The village people fight back

The expansion of Stansted Airport may prove to be a concrete nightmare for a group of rural communities listed in the Domesday Book. Anna Moore meets the resistance movement
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"Just look at this place - the fields, the hedgerows... Who'd have thought that within half an hour of London, you could be in the heart of nowhere? And listen. The first thing that hits you - except for that great big aeroplane flying over our heads - is the quietness. It's just got to be defended."

Trevor Allen is standing in his back garden in the village of Takeley, his home of 37 years. He and his wife Blanche chose Takeley when they were young newlyweds in search of somewhere green and clean for their future family. Tucked away in the north Essex district of Uttlesford, the last gasp of rural breath in Essex, Takeley was a tiny community, a smattering of thatched cottages surrounded by fields and steeped in history. It is listed in the Domesday book, and recent excavations have uncovered remains of Neolithic settlements. Trevor joined the fire service and the parish council while Blanche became the local dinner lady and mother to their two children. Village life remained sleepy, English and essentially unchanged.

Until 1985. In that year, Uttlesford was earmarked to contain Britain's biggest single inland development - "London's third airport" - Stansted. Now, 11 years on, retired from the fire service but chairman of Takeley parish council, Allen spent last week in the High Court alongside parish leaders from three neighbouring villages, all fighting for the preservation of their rural idyll.

Takeley, Felsted, Birchanger and Little Dunmow - all ancient villages lying within five miles of one another - face death by developers. After a decade spent beating back noise pollution, link-roads and creeping urbanisation, Uttlesford's latest district development plan, initiated in 1991, provides for 2,500 new homes to be built over and between them to accommodate airport staff of the future. This means doubling their size. This, residents fear, will transform the area into yet another example of the sub-rural, semi-concrete sprawl spreading over England's South-east. Theirs is the first High Court challenge to a district plan ever mounted by parish councils, and it is funded and co-ordinated entirely by residents.

John Gibb, a former district officer in Nigeria, retired civil servant and resident of Birchanger for 35 years, is helping run the campaign. "The pressures on this area are already enormous - it's almost like being under siege," he says. Birchanger is also threatened by plans for a football stadium and waste-disposal site on its southern borders.

"All this started with the airport,'' says Gibb, who is also chairman of Birchanger parish council. "Most of us didn't want the expansion because we guessed that once we had a large international airport, everything would follow - an endless flood of residential and industrial building." Sure enough, immediately after the decision, speculative developers quietly scrambled for every square inch of land. Five years later, when Takeley Parish began looking to buy some space for a village football pitch, they discovered with horror that the entire parish had been spoken for by developers - not a square yard remained. They eventually bought nine acres from a sympathetic farmer just outside their borders.

Uttlesford's 1991 plan reflects the district's statutory obligation to Essex County Council to provide new dwellings for 2,500 airport workers who will apparently be needed when Stansted airport has grown to handle 15 million passengers a year (expansion has proved slow, with Stansted still at the four-million mark). Uttlesford's first choice was Little Easton - a World War Two air base, and a single-site option strongly opposed by speculative developers. In 1993, a public inquiry also came out against the plan, suggesting that the houses be built over the four Domesday villages. This was approved by the Uttlesford council without further inspection. Outraged that they had been given no chance to raise objections, the parishes consulted lawyers. They are now fighting Uttlesford for the right to a public inquiry.

"It's like a murder inquiry which cleared the main suspect, then swung round and hung four others instead, just because it needed to find someone guilty,'' said Andrew Warren, member of Telsted parish council and chairman of the local conservation society. "These are Domesday villages and this is absolutely guaranteed to bring doom. It's the sheer quantity involved. The scale is wrong.'' As the plan stands, 825 homes will be built beside Takeley's existing 850, a further 400 will add to Birchanger's 200 and 650 will link Little Dunmow (112) and Felsted (330). