There is an area of countryside six miles south-west of Stratford-upon-Avon that is particularly picturesque. It boasts elegant views of the Cotswolds, and fine country lanes that meander around green pastures. Stand still long enough and you can almost hear the sound of "Jerusalem". It could not be more English.
One might expect such important and idyllic parts of this great nation, a few dozen furlongs from the birthplace of Shakespeare, to be earmarked by the Government for preservation. But as part of Gordon Brown's initiative for a series of eco-towns – environmentally-friendly new settlements on underdeveloped land – the site in question, near the village of Long Marston, could be concreted over to make way for six thousand new homes. Or to give them their proper name: Middle Quinton.
Eco-towns are part of the Government's huge house-building plans, set to see three million homes constructed across Britain by 2020. Ten eco-towns will be green-lighted for development from a shortlist of 15 this autumn. Their "eco" stems from their green technologies, everything from power-generating refuse incinerators, to free bicycles for all. But locals around Stratford-upon-Avon are incensed, and are doing all they can to make sure Middle Quinton does not happen. Far from being ecological, they say, Middle Quinton would create far more damage through car pollution than it would prevent. Their struggle has spiralled formidably.
The growing local anger has taken the form of Better Accessible and Responsible Development, or Bard, the official name of the anti-Middle-Quinton campaign. Bankrolled by rich local residents including publishing multi-millionaire Felix Dennis, it has already assembled a crack corps of QCs, public relations experts, political strategists, planning consultants and MPs to make people's voice heard. They are currently mounting a legal challenge in which they hope to prove the Government's consultation period, which concluded this week, was flawed. Now, their example is being followed by similar groups protesting the need for eco-towns.
It is an evening meeting in Stratford high school's 1960s assembly hall, on the town's outskirts. About 200 plastic chairs are arranged in neat lines awaiting a crowd. A constant stream of retirement-age punters are greeted by members of Bard.
The group was founded in December, a month after Yvette Cooper, Caroline Flint's predecessor as Housing minister, made the Government's eco-town plans public. Its chairman is David Bliss, who manages the Dennis estate, two miles away from the proposed development. His wife, Hilary, looks after public relations. "We wanted to hear what people thought and it was decided that we should put a campaign together," she says. "We were aware of the plans but we were not sure how many others were. Around 11,000 people have now signed our petition."
It is clear the couple draw their support from across the political spectrum, from conservative-minded retirees to liberals who believe this is simply the wrong location. None is opposed to greener housing. But there is a suspicion the new homes' eco credentials are simply a bit of a "greenwash" – the developers' way of gaining approval for profit-driven projects that might otherwise meet with opposition.
But what has incensed members of Bard is their view that Flint has gone over their heads, firstly by failing to give them enough information about what effects Middle Quinton will have on their lives, and secondly, by not giving them enough time to make their case. "This is a very short window of opportunity," says Bard campaigner Jane Cromack, 48. "You always assume the Government is going to make the right decisions. But that is not obvious any more. They are not taking account of local issues."
Harry Teale works in tourism in central Stratford, and moved from North London's Crouch End to her current home, just outside the town, several years ago. She did this to escape the "city way of life" and says: "I made a lifestyle choice. I think if you took the petition around the local population, 95 per cent would sign it."
On stage, the evening's main attraction is preparing to speak. Conservative Party Deputy Chairman and Stratford-upon-Avon MP John Maples is pragmatic and engaging. "If you're going to have six thousand more houses that is maybe not a bad idea ... but this is just the wrong place," he says. "It is a location of outstanding natural beauty."
The MP accuses the Government of wanting to build at Long Marston for financial reasons. He says the Government stands to fill its coffers through a new development because part of the proposed site for Middle Quinton used to belong to the Ministry of Defence (MoD). The MoD land was sold to developer St Modwen in 2004 in a deal which stipulated that once the land was developed, the Government would be paid 50 per cent of what that land was worth. He says the site was originally sold to St Modwen for £11m, but after Middle Quinton arrives, could be valued at £400m. That's £200m for Chancellor Alistair Darling's piggy bank. Maples says many of the other eco-town sites are proposed for former MoD land, and if they are all developed, could net the Treasury £2bn.
The Long Marston scheme was short-listed after the site was deemed to meet a series of stringent "eco-town criteria". These included the fact it featured brownfield or partially developed land and that it already has some rail links.
Tony Bird, the local developer proposing to deliver the project with St Modwen, believes their plans will significantly improve Long Marston. He cites Poundbury – the traditionally-designed Dorset new town promoted by the Prince of Wales – as one of his inspirations and emphasises that he will build his development out of local tiles and stone. He neglects to mention another key landmark to be found close to the site. One local road sees a female-looking scarecrow wearing a "stop the eco town" T-shirt. Local wags have nicknamed it "Lady Bird" (the developer has an OBE). Bird says he still lacks a complete picture of how exactly Middle Quinton will affect factors such as local road use and pollution. "I understand people's worry about the number of people coming in," he says. "But it's not our fault. We were put on to the shortlist in April. We have now got to work on the master planning and sustainability for a town of 6,000 houses with all the leisure, schools, farmer's market, and everything else. We have got to plan the whole lot by the end of September. But we can only consult the public on things we have got the information on, and it isn't all in our hands."
Now, Bard is making concrete progress. It has instructed London law firm S J Berwin to fight Flint in the High Court. One of the firm's partners, Simon Ricketts, thinks they have a strong case and that the consultation process is unlawful. "The Government mustn't enter the consultation period with its mind made up," he says, "and it appears that it has." His colleagues have written to the High Court to kick-start the legal process. Additionally, there is rapid progress in anti-eco-town campaigns all over the country. Protesters in Rossington, South Yorkshire claim an eco-town development would destroy Green Belt and agricultural land, and thus is far from ecologically sound. And earlier this month, two thousand attended a protest rally against plans to build an eco-town at Ford in West Sussex, including the likes of Ben Fogle and Duncan Goodhew. Tim Henman's father, Anthony, is leading the charge in Oxfordshire, where locals oppose plans for up to 15,000 new houses at Weston Otmoor. The architect Richard Rogers thinks this is "one of the biggest mistakes the Government could make."
Exiting Stratford, past Tudor chocolate-box facades, one is reminded why poets flock here in search of inspiration. One such sensitive soul is Felix Dennis himself. He has taken to plying the public with stanzas crafted by his own eccentric quill, spurred on by what he sees as a threat to our nation's fabric. "This quiet realm of peace, this rural isle/ This other Eden, demi-paradise," he writes of the campaigners' mission. "Heed now the bell, long silent in its tower/ It speaks of England's wrath, late tho' the hour/ From William to Whitehall." From a Bard, we should suppose, it's the least we've come to expect.