proposed development would result in substantial harm to the significance of the hillfort.’
Described as the ‘Stonehenge of the Iron Age’, the 3,000 year old hillfort is a scheduled monument as is the medieval defence, Wat’s Dyke, which incorporates the hillfort as it crosses north-south through Oswestry .
The Inspector is expected to submit her approved plan to Shropshire Council for adoption this autumn.
Under consultation since 2010, SAMDev will identify land to meet Shropshire’s employment and housing needs to 2026.
OSW004 lies within the most archaeologically significant quadrant of Old Oswestry’s setting, straddling historic farmland that would have sustained centuries of hillfort communities and currently preserves open views to the monument. This area of its landscape fanning east to south cradles evidence of Neolithic, Iron Age, Roman and medieval activity, as well as the footprint of military use during two World Wars linked to the nearby Park Hall Camp.
The housing proposals have been fiercely opposed through several stages of consultation by thousands, including residents of Oswestry and across Shropshire, multiple stakeholder groups, eminent archaeologists and concerned observers around the globe.
A guest post by Dr George Nash, from the Hands Off Old Oswestry Hillfort campaign.
Most readers of this blog will be fully aware of the shenanigans of Shropshireland’s planning department, in particular the way they are handling the so-called SAMDev fiasco. As a result of their far from honest bid to develop housing around the eastern side of Old Oswestry Hillfort, Shropshireland’s reputation goes from bad to damn right bloody awful.
The campaign group Hands Off Old Oswestry Hillfort (HOOOH) has been entrenched in a battle to save the setting of one of England’s most iconic archaeological structures – Old Oswestry Hillfort.
The hillfort has been designated a Scheduled Monument (SM) along with the nearby early medieval linear defence system Wat’s Dyke. In addition to these two internationally important sites, the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) has identified over 100 findspots within the hinterlands including several Roman coin hoards. The landscape to the south and east (as well as within the central area of the hillfort) was an important World War I training area that belonged to the nearby Park Hall military camp.
One would think that such a cluster of sites and their mutual/shared landscape would be afforded some form of protection. However, according to Shropshireland’s planning supremos this is not the case. Indeed, without the huge condemnation from an outraged public and heritage community, Shropshireland would have sanctioned a masterplan development that would have extended eastwards from within 85m of the ramparts to the new A5 (the Bypass).
One can almost forgive the landowner wanting to cash-in on the current ambiguous planning guidance – National Planning Policy Guidance (NPPF). What cannot be forgiven, though, is the murky relationship between Shropshireland, Historic England and the planning consultancy acting on behalf of the landowner. The fact that national guidance does consider setting as an essential factor in determining potential development (see for yourself – PDF link) seems to have been completely ignored by Shropshireland and to some extent by Historic England.
By the way Historic England (formally English Heritage) consulted on NPPF, prior to publication in March 2012 and therefore the situation should be clear-cut. Errr, well, not exactly.
When one delves back into the distant past, to those heady days of 2006 and 2007 when all this development malarkey around the hillfort kicked off, the planning process in terms of archaeology and cultural heritage appeared to recognise the importance of the surrounding landscape. So a geophysical survey and subsequent evaluation programme were duly commissioned.
Now at this point, one would think this initial process to understand the archaeological landscape would be straightforward. Alas, no, not in dear old Shropshireland. Of the 24 trenches commissioned, only 14 were actually excavated, all east of the old A5 – I wonder why? Of the 14, only several were actually excavated over known anomalies that were identified from the geophysical survey. One area of high archaeological activity, coincidentally within OSW004, was completely ignored. The results from the archaeological evaluation must have been music to Shropshireland’s planning supremos, the landowner and his rather expensive planning team.
But does it end there? Actually no, readers. Not exactly.
Enter stage left HOOOH, the campaign group which, playing by the rules from the start, has battled with Shropshireland’s planners for the past two years. Working with this group, we have tried to get a fair hearing concerning the many contentious issues which have clinched serial coverage in the local and national press.
One would have thought that this bad publicity would have provoked a reaction from the planners. Well, not surprisingly, there has been little, apart from a lot of misinformation mainly from a number of press statements from Shropshireland’s leader, Councillor Barrow, who appears to know very little about cultural heritage, apart from, say, the yogurt in his fridge.
In my experience, I have never encountered such an arrogant local authority that seems to think it is above the planning guidance laws of England (well, they are Shropshireland, so I suppose they can do as they please). Their shenanigans include an unbalanced approach to information uploaded on the SAMDev website that only supports the development; murky emails, exposed through Freedom of Information (FOI) between themselves, Historic England and the landowner’s planners; and the apparent selective release of the site promoter’s evidence including commissioned reports.
When one stands back and witnesses how and what information between these characters has been circulated, plus the various inadequate processes involved, one begins to realise that bigger things are afoot.
Certainly from an archaeological and cultural heritage point of view, the work so far has been shoddy at best and I suspect there is a clear intentionality to see any archaeology produce negative results (don’t take my word for it, look at the evaluation trench distribution undertaken in 2007).
As for the setting issues, this is even clearer-cut. Old Oswestry Hillfort is a Scheduled Monument, regarded as one of England’s finest Iron Age hillforts; probably second only to Maiden Castle. There is clear guidance on setting in NPPF (and recently published Historic Environment Good Practice Advice 2015) and any development within the hinterlands of the hillfort would impact on setting; severely, in fact, according to a recent LVIA study. But funnily enough, Shropshireland planners can’t seem to see this one. Thankfully and now coming to its senses, Historic England does.
Me thinks there is a wee rat scurrying around the corridors of power in Shropshireland’s planning department. We are all aware of the size of Shropshire – it’s a big place. We are also fully aware (and accept) the need for a five year housing supply. In the words of Central Government let’s build ourselves out of recession. Hey, so far I am with you, all the way.
But why build around this side of Oswestry, within close proximity of the hillfort? Surely there are many brownfield sites out there – look at the land-banking for starters? I mean, 10,000 people are against it; eminent academic and professional archaeologists are against it; Oswestry Town Council is overwhelmingly against it; in fact, everyone except Shropshireland can see it.
They have stated in SAMDev and the press that they do not accept that ‘proposed development would result in substantial harm to the significance of the hillfort.’ However, the rat within Shropshireland’s corridor of power informs me that Old Oswestry Hillfort could be an important test-case for developers to target other heritage assets. If we – the Common Sense Brigade – lose this battle, Shropshireland and other discredited authorities will see this particular potential victory as a green light for indiscriminate development bids affecting heritage assets up and down the country; in other words, NPPF would become a developer’s charter.
This sinister policy is government-led and I dare say the nods and winks are, as you read this rant, slowly trickling down into the sewer that is Shropshireland’s planning department.
As previously used in this Blog, ‘you couldn’t make it up’.