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The guardians of our national heritage take various forms. In Scotland the lead body is Historic Scotland, whilst in Wales it is Cadw and in England the new Historic England (formerly English Heritage) champions all that is special about our heritage. There is a common held belief that these organisations are about protecting nationally important heritage. All three proclaim this loudly in their mission statements and it is therefore hardly surprising that most people believe that these organisations are responsible for *protecting* the best sites in their respective countries. Sadly this could not be further from the truth.
All three organisations are actually responsible for enabling development and change within the historic environment. All three are paid for from the public purse and rely for their very survival on keeping their paymasters happy. The results of this relationship are inevitable and from time to time we have highlighted here on the Heritage Journal some of the apparently bizarre and contradictory decisions these organisations inevitably make.
Recently we heard of a prime example from Scotland which illustrates our point admirably.
A proposal to develop a large part of a designated heritage asset (a battlefield in this case) was submitted and Historic Scotland responded as you might expect by opposing the scheme. The result was that the proposal was withdrawn. Hurrah! – this how the system is supposed to work. The developers however subsequently tweaked their scheme and re-submitted it. Despite the fact that there were now more buildings and the area to be destroyed was exactly the same, Historic Scotland now concluded that the development “would not have a significant impact on the battlefield landscape”.
So what was so different between the two proposals to justify this meteoric change? Apparently very little and most importantly the impact on the heritage asset under both proposals was the same – a substantial proportion would be destroyed. So why did the piper change his tune? The success of this development was a high priority for the Scottish Government, which of course funds Historic Scotland. It would be a brave piper indeed who ignored the wishes of their master…
This story was originally covered by “The Scotsman” but we now understand that despite Historic Scotland’s acquiescence with the annihilation of a place they had identified as being of national importance that the developers themselves have since withdrawn the scheme.
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’.
There’s a petition here and a BBC report here In the words of the petition: “Purbeck District Council have said that the gorgeous woodhenge at Worth Matravers will only be able to stand until September 2015. This beautiful structure not only draws people into the area but is loved by the majority of people in the village. Think of it as a piece of art, a slice of our history or just a beautiful part of the stunning local landscape. We can make a positive difference to the local area by petiitioning Purbeck District Council to allow it to stand for longer.”
It’s a very British dispute. The petition is not calling for it to stay forever, merely for “longer” and the gentleman who built it is full of, well, gentlemanlyness: “It was a bit of fun”…. We used 35 tonnes of timber and made it as an installation, as a feature on the landscape. The council has not been unreasonable with me at all, when I asked if we could have a couple of months they agreed. I have no issue with them at all over this.” Most locals seem to love it and want it to stay longer. Tim Arnold, of the village’s Post Office Cottage bed & breakfast says “I think it is a fantastic thing to do, it is a piece of art as far as I am concerned. I don’t have an issue with the council but this is definitely a piece of art, a local sculpture, and that should be respected. It is a shame for it to be pulled down. I’m not saying it should stay there permanently but maybe for a year or two.”
We agree. In a world where planning laws are flouted with impunity by greedy developers it seems a great shame that the regulations can’t be bent a bit for something that is self-evidently temporary and “gorgeous” and very popular.
There was a plan, Oswestry 2020, published in May 2013 under the banner, “Creating Tomorrow Today”. It was signed by Councillor Martin Bennett, Chair of the Steering Group and was said to be based on “the aspirations and priorities of the local community”. Maybe. But with regard to the hillfort something has subsequently clearly come between the will of the people and the actions of their representatives. What that something was might be explained by this account supplied by campaigner Diana Baur on Facebook in Feb 2014: “Martin Bennett emailed me ages ago when I challenged it all and explained that the council are *** scared of being challenged by the developer because they may have to end up with paying costs of such a challenge”.
What that seems to suggest is that if you’ve got deep enough pockets you can bully people with the threat of expensive litigation and get exactly what you want. Is that what’s happened in Shropshireland? It’s certainly one possibility, but there’s another (or maybe another aspect of the same one) : the Plan said of itself that it was “an informed and influential guide to developers, setting out what matters most to local people” and that it expresses The Town Vision in which “important open spaces are protected and enhanced”. But was it?Just look at how the monument’s place in that vision was depicted:
It couldn’t be smaller, could it? Keep in mind that that the line round the monument is supposed to be doing two things: a.) illustrating an open space that matters to local people and b.) acting as an informed guide to developers. It is drawn incredibly tightly round the hillfort, with no breathing space, no buffer zone, no hinterland, no protected views and no setting (think of it: what English Heritage say is “one of the greatest archaeological monuments of the nation” and the Plan depicts it with no setting whatsoever!) – and none of it based upon any statutory authority, archaeological opinion or public expression of agreement! Yes, it might be defended as merely “symbolic” and not intended to imply a particular limit to the protected area, but if that’s true it’s a mighty strange coincidence, is it not, that subsequently applications have been made to build houses right up to the very edge of that very line?
