The view of Old Oswestry from the eastern rampart of the hill fort. It the development goes ahead the field centre top will contain ninety one new homes, roads and street lighting.
[Lead Image: thePipeLine]
Campaigners and independent experts have responded with a mixture of incredulity and anger to an apparent u-turn by Historic England, which could see ninety one houses built on farmland between the internationally important Old Oswestry hill fort and the edge of the town of Old Oswestry in Shropshire. There is particular anger over the fact that a letter from the Government’s statutory heritage advisor which accepted that the proposed developement by Galliers Homes could go forward for full planning consent, albeit with what are ostensibly minor reservations and non binding recommendations, was only published on the Shropshire Council planning portal on the afternoon of Monday 20 April , just hours before the public consultation into the planning application closed and too late for many of the respondents to take the content of the advice into consideration in their own submissions.
Planning consent is an exhaustive, process driven, matter of detailed analysis and judgements, where submissions from expert bodies and statutory advisers carry great weight, especially among the usually non-specialist, elected councillors who make the final decision whether or not to grant planning consent. It follows that the late publication of its advice effectively gave Historic England’s analysis of the issues a free run.
By the time the advisory letter was published almost two hundred submissions had been made to the planning portal, with the portal’s log recording none in support of the planning application from Galliers Homes.
In addition, opponents of the scheme, which would see a total of ninety one houses and associated infrastructure, such as roads, street lighting and an electricity sub station, built as close as three hundred and fifty meters from the edge of the scheduled area of the hillfort, interrupting existing views to and from the site, cannot understand why Historic England do not oppose the revised plan.
They find the stance particularly perplexing when the organisations states in its letter that they do not agree with the planning statement submitted by Galliers Homes that the impacts of the company’s scheme would be in every case “relatively minor”.
In a statement of its current position Historic England also assert that,
“The Iron Age Old Oswestry Hillfort is a very important site of national significance.”
This is a postition which might lead the public to expect that the site would recieve the highest level of protection, with a would be developer required to clear a very high bar. Especially when paragraph 194 of the National Planning Policy Framework, the Government document which guides the planning process, states that the developer must provide ‘clear and convincing justification’ for any loss of significance to a designated heritage asset. While paragraph 196 of the NPPF adds that, where a development proposal would lead to a lesser degree of harm to the significance of a designated heritage asset, any harm should be tested against any benefits to the public of the proposal.
In 2019 Historic England themselves stated that,
“Significance derives not only from a heritage asset’s physical presence, but also from its setting.”
and, as the letter suggests, outside of Galliers Homes, there is broad agreement that the proposed development does damage the setting of Old Oswestry hillfort and thus the significance of the nationally important site as a whole in a manner which is less than minor.
Indeed, it is noticable that, far from endorsing a clear and convincing case for damaging the setting of Old Oswestry, the the language used in the latest advisory letter throughout is often grudging, with the statement that the current plan is merely “an improvement” on the previous attempts by Galliers Homes to gain planning consent.
Plans which Historic England have opposed successfully several times.
In fact the letter of advice which allows the application to go forward to a planning meeting appears to be the result of two things.
At a practical level it is known negotiations took place between Historic England and the developer, including two site meetings which, the advisory letter states, took place on 29 November 2019 and 15 January 2020. This is a routine process and the upshot of the negotiations seems to have been that Galliers Homes withdrew its previous two planning applications, leading to a brief hope among campaigners that the entire attempt to, in their view, urbanise the fields east of the hillfort would be dropped.
However, the developer returned soon with a single planning application, including changes to the spacing of the new houses and the colour of roofing materials to be used. Both efforts which were designed to limit the intrusion of the buildings into the landscape and views of the hillfort from the east. Issues which Historic England had raised previously.
Of course, to campaigners against the plan, even the changes are a tacit admission that the development would damage the setting of the site and thus its significance as defined by the NPPF.
However, it is this plan which Historic England has now declined to oppose.
The second factor is political.
Introduced in March 2012 by the Cameron Government, the the National Planning Policy Framework was designed to facilitate what the NPPF terms, “sustainable development”.
Unfortunateley there is no specific definition of what “sustainable development” actually means.
At the same time as the NPPF was introduced, the then English Heritage was split into two entities, with English Heritage spun off as a charity to manage the Government portfolio of historic sites such as Stonehenge, Dover Castle and indeed Old Oswestry; while a new body, Historic England, remained as an arms length, Treasury funded organisation, handling statutory advice on heritage matters to Government, to Local Government and to the public, including to developers.
Then Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne also ensured that the role of Historic England, like that of its counterpart working in the natural environment, Natural England, would be redefined with a specific remit to support the NPPF’s concept of sustainable development.
The devil is clearly in the detail of the word “sustainable”, with the result that in extremis, if a developer can argue a site is “sustainable” on whatever grounds, Historic England cannot actually veto it.
Its officers can only attempt to argue its case to the planning authority, and, if the planning authority ignores those arguments, to mitigate any perceived damage to sites and settings.
In April 2017 Historic England’s head of planning, Ian Morrison, expressed this dilemma in a comment reported by the website The Planner,
“Changes to this country’s planning system and the pressing need for new development bring some challenges, of course, but they also provide opportunities to showcase the positive contribution heritage can make to peoples’ lives,” Mr Morrison commented, adding,
“I am determined to ensure Historic England’s planning advice and grants services, as well as the organisations we support, are held in the highest esteem and are considered essential for achieving quality sustainable development.”
It is also worth noting the wider politics of the position of Historic England. As an organisation dependent on Treasury funding it would be a brave field officer, let alone senior manager, who set out to oppose too openly and too often, the Government’s publicly stated target to drive development and build homes even if they wanted to.
