Concreting the Pastures

Two tales of bad development

These are two untold true stories of where greenbelt land is being used for the wrong purposes and for all the wrong reasons. The material used here is free for anybody to use. Pictures are available of both areas (Surrey and Nottinghamshire) If you support the idea that Greenbelt land should be used where necessary housing is provided, but not for private gain, corrupt ends or non residential use, please suppor this by sharing it,printing it, talking about it. Democracy must have a voice and - in this situation - I know of no better way to get the news out there.

The material is fully researched, documented and - as of 23 December 2014 - current. Both these sites can still be saved. They are rare and beautiiful and none of this development needs to happen here.


Concreting the pastures

By Miranda Seymour

Less than 200,000 people inhabited the England that Shakespeare hymned as ‘this other England, demi-paradise’. In 2014, the UK’s population (64.1 million) is growing at twice that number: a rate of 400,000 per year. The CBI and the Home Builders Federation are chummily in agreement with the present Government that 240,000 houses need to be built each year for the next two decades. The recommendation of creating – by 2025 -  ten new ‘garden cities’ (whatever such a dreamburg might prove to be) solves only a part of the problem that Britain now faces: precisely where, and in what density, to build?

  Few would argue with the view that a critical housing shortage exists, along with a public need to address that issue. But what happens when developers and local councils elect to discard a National Policy Planning Framework that seeks (in the words of ostensibly concerned government ministers this October) to ensure that ‘local people can now decide where developments should – and shouldn’t – go’?

  Housing issues were far from my mind last week when I visited Ockham, a small community of hamlets and dwellings scattered across a stretch of pretty countryside in Surrey, and – significantly from the development point of view – within easy reach of Heathrow Airport. While writing a dual biography of Byron’s wife, Annabella Milbanke, and his daughter, Ada Lovelace, I was scouting out the location where the two women had set up one of England’s first industrial schools, employing as teachers (amazingly progressive in 1851), two escaped Afro-American slaves.  William and Ellen Craft - they instructed their Ockham pupils in cabinet-making and sewing in exchange for being taught to read and write – would later found schools of their own in Georgia and West Africa.

    Ockham – its tiny church revels in one of the most stunningly beautiful funeral monuments in the country – proved to be a revelation. Lord Lovelace – artistic, philanthropic and (largely thanks to his adoring mother-in-law) formidably wealthy - was a man who plainly believed in doing things his own way. Making use of his own brickworks – some decorative Lovelace bricks garnered a medal at the 1851 Great Exhibition – he created a private kingdom to his own design. From estate cottages, a school and a splendid station hotel (the Hautboy, for a railway that never arrived), he expanded into the neighbouring community of East Horsley.

   If Ockham startled me, East Horsley took my breath away. Here, Lord Lovelace purchased a big old house and rebuilt it as a Rhenish Gothic castle. Now a hotel, Horsley Park boasts cloisters, a maze of curving underground tunnels, two towers, a moat and – tucked away from public view - the fantastically ornate and unconsecrated chapel that Lovelace dedicated to the memory of his brilliant wife. (Ada died at only 36.)

   As with Ockham, East Horsley was given a model village, its buildings and roadside walls proudly emblazoned with the star and horn trademark of a Lovelace designed brick. Mary Lovelace, the Earl’s daughter-in-law, carried on the good work. After studying architecture in order to improve the workers’ cottages at Ockham, she persuaded her friend Charles Voysey to create for the village a unique Parish Room (still in use today).

  Voysey’s inspired reworking of the original Lovelace house (Ockham Park) was lost when that handsome mansion burned down in 1948. Currently, however, this entire remarkable area is threatened by a far greater devastation. Roadside signs plead for a defence of Green Belt land that belongs, without a doubt, to England’s historic heritage.

  The history of the development plans for the Ockham area would be farcical, if it was not so depressing. Back during World War II, following the emergency landing of a plane on the high flowery pasture known as Three Farms Meadows, the land – Lord Lovelace had shown his idolatry of Byron by naming one of the fields ‘Corsair’ - was requisitioned by the military. A strip of concrete was laid by Vickers for occasional test flights of planes being built at nearby Brooklands. (There were reasonable concerns that a Valiant’s jets might set fire to a runway of mere grass.)

   Decades later, basing their claims around a single strip of concrete that was abandoned in 1972 (footpath use of the meadows was restored in 1985), a group of developers operating out of the Cayman Islands are citing that flimsy precedent in their bid to construct 2100 housing units. Some units will be five storeys in height.  These structures are to be supplemented with additional ‘retail space’ – a handily unspecific phrase that can embrace anything from warehouses to strip malls - plus a travellers’ pitch. Objections include the fact that that no transport or infrastructure is in place and that the air quality, already far below EU requirements in land within breathing distance of the M25, would decrease in a dormitory car-reliant community. No definable boundaries limit potential for further sprawl. The projected development stands within 70 metres – that’s the length of two small terrace houses - of a Special Protection Area. (400 metres is the minimum currently mandated by law.) Ockham and the neighbouring communities (all of which welcome reasonable proposals for organic village growth) would be swamped. 

   Scant attention has, as yet, been granted to the objectors by Guildford Borough Council. It is to be hoped that this haughtily undemocratic attitude may change now that Stephen Mansbridge, Leader of the Council – and fervent advocate of the Three Farms Meadows development – has been called upon to resign, while the councillor in charge of planning, Monika Juneja, stands trial for seven counts of fraud and forgery. 

  Miss Juneja, while remaining (incredibly) a councillor, has at least been forced to relinquish her position on the Planning Executive. Guildford still has time to reject the project to which both Mansbridge and Juneja had given their solemn blessing. To eyes not those of insiders, it’s hard to understand the enthusiasm of the pair for a development that flies directly in the face of current government recommendations: that Green Belt land should be used only in exceptional circumstances. It’s difficult to conceive just what ‘exceptional circumstance’ could justify the destruction of an area of profound historic importance and the devastation of highly visible acres of cherished landscape.

   But is there any more appropriate site? Indeed, there is. Tongham and Ash, suitably situated on the very edge of Guildford, have been put forward. But not, alas, for development. Guildford Borough Council has proposed that Ash, an area entirely lacking in exceptional features and prime for well-designed housing development, should now be converted (unbelievably) into protected Green Belt. This baffling proposal is surely unrelated to the fact that one Stephen Mansbridge is also the Councillor for Ash and Tongham.

  The philosopher William of Ockham’s near contemporary, Robin Hood, has already been subjected to the mockery of having had one of Britain’s ugliest urban roads – a massive 1958 highway that now divides Nottingham’s handsome castle from its City - unsmilingly named Maid Marian Way. Nottingham, once described as the fairest city in England, is no longer rich in woods and parks. Its archer patron might murmur something about robbing the poor to serve the rich if he were around today to observe the iron sword suspended above its last great local area of natural beauty.

  The largest remaining expanse of unenclosed common land in England, Clifton Pastures comprise the sole and crucial green lung of an ambitious metropolis. A brand-new and imaginatively landscaped road, due for completion next spring, could offer Nottingham’s appreciative visitors (the City has the sixth highest tourist spend in the country)  a dazzling welcome: a limitless view of the ancient Pastures’ tranquil fields and distant hills. It’s the same calm landscape view that DH Lawrence revered. Alan Sillitoe has written about the days when, as a Nottingham lad in a factory job, he loved to escape – after a long day’s labor as a capstan lathe operator - with an evening cycle-ride out across Clifton Pasture’s breezy slopes.

 Above the broad, low landscape stands a single, perfectly shaped oak. Nottingham’s fashion wizard, Sir Paul Smith, recently picked both tree and setting for his image of England: a perfect icon for Robin Hood’s proud home county.