Has Shropshire only recently been bullied by people with deep pockets? Or was there an intention to frustrate the popular will and archaeological opinion from the very start?
Or both? You decide.
Courtesy of Old Oswestry Hillfort’s Facebook page!
“Can anyone spot the difference between these four late 18th century A5 toll houses? Clue, three of them are in Wales, the other one is in Shropshire….”
Situated 160m above sea level, the Castle Canyke hillfort to the southeast of Bodmin in Cornwall, is not an imposing hillfort. Certainly not as imposing as, say, Old Oswestry Hillfort. And yet they have something in common – both are currently threatened by developers.
Although it is Cornwall’s largest Iron Age hill fort, Castle Canyke is certainly not as large as Oswestry – there is a small modern farm building at the centre of the fort, and walls/hedges running from this building split the fort into four roughly equal fields. The southwest quandrant boundary is the best preserved, with a large bank and small ditch. In the northwest (which provides public access via a kissing gate) the ditch is more substantial, but there is no bank remaining. To the south there are a couple of large industrial estates, to the east, the junctions of the A38 and A30 trunk roads dominate. Brown Willy & Roughtor are visible on the horizon just east of north on a clear day.
So nothing too remarkable, and not a lot to see on site itself, And yet there is a possible Arthurian connection, and a later historical connection which make this site important for the Cornish nation.
- The site is a possible candidate for Kelliwic (Celliwig), Arthur’s court in “Culhwch and Olwen” and the Welsh Triads. Callywith Wood is located about a mile to the Northeast.
- The fort is also the site where Cornish forces mustered for the Anglo-Cornish War of 1549. Nine hundred Cornishmen were subsequently executed in what has been described as “a bloodbath and the most heinous crime ever committed on British soil”
So what of the development threat here? According to the “It’s Our Cornwall” Facebook page:
Last week the Council’s Strategic Planning Committee voted by 17 votes to 2 to give Hawkstone Ltd of Surrey permission to build 750 houses at Bodmin (And a hotel, pub, shops, community building, allotments and public open space). This was despite only 1 in 4 of the houses being ‘affordable’ and calls for rejection from English Heritage.
According to one press report, “due to the steep topography of the site, it would not be financially viable for developers to adhere to the normal demand that 40 per cent of the homes should be in the affordable bracket. Instead, a compromise figure of 25 per cent, which amounts to 187 affordable homes, was reached”.
Apparently a ‘green buffer’ has also been suggested between the development and the hillfort (basically the three fields to the southeast on the plan below), but there is some discussion as to whether the buffer should consist of open space, sports fields, or be left as agricultural land. The full text of the Strategic Planning Committee’s Report can be found on the Council website (PDF link)
And there’s the question of the extent of the development. 750 homes in one of the most economically depressed areas in Europe sounds like a good idea to stimulate ‘growth’, but as only 1 in 4 will be designated ‘affordable’ – how I hate that word – who will be able to afford the non-affordable homes in such an area? The usual answer to such a question is larger corporations. But in order to get a return on their investment, they’ll either sell them on (who to?) or let them out at inflated rents. With very low employment and pay levels in the area, it’s difficult to see how local people will be able to live in the homes, however pleasant they may be.
Once again, it seems the only people to benefit will be the developers themselves, and to hell with the heritage!
Our friends at campaign group Hands Off Old Oswestry Hillfort (HOOH) have today issued the following press release:
Campaigners say new doubts hang over Shropshire Council’s handling of proposed housing by Old Oswestry hillfort as planners come under fire for alleged misuse of delegated powers (Shropshire Star report 30 May 2015).
The backlash comes as government-appointed Inspector, Claire Sherratt, revealed her findings (1 June 2015) on Shropshire’s development blueprint SAMDev. Despite overwhelming public opposition during three years of consultation, a large housing site (OSW004) in the shadow of the 3,000 year old Iron Age hillfort remains on the plan.
