A few weeks ago, I attended a planning seminar at Ripley Castle in Yorkshire organised by the Historic Houses Association (HHA). It was a chilling presentation which contained a clear message: the current planning proposals – which close for consultation next week— pose a serious threat, not just to our countryside, but to our heritage. With the removal of Public Planning Statement 5 (PPS5) from the draft National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), there are now few safeguards to prevent developers building 300ft-high industrial wind turbines right next to historic castles, new sprawling social housing next to the walls of stately homes or 12th-century village churches.
No, no! I can already hear the government ministers’ response. There are sufficient protections in place in the draft; we’ve just made it simpler. Well, the problem with this argument is that only two weeks ago the fears of the heritage and conservation lobby were confirmed. An appeal has just been allowed by a government inspector that will give permission for a four-bedroom ‘executive home’ with detached garage to be built within 500 yards of the Great Barn in the Oxfordshire village of Great Coxwell.
When you drive into the village, you immediately see why the 13th-century barn has been Grade 1 listed. It’s a testament to the skills of Gothic carpenters and the wealth and influence of the great monastic orders; the sole surviving part of a thriving 13th-century grange that once provided vital income to Beaulieu Abbey. The Great Barn was described by William Morris as ‘the finest architecture’ in England and ‘unapproachable in its dignity’. It was given to the National Trust in 1956.
Unapproachable, that is, until the government planning inspector David Nicholson decided to interpret the new NPPF planning guidelines even though the draft plans are still in ‘consultation’ phase. Developments have in the past been rejected. In 2003, the same development was turned down by the council. In 1987, when another submission was rejected, the inspector wrote: ‘I fully appreciate the obvious pressures for new housing in attractive villages, but there is equally a long-standing commitment to the protection of our heritage of historic buildings.’
It’s not a commitment shared by Mr Nicholson. He will argue that the housing situation in the north of Great Coxwell has become more developed since 1987, and the case is more complex, but the fundamental aesthetic issue stands. And Mr Nicholson has stated that his decision was made because of ‘the publication of the Plan for Growth and the draft NPPF’. This means that inspectors are now required to put housing above heritage. If this is the case for one of the finest medieval structures in the country, what hope is there for Grade 2 or Grade 2* buildings? What is the point of even having such listed buildings?
What has happened at Great Coxwell – ‘heritage’ sidelined – is becoming widespread. Across the country, local objections to developers’ plans are being overturned by government inspectors. The fate of Kimbolton Castle in Huntingdonshire, which has four Grade 1 facades by Vanbrugh, will be shortly decided after an appeal lodged by an energy giant who wants to build seven Goliath-like wind turbines behind the castle. The landscape around the church of Little Gidding in Cambridgeshire is also threatened – the church where King Charles sought refuge in 1646 and which T.S. Eliot immortalised as the last of his Four Quartets (‘So, while the light fails/ On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel History is now and England’).
Wind turbine proposals are threatening Grade 1 Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire – where Edward II was murdered, as well as the National Trust’s Grade 1 Morville Hall near Bridgnorth in Shropshire, where Katherine Swift, author of the Morville Hours, has her celebrated Dower House garden. Locals see these unwanted towering industrial structures as symbols of aesthetic, social and EU oppression.
But if it makes no aesthetic sense, it makes no economic sense either. ‘Heritage tourism’ is one of the ‘vital’ sectors of the stagnant economy that is actually growing at the moment – at a rate of 2.6 per cent a year. Higher than that predicted for manufacturing. History related tourism brings in £12.4 billion a year to the UK. Our heritage marks us out from the rest of Europe. There are historical reasons for this which are sometimes forgotten; namely that Britain – unlike say Italy – has primogeniture and inheritance laws that allow the passing down of great historic estates through the generations. Our historic houses aren’t split up every generation, or confiscated (Nazi occupation) or stolen (French revolution).
So you’d have thought that the privileged, often aristocratic families who benefit from these traditions would be the first to stand up and protect the ‘historic environment’. Sadly, all too often, they’re keener on cash than being the custodians of our heritage.
Many landowners – often especially those with stately homes – secretly want the planning laws relaxed so they can make their properties more ‘viable’. They quite fancy a business park; a small housing development or a nice, useless, but lucrative wind farm (like Cameron’s father-in-law Sir Reginald Sheffield). There is nothing wrong at all with wanting to ensure the economic future of a historic estate – or just get the school fees paid – by turning an old tithe barn into a wedding venue or ‘function suite’. But existing planning laws already allow that – as the HHA members could see in Ripley Castle, where our seminar took place, in a beautifully converted former stable block now referred to as the castle ‘east wing’. But the new proposals are quite starkly different.
When the CLA (of which I am a member) talk about the need for more ‘heritage protection’, what they actually mean is planning laws which allow more development (including wind turbines), the idea being to safeguard the family pile, farm or estate. But even CLA members, thank God, can have mixed feelings about such a message. One CLA county chairman recently admitted he had considered putting up a wind turbine on his historic estate but had dropped the idea after sensing that he had a responsibility to put the proposal to a local village ‘referendum’. Such honourable behaviour is rare today.
This division of opinion is why the heritage lobby has been mute in recent weeks – in particular the Heritage Alliance, the umbrella organisation for nearly 100 conservation bodies including the National Trust, the CLA and the HHA (who have more privately owned historic houses open to the public than the National Trust and English Heritage combined). The truth is that the Alliance, which is chaired by Loyd Grossman, is really a coalition of competing conservation interests. The CLA push one way, the National Trust another, with the HHA somewhere in the middle. The National Trust are lobbying strongly for a ‘presumption in favour of conservation’. This would reinstate much of the spirit of the old planning system under PPS5, and seems the right idea, especially when applied to the growing problem of wind farms close to heritage sites. Another imperative is for Greg Clark to give extra protection to historic houses which contribute to heritage tourism.
At our round-table breakfast, Ian Wilson of the National Trust made it clear that the NPPF is a ‘policy’ document of such seminal importance that it needs to be brought before parliament. He said: ‘We cannot understand why the planning reforms are not being debated in the chamber of our democracy.’
Nor can I. But I think at the heart of the problem, there is a lack of debate about what the countryside is actually for. Yes, the planning system urgently needs reform but good planning must aim to get the balance right between heritage, housing needs and the environment. With the de facto ‘yes’ to development, this balance has gone awry. To regain the balance this country so richly deserves, to protect our heritage, we urgently need clarity from the government before 17 October.
William Cash is editor-in-chief of Spear’s magazine.
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