Shropshire Council unveils new Old Oswestry Hillfort conservation plan and screening
Historic England, the statutory adviser to local and national Government on matters relating to heritage in England, has moved to try to defuse the anger among heritage campaigners over the organisation’s apparent support for a controversial proposed housing development on the slopes below one of the Britain’s most important Iron Age sites. Earlier this month a leaked copy of a planning inspectors report appeared to show that the controversial OSW004 plan, to build 117 houses in the shadow of the nationally important Old Oswestry Hillfort, is to be retained in Shropshire Council’s “Site Allocation and Management of Development” [SAMDEV] plan, whereby the Council sets out the sites it aims to make available for development. However, in response to criticism of Historic England’s refusal to oppose the inclusion of the site in the development plan in spite of pleas from local campaigners and leading exports, the organisation has issued a press comment which leaves open the possibility that Historic England could yet oppose the development at the planning stage, if a planning application for the site is actually lodged.
Until the text of her report was leaked, campaigners from the Hands Off Old Oswestry Hillfort [HOOOH] group had hoped that the planning inspector, Clare Sheratt, would strike out the site, the inclusion of which in the development plan has been opposed by a national coalition of heritage activists and experts including Sir Barry Cunliffe, emeritus professor of European archaeology at the University of Oxford and Dr Mike Heyworth, director of the Council for British Archaeology. However, a HOOOH statement issued on 5 November claimed that the report concluded
“Notwithstanding the level of opposition to the inclusion of site OSW004, Historic England has not maintained an objection, a consideration that I afford considerable weight.”
The text of the final report released on 6 November confirms that this was indeed one of the principle factors which has led Ms Sheratt to keep the controversial site in the final text of the SAMDEV Plan
HOOOH responded to the leaked report by issuing a furious response to the planning inspectors recommendation on Facebook stating;
“If this housing goes ahead, Historic England in league with Shropshire Council have let down Shropshire’s heritage and its public very badly. Not only this, they could unleash a damning planning precedent wreaking untold damage on the nation’s heritage. The prospect of this appalling legacy lying at the door of our appointed heritage guardians is unimaginably dire and a scandalous dereliction of duty.”
However, in response to a request for comment on the latest situation and to the accusations from HOOOH, a spokesperson for Historic England told thePipeLine on Friday;
“We recognise that this is a sensitive location and we still have concerns about design and numbers of houses. This is why we have agreed a Statement of Common Ground with the Council that requires any planning proposals for the site to be accompanied by a full analysis of their impact upon the historic environment, including impact upon the contribution that the hillfort’s setting makes to its importance. We would take that impact into account in our advice to the Council on any proposal.”
While not responding directly to the accusations from the Hands Off Old Oswestry Hillfort campaign the comment does appear to signal that for now at least, as far as Historic England is concerned, the development on OSW004 is not a done deal and could yet face further objections on heritage grounds. In addition the spokesperson also pointed out that Historic England had succeeded in getting two additional sites, closer to the hillfort, dropped completely as well as negotiating a reduction in size of the OSW004 site itself.
In contemplating what to do next senior management at Historic England will be acutely aware of the increasingly high profile the Old Oswestry case is gaining in the media. The HOOOH campaign has been increasingly effective in achieving recognition of the story as a national test case; particularly in the wake of the intervention of twelve of the most senior and respected archaeologists in the UK, including Lord Renfrew and Professor Ian Ralston, who signed an open letter to then Communities Secretary Eric Pickles and then Culture Secretary Sajid Javid, in December 2014, expressing incredulity and anger that such a commercial housing development impacting on the immediate setting of a nationally important heritage site could even be contemplated when it appeared to be contrary to national planning guidance. Among other coverage this has led to examinations of the Old Oswestry case on both Radio 4’s “Making History” strand and in a major article in the Observer newspaper. That said, because of its reliance on funding from Whitehall and ultimately No 11 Downing Street, where Chancellor George Osborne in the eyes of many gerrymandered the remit of the Historic England giving it a duty to support “sustainable development”, Historic England’s management will also be painfully aware of the need to pick its fights carefully. That is if it is to square up for any fights at all. At the same time the organisation will also be aware of the need to retain the confidence of the rest of the heritage sector and the wider public. In this regard the danger signals are already there.
While an emollient comment such as that issued to thePipeLine on Friday can be read as an olive branch to subject experts and sector leaders such as Dr Heyworth, Professor Cunliffe and the signatories of the December 2014 letter, who are on the record as opposing OSW004 and whom Historic England cannot afford to alienate, it may not be enough to satisfy the critics. From our contact with local sources, as well as monitoring of Social Media and Shropshire news websites, it is clear that among heritage and environmental activists in Shropshire there is currently very little confidence in the objectivity or capacity of Shropshire Council’s planning apparatus in seeking out genuinely independent expert advice, let alone take action, based on that advice. Of perhaps greater concern to those activists and campaigners and indeed, echoing fears in other parts of England where there has been criticism of what has allegedly become a far too close and uncritical relationship between Historic England, Government and Developers over such issues as the Stonehenge tunnel, the Garden Bridge and the Norton Folgate development by British Land; thePipeLine understands that there is also increasing concern at what is alleged to be a similarly permissive relationship between Historic England and Shropshire Council at a local level.
In the end, while offering the prospect that Historic England might yet end up adopting a stance which opposes any development on the OSW004 site, all the latest comment from Historic England really does is cue up the next stage in the increasingly bitter Old Oswestry controversy and ensure that whatever decision is eventually made will have national repercussions. In fact, among some campaigners at least, so high are the stakes and such is the lack of confidence in the way the process has been conducted that the whole issue may yet end up being settled nationally in the Courts by Judicial Review. In that event the precise nature of the relationship between Historic England and Shropshire Council and how the way that relationship has been conducted may or may not have impacted on decisions made regarding the interpretation and implementation of planning guidance, such as the National Planning Policy Framework, are sure to be at the center of the legal arguments. Particularly as campaigners argue that in other parts of England similar proposed developments on sensitive heritage sites have been thrown out by Planning Inspectorate. Indeed, one such case in West Sussex led archaeologist Dr George Nash to suggest that as a means of ensuring their protection Old Oswestry Hillfort and its environs should be incorporated into that County.
While the prospects of creating such elastic County boundaries are remote, it is likely that the next major move is for the SAMDEV plan, including the incorporation of the OSW004 site, will be for the whole plan to be discussed at the next meeting of the full Council on 17 December.