Campaigners who hope to prevent a housing development which they claim would ruin the setting of the nationally important Old Oswestry Hillfort in Shropshire are accusing Conservative controlled Shropshire Council of delaying an important report until after the General and Local Elections on 7 May [http://oldoswestryhillfort.co.uk/category/press-release/ ]. The accusation from the Hands Off Old Oswestry Hillfort campaign [HOOOH] is that the publication of the long awaited report into the soundness of the Council’s SAMDev Plan by Planning Inspector Claire Sherratt, which had been expected in February, has now been pushed back to beyond the General Election for political reasons. The Council’s plan includes the controversial development of 117 houses on the OSW004 site at the foot of the Hill Fort and had the report been published as scheduled it would have been certain to have become an Election issue for prospective local and national politicians in the area. Particularly as the petition against the development has attracted over 8000 signatures, many of whom will be local voters.
The sitting MP until the General Election was the Conservative, former Environment Secretary, Owen Patterson. Mr Patterson had a majority of over 15,000 at the 2010 General Election and might be thought to be safe [in spite of being described by environmentalist George Monbiot as “the worst environment secretary this country has ever suffered”], and the fact that the Conservatives currently have a majority of 20 on Shropshire Council suggests that the overall threat to the Conservatives is small. However, some politicians on the County Council could think themselves more vulnerable. Especially as the local Oswestry Town Council has also opposed the scheme. For them there is the nightmare precedent of Wyre Forest in the 1997 General Election where a local independent candidate ran on a local issue and won against a sitting Conservative. While such an upset might be unlikely at a national level this time around, any continuation of the threat could lead to a war of attrition at local level costing cosy, council careers.
Shropshire Council does seem to have knowingly walked into a potential PR disaster of its own making. Described by English Heritage as ““one of the greatest archaeological monuments of the nation”, the perceived threat to the setting of the hillfort has attracted local and national attention since the Council included three sites close to its slopes in it SAMDev Plan which is designed to lay out a strategic master plan for the development of the area to 2026. Faced with a growing local and national campaign to stop the development, led by the Hands off Old Oswestry Hillfort (HOOOH) group, the Council rapidly dropped two of the proposed sites from SAMDev, but retained the greenfield site at Old Port Farm designated OSW004. For its part the Council states the site has been included the because of the requirement that the Council maintains a rolling supply of land capable of delivering new housing within five years. However campaigners have pointed out that a non controversial, deliverable, site exists nearby, but that it has been effectively “land banked” by a developer and that the Council would get a £40 per square meter cash boost from any development at OSW004 under the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL).
Whatever happens in the local election the ongoing negative attention the plan is attracting means that whoever forms the Government after 7 May will be forced to take notice of the Old Oswestry campaign and its growing national profile. Like the commercialisation of historic ship wreck sites and the proposed development on the Lodge Hill SSSI in the Hoo Peninsula in Kent, the proposed Old Oswestry development is rapidly becoming a “Red Line” Issue for the wider heritage and environmental sector. A line which must not be crossed. In December 2014 a group of the UK’s foremost academic experts in Pre-History, led by Conservative Peer Lord Renfrew and Sir Barry Cunliffe, signed an open letter to Communities Secretary Eric Pickles and Culture Secretary Sajid Javid which stated five reasons for protecting the context of the site
“In our view: 1) Old Oswestry hillfort is one of the greatest Iron Age hill forts in Britain;
2) OSW004 would claim an important area of the hillfort’s hinterland;
3) this would cause irreparable harm to the hillfort’s setting;
4) this is contrary to planning legislation established to protect the historic environment; and
5) this would set an unacceptable precedent.”
The letter concluded citing the Government’s own National Planning Policy Framework in defence of the environment of the site
“If the bar for acceptable development under the NPPF does not protect the setting of even our most significant heritage sites, then we set a potentially calamitous precedent for the greater part of the nation’s historic environment.” [http://oldoswestryhillfort.co.uk/open-letter-to-rt-hon-eric-pickles/]
Of course for some politicians, local authorities and developers, under pressure to produce new houses and profits, establishing that the provisions of the NPPF regarding the context of monument, not just the monuments themselves, have teeth might be less than welcome.
All this leads to the conclusion that for politicians and would be politicians in Shropshire and elsewhere, it may well be that getting elected on 7 May is the easy part. Meanwhile the stance adopted by Historic England, the Government’s statutory adviser following the conscious uncoupling of the old English Heritage by the Cameron Coalition, will be one of the first high profile tests of that organisation’s resolve in protecting not just monuments, but their environment and context.