This clearly places Historic England staff on a very narrow tightrope, with, on the one side, developers often with the sympathy of local and national politicians who are able to play a long game, as have Galliers Homes at Old Oswestry and who often have deep pockets meaning they are able to threaten legal action and review if a development is blocked; and on the other side, independent experts and local groups who might disagree with the conclusions Historic England reach, but who have far less weight in the planning process, particularly at planning meetings, and whose own access to legal review is limited by their own efforts to raise funds.
Also on the tightrope are local authority planning officers who are often overworked, under-resourced and who may also be subject to inappropriate political pressure.
To its critics this balancing act has resulted in Historic England becoming a facilitator of any development which can be argued to be sustainable, or which is politically sensitive, with some controversial results.
For example, Historic England accepted that the proposed Garden Bridge in London, a project now known to have been procured improperly at huge cost to the taxpayer by former London Mayor and now Prime Minister Boris Johnson [see thePipeLine passim], would damage the historic view of St Pauls Cathedral painted by Canaletto. But by way of compensation Historic England concluded the project would create new views, to the derision and fury of opponents of the bridge.
Meanwhile in the East Midlands Historic England also gave the greenlight to a test track on part of the historic registered battlefield of Bosworth [another historical site of the highest sensitivity and importance under the NPPF], arguing that preservation by record, including creating a 3D digital terrain model was sufficient mitigation for, what is argued to be, an important part of the battlefield being destroyed.
At Old Oswestry the argument between Historic England and its independent critics, which include the twelve eminent archaeologists and pre-historians, including Lord Renfrew and Sir Barry Cunliffe, who in 2015 signed an open letter opposing the development plan, seems to boil down to an interpretation of the demands of the National Planning Policy framework, in relation to the concept of “harm”.
When it comes to the issue of harm, Historic England seems to take the view that, while the level of harm to the site is in some cases greater than the claimed by the developer and its consultants, by a sleight of hand in the drafting of the letter, the organisation declines to state how much greater is the level of harm it believes is inflicted on the Old Oswestry site by elements of the Galliers Homes development.
When Galliers Homes’ new plan goes forward seeking planning consent, this apparent loophole is likely to generate strong arguments from opponents of the scheme, suggesting the level of harm is actually sufficient to require consent to be refused by Shropshire Council.
Indeed, if consent is then granted by the Council, it might be enough to form one ground for a judicial review of the decision.
In that context it is also notable that, even within what is a broadly permissive letter, Historic England does also express what appears to be a significant concern that the initial development of ninety one homes, if it goes ahead, could be used as a precedent for further developments on adjacent land.
This was the original proposal which was successfully opposed by campaigners and, at that time, Historic England.
In a carefully coded, non-binding, recommendaton to Shropshire Council, Historic England state their opinion that,
“In our view the road layout should exclude, as far as practicably possible, the potential to extend the road network in future to adjacent areas.”
[Sometimes it is tempting to picture Historic England crossing its corporate fingers behind its back even as it submits such an advisory letter, hoping that opponents of a scheme will pick up the cue and do the heavy and expensive lifting of opposition, without the Chief Executive having to take an uncomfortable phone call from the Leader of the Council, a local MP, or No 11 Downing Street.]
However, in the reality of a planning system struggling to continue against the background of the Covid-19 emergency campaigners at Old Oswestry are faced with the new advice from Historic England which they must take at face value and which appears at one level to cut the ground from under their position that the development represents substantial harm to the setting of the hill fort under the terms of the National Planning Policy Framework.
An internationally recognised academic expert in the Pre Roman Iron Age, and a longstanding campaigner against the erosion of rural setting of Old Oswestry, Dr Rachel Pope, told thePipeLine,
“The Historic England U-turn, regarding the northern limit of urban development at Oswestry, is extremely hard to understand.”
Echoing the fears of many of the campaigners she added that,
“It sets a deeply worrying precedent for the role of heritage protection in planning. This despite clear NPPF guidance, indeed clear Historic England guidance, regarding the requirement to refuse development that causes substantial harm to the setting of a monument as nationally significant as Old Oswestry Hillfort.”
In response to the widespread unease at the latest advice and in particular at its timing, thePipeLine asked Historic England a series of questions, including why its advisory letter appears to have been sent so late in the consultation process, leading to suspicions that the timing may have been designed to undercut and limit the opportunities for Historic England’s stance to be questioned by other submissions, including those of independent experts and expert bodies.
Historic England has, so far, declined to answer these questions and instead has sent a statement outlining the process it has undertaken in reaching this latest position, including a statement of common ground regardng the importance of Old Oswestry reached between the heritage regulator itself, and Shropshire Council in 2014. The latest statement concludes,
“This latest proposal is an improvement on previous ones, partly because it more fully complies with the Statement of Common Ground and gives an analysis of how the plans would impact on this important historic site. It is also for a reduced number of houses, laid out in a way which would lead to a less dense development. Whilst we recognise that the development would have some impact on views towards the hillfort, from the hillfort itself this less dense development would be seen alongside the existing townscape of Oswestry.”
The organisation concluded,
“We have advised the council that the proposals would cause some level of harm. It is now for the council, as decision maker in the planning process, to weigh this harm against potential public benefits of the proposals.”
However, Dr Pope encapsulated the fears of many campaigners when she said that,
“It seems clear to us now that Historic England follows Government in giving preference to development, over the red-tape of heritage protection – despite the body’s apparent mandate to protect the heritage.”
thePipeLine has asked a further series of questions of both Historic England and Shropshire Council.