Ever since the draft NPPF was published, there have been a number of Planning Inspectorate decisions that undermine the very ethos behind the Ancient Monuments Act. Though the NPPF contains a clause protecting the “historic setting” of a building, it offers little by way of guaranteed statutory protection, as seen by the fiasco of allowing wind turbines at the Naseby battlefield site on land owned by Kelmarsh Hall, or the equally dangerous decision to allow 125 ft turbines at the Grade I Elizabethan house of Lyveden New Bield in Northamptonshire, owned by the National Trust. The latter case has been “called in” for judicial review. Other worrying examples are planning applications for wind farms next to the Northamptonshire manor houses in which the Gunpowder Plot was hatched in 1605, and that of Sir Thomas Malory, who wrote Le Morte d’Arthur.
When my parents came across Upton Cressett Hall in Shropshire more than 45 years ago, it had been badly neglected and was in a dilapidated condition. They bought it and began restoring it. Five years ago, I took on the house and it has now been returned to its full Elizabethan glory.
It is now one of the county’s leading tourist attractions, described by Shropshire Magazine as “one of the finest Tudor buildings in Britain”. The Hall and its turreted Elizabethan gatehouse were recently designated by English Heritage as Grade I, partly in recognition of its rich history.
The Cressetts were a prominent royalist family who lived at the Hall from the 13th to the 18th centuries. Sir Francis Cressett was Treasurer to Charles I and appears in Pepys’s diaries. In April 1483, Upton Cressett played host to Edward V, en route from Ludlow Castle to the Tower of London, where he met his grim fate alongside his brother.
The Norman church and, indeed, the entire hamlet of Upton Cressett are Grade I listed, so you would have thought developers would avoid the ancient and national award-winning heritage site. Yet we are now under siege.
First, there was the threat of a wind farm, after a local farmer who owns part of the 16th-century Upton Cressett Park announced plans to apply for turbines – each of them taller than Nelson’s column. They would be clearly visible from the Gatehouse windows where Prince Rupert would have looked out when hiding from parliamentary forces during the Civil War.
Now there are plans for a giant swine farm, rearing 4,400 pigs a year, with two giant facilities just 450 metres from the medieval moat and ornamental water gardens of Upton Cressett, which is a Scheduled Ancient Monument. We also have a Deserted Medieval Village and a Roman settlement at Upton Cressett, making that three Grade I listed buildings and three Scheduled Ancient Monuments.
The swine farm planning application will be an important test case for heritage protection safeguards under the Government’s new National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). It is the first application of its type anywhere near Grade I assets.
Upton Cressett is special because of its tranquility, beauty and ancient landscape. The scenery is among the finest in the county; when Sir John Betjeman visited for the Shell Guide to Shropshire, he called it a “remote and beautiful place”. Yet after investing a considerable amount of money creating an award-winning heritage attraction – Best Hidden Gem in the UK at the Hudson’s Heritage Awards – I face the prospect of commercial ruination.
Huge amounts of money will be wasted fighting this planning battle, when in fact its Grade I protection should have meant the council never even allowed it to pass the initial “scoping” request. The pig factory proposal has been condemned by the president of the Shropshire Campaign to Protect Rural England, the Historic Houses Association, the Churches Conservation Trust, the chairman of the Bridgnorth and District Tourist Association and Loyd Grossman, chairman of the Heritage Alliance.
But, despite our status, we have no statutory guarantee that even this will be sufficient to prevent development. Whatever a council may wish, the final decision is ultimately at the whim of the Planning Inspectorate. No other country in the world has a history of heritage protection like we do here. We need to cherish this, not destroy it for short-term building growth.
One hundred years ago, the heritage tourism industry in Britain was born, thanks to an inspired piece of legislation. The 1913 Ancient Monuments Act gave protection to a select range of “unoccupied” buildings of national importance – not just ruins, pre-historic sites and monuments – and, for the first time, allowed public access to ancient monuments in public ownership, such as Stonehenge.
Today, heritage tourism is worth more than £20 billion to the economy, and is growing at a rate of 2.6 per cent per year. It is Britain’s fifth largest industry. “It would not be that size without historic houses, historic monuments and historic landscapes,” says Loyd Grossman, who speaks on behalf of 90 heritage groups. “No one comes here for the palm trees.”