Meanwhile, Shropshire planners face claims that they are misusing delegated powers by rubber stamping contentious schemes where objections have been raised that should be referred to planning committee. The latest involves a legal challenge over the demolition of a 200-year-old Thomas Telford tollhouse in Oswestry to make way for an ALDI supermarket.
Campaign group Hands Off Old Oswestry Hillfort (HOOOH) says this new revelation must call into question the integrity of decision-making in other areas, most significantly SAMDev. And scrutiny should go back to the very start to ask how development by the hillfort was ever included as a ‘preferred option’, challenge campaigners.
HOOOH member Maggie Rowlands said: “The latest crisis simply reinforces our grave concerns over the cavalier planning culture within Shropshire Council. It has virtually cast itself loose of the opinion of elected councillors and the public in order to fast-track insensitive development on heritage landscape and prime greenfield land.”
Campaigners suggest that hard steers by Shropshire planners and Cabinet, including the imperative of meeting five-year housing supply, may have fettered the discretion of councillors to motion for removal of OSW004 from the plan. This was despite being circulated with alternative heritage reports by HOOOH, produced to industry standards, calculating that development would have major impacts on the setting of the hillfort and views to and from it.
Heritage setting is recognised in national planning and Historic England (formerly English Heritage) guidance and protected in law according to the significance of the heritage asset. This should provide major weight against the approval of development affecting a monument of the national significance of Old Oswestry, whose landscape setting is an integral part of its heritage value and archaeology.
In spite of repeated requests, Shropshire planners refused to post HOOOH’s reports on the SAMDev website alongside the site promoter’s original heritage impact assessment. The latter was strongly criticised for being flawed by experts at RESCUE (The British Archaeological Trust) and was subsequently revised.
And while failing to answer HOOOH’s challenge that OSW004 did not meet five-year supply criteria due to ‘unresolved issues’, planners later revealed it was not part of five-year figures for that very reason.
“We are not surprised that Shropshire planners find themselves at the centre of these accusations of undemocratic conduct and calls for restraint,” said campaigner Dr George Nash.
“Based on recent media reports, it is clear that councillors at all levels and across the political spectrum are extremely disappointed in the way Shropshire Council’s planning department exercise their decision-making.”
He added: “This now gives us additional teeth to challenge what we believe has been a calculated bias towards keeping OSW004 in SAMDev. We believe that the original heritage assessment that carried the site through several stages of the process must be the subject of a formal independent review. Oswestry Town Council asked for this over a year ago and was completely disregarded.“
Commenting on the Inspector’s decision, HOOOH says it is extremely disappointed that the Inspector has rejected the scale of public opposition to OSWOO4 and the strong heritage case against it. This included a petition with almost 6,000 signatures and objections by twelve leading British academics of archaeology in an open letter.
Campaigner Neil Phillips said: “The planning plight to develop 117 houses within the shadow of Old Oswestry Hillfort is the thin end of the wedge.
“The use of the NPPF to sanction development over the preservation of such significant heritage landscape was surely not the government’s intention. However, the ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’ is propping up greedy bids to build high profit housing with postcard views of hillforts, meres and parkland.
“Whitehall needs to intervene now before the Best of Britain disappears under brick and concrete in the present rush to build houses.”
Today we thought we’d re-publish an article from a while back. It illustrates how vital it is to continue to fight against housing within the hillfort’s setting – and to see some of the claims that are about to be made for what they are – meaningless smokescreens to aid someone to make loads of money at the expense of everyone else’s heritage. .
“If I eat your toes your legs will be safe!”
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!
There is NO golden opportunity here, no chance to establish a sacrosanct buffer zone, no-one can say another assault won’t ever be mounted by someone that wants to make money. If you hear it said in the next few weeks or months (and we suspect you will) it won’t make it the truth. 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….”
The development is to go ahead. You can take part in a Consultation – but only about the “modifications” suggested by the Inspector, not about the development itself. The document is at pains to make that extremely clear:
“Please note that the Inspector is only inviting comments on the suggested Main Modifications. Comments that do not relate to a suggested Main Modification will not be considered.”
To give you an idea how hard the door has been slammed and how ineffectual and almost insulting are the modifications, here are some of them……
Development should demonstrate appropriate regard to the significance and setting of the Old Oswestry Hill Fort……
Full archaeological assessment will be required to enhance the understanding and interpretation of the significance of the Hillfort and its wider setting …….
Ensuring long distance views to and from the Hillfort within its wider setting are conserved ……..
Development should be designed to allow views and glimpses of the Hillfort from within the site …….
The layout of development ……will be designed to minimise the landscape impact ……..