'Tree houses' invoke ire of Hebden Bridge

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Environmentalists have always found a warm welcome in Hebden Bridge, the Hampstead of the Pennines, which has built a bohemian image since New Age residents began arriving in the 1970s. But environmental warfare has begun over plans for a cluster of ecofriendly homes which, for many locals, goes a shade of green too far.

The row centres on 10 houses, on stilts, which have been proposed for an area of woodland in the valley that the town occupies. The statistics make good reading: the annual fuel bill for a home at Linden Mill Bank will be £133 as opposed to £833.47 for a Victorian house in Hebden Bridge, which loses six times as much heat. A local architect, Philip Bintliff, envisages single people renting one-bedroom, two-storey tree homes and leaving a far smaller carbon footprint. The semi-detached homes, with pitched, blue-slate roofs, will be linked by a timber walkway and insulated with stone cladding. Solar panels will provide heating and hot water. There are also grass-roofed first-floor terraces.

But the "green" scheme has been refused planning permission by Calderdale Council, prompting an appeal by the developers, 3045 Group, which has prompted a public inquiry at nearby Halifax town hall.

David Hardy, spokesman for the developers, told the inquiry that sustainability lay at the heart of the project. "It is designed to be as carbon neutral as practically possible," he said, arguing that the tree homes scheme had an "exceptional" five-star rating under a new code for sustainable living and was an answer to government exhortations to developers to deliver "green" housing. The stilts will be screwed into the ground to avoid damaging tree roots, he added. The developers point to use of natural materials and homes between the trees, which they say would enhance the hillside conservation area behind a former mill where the houses would be built.

But Roger Lee, a development control officer with Calderdale Council, told the inquiry the homes would have an adverse impact on a natural, green backdrop of trees which provided a welcome "wedge of greenery" in a densely settled valley. Open space used by local residents would also be lost and the modern design of the tree homes was not in keeping with the nearby stone-built Victorian terrace houses, he said.

A planning inspector, Elizabeth Ord, who visited the site yesterday, will reserve her decision but the developers are aware that the history of this town is sprinkled with green projects blocked by locals.

Sir Bernard Ingham, Margaret Thatcher's former press secretary, played a central part in a struggle more than 10 years ago against the proposed siting of wind turbines. After years of intense argument in a town which boasts one of northern England's highest concentration of political activists, he won.