Later this month, at the futuristic Grade I Lloyds Building in the City of London, English Heritage will announce plans to commemorate the Act’s centenary with an exhibition telling the story of the heritage protection movement. It is an apt venue because, under chief executive Simon Thurley, English Heritage has looked forward to safeguard Britain’s unique history and architecture, rather than wallowing in nostalgia and conservation aspic.
No doubt Heritage Minister Ed Vaizey will use the anniversary to give the usual reassurances about the Government’s commitment to safeguarding Britain’s unique heritage. But there are some deeply troubling contradictions, despite the promises contained in the NPPF. The reality is that the Coalition’s enthusiasm for relaxing planning laws, diluting heritage protection and encouraging more development right up to the walls of our greatest “heritage assets” – from wind farms to social housing – is making a mockery of these promises.
Ever since the draft NPPF was published, there have been a number of Planning Inspectorate decisions that undermine the very ethos behind the Ancient Monuments Act. Though the NPPF contains a clause protecting the “historic setting” of a building, it offers little by way of guaranteed statutory protection, as seen by the fiasco of allowing wind turbines at the Naseby battlefield site on land owned by Kelmarsh Hall, or the equally dangerous decision to allow 125 ft turbines at the Grade I Elizabethan house of Lyveden New Bield in Northamptonshire, owned by the National Trust. The latter case has been “called in” for judicial review.
Other worrying examples are planning applications for wind farms next to the Northamptonshire manor houses in which the Gunpowder Plot was hatched in 1605, and that of Sir Thomas Malory, who wrote Le Morte d’Arthur.
Unless the Government tightens the level of statutory protection given through the listings system, the celebrations could be hollow. It won’t be the fault of Mr Thurley, who is only too aware of the disturbing disconnect between what the Government likes to say publicly about heritage protection and the dark arts of planning reality.
The main problem is that the listings system is badly in need of reform. What the 1913 Ancient Monuments Act did not protect were private dwellings (or ecclesiastical buildings) because, back in the Edwardian era, whether you lived in Blenheim Palace or a Battersea railway cottage, the maxim that an “Englishman’s home is his castle” still applied to planning policy. If you wanted to rip out your family’s medieval Great Hall stone fireplace and sell it to William Hearst, nobody was going to stop you.
Mr Vaizey should give serious consideration to the re-introduction of the 2008 Heritage Protection Bill – only dropped by the last government because of the credit crunch, despite strong cross-party support – and to a full review of the listing system, which has not been revised for more than 20 years. An embarrassing amount of the listing information is inaccurate and out of date. At the very least, statutory protection for Grade I or Grade II* buildings – that are open to the public, and are the architectural dramatis personae of David Cameron’s “Britain Is Great” campaign – should be given tightened statutory protection so as to avoid costly planning battles.
There are currently around 400,000 listed buildings in this country, 10,000 of which are Grade I. Of these, around 45 per cent are churches, meaning that only a tiny number of Grade I or Grade II* historic houses in this country are actually lived in today. Such historic houses provide a huge amount to the cultural wealth of the nation.
Surely the Government has a duty to properly protect this heritage? What is the point of having a Grade I or Grade II* listing system to “protect heritage” if such designations, along with ancient monuments, protected wrecks and battlefields, offer no real protection from the current planning free-for-all that the Government seems set upon?
At a recent conference on The Future of the Country House, there was a chilling lecture chronicling the fate of the Irish country house since independence. Partly for political reasons, its architectural heritage has been desecrated by an ineffectual listing system that has greatly harmed its heritage tourism appeal.
This cannot be allowed to happen in the UK, because of an outdated heritage protection system that, on the one hand, has the Government spending £27 million promoting our great “heritage” around the world and, on the other, allows housing development close to the 14th-century (Grade I) Great Coxwell Barn in Oxfordshire, which William Morris described as “unapproachable in dignity”.
There is a strong argument that for those houses or buildings of “exceptional merit” (as Grade I buildings are described) which are open to the public, and which directly contribute to the heritage economy by way of employment, education and cultural heritage, there should be a statutory defence against development in the immediate vicinity.
Next year will see the 40th anniversary of the famous 1974 V&A exhibition on The Destruction of the English Country House, which was widely credited with raising public awareness of the cultural vandalism that was being done to the country house and their great estates, described by Evelyn Waugh as perhaps the nation’s greatest art form and greatest contribution to Western civilisation.
Let’s hope there is not a UK planning history exhibition 100 years from now entitled The Destruction of Arcadia.
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