  All this is due to vanish - stamped, sealed and despatched to oblivion – by the first day of the New Year. A band of anonymous developers, ably  supported by a body of assiduous enablers at the local Borough Council (Rushcliffe), propose to sacrifice Clifton Pastures for the largest demolition of Green Belt land in England’s history. ‘Housing’ is the magic catchphrase (the proposal staggers) being employed to sanction some 4,000 structures.  ‘Employment’ will provides the rationale for the proposed erection of a wall of mammoth B8 warehouses – these are the largest in Britain – plunked alongside the new road and blocking from view the last remnants of Nottingham’s most familiar and beloved landscape. Compared to this, the invading Romans were positively discreet.

  Rushcliffe Council seems eager to live up to its name.  Currently, it is speedily pressing for a blind assent to the Clifton Pastures plan in all its awful entirety. And the City?  Nottinghamshire enjoys an outstanding bus system, among the best in the country. Its bus routes are flexible. Not so tram lines. The steel rails of an adamantine new tramline from Nottingham (the cost has been eyewatering) terminate – ominously – right beside the empty fields of Clifton Pastures. The City has invested in a gold-bricked road to an Eldorado that to cool heads looks closer to Oz. 

  I’d better declare an interest. I live in one of the Nottinghamshire villages whose future is threatened (but which, like Ockham and East Horsley, would welcome organic, well-planned growth). There’s a fight on and it isn’t just about a landscape; it’s about an arrogant disregard for democratic process.

  A correct line of planning procedure does in fact exist. Officially, Rushcliffe Borough Council must consult with the local parishes. Officially, Rushcliffe’s senior officer for planning is available for discussions with elected representatives of the local community. Officially, the Green Belt can now only be built upon when other, equally appropriate brownfield or urban sites have not been identified.

  So far, so disappointing. The parishes have not been consulted.  Regular requests by their representatives to meet with Rushcliffe’s senior planning officer have been rejected. (Time has been found, however, for the unnamed developers to meet with Rushcliffe Council officers upon fifteen occasions during the past eighteen months.) Identification of several alternative brownfield sites suitable for supplying 8,000 houses close to Nottingham has been consistently ignored. Instead, Rushcliffe has set in motion a Planning Performance Agreement. It appears ready to approve this grotesque development plan by the end of this year.

  The objectors – many of them inhabit the local villages - are at an enormous disadvantage in their fight. Not everybody possesses the skills to work their way through an application plan that has been deliberately wrapped up in six hefty volumes of close type, and in which key passages of legalese are buried deep and small. The objectors are a bit disappointed that Ken Clarke, their popular local MP, while privately expressing concern at the prospective loss of a treasured landscape, has – so far - declared himself powerless to intervene. The Council, or so it seems, holds all the cards. The Council has rubberstamped the development.

   The fix, in short, is in. And – just before Christmas – the Planning Officer has approved the plan. Including that giant row of landscape obliterating warehouses across the hill line.

    There’s no doubt that new housing is urgently required. It doesn’t have to be supplied like this.  The Government knows that. Why else would ministers have again stated, as recently as 6 October, that Green Belt boundaries should only be altered in exceptional circumstances, that alternative urban and brownfield sites should be given full consideration, and that local consultation must take place? Why else, other than to defend a Green Belt that currently appears to protect a landscape or historic area only until some cabal with political and economic clout decides to destroy it?

  Let’s hope that the aloof planners of Guildford and Rushcliffe (and the scores of others like them) do not continue to regard themselves as above that reaffirmed law of protection for England’s historic landscapes. For if such wolfish poachers continue to enrich themselves by concreting over the verdant pastures of the vanishing Green Belt – it covers a mere 12% of England - the concept that England is a great country in which to live will soon be superseded by the undeniable reality that Shakespeare’s ‘demi-paradise’ will have become a great place to leave.

   Added: Tuesday 23 December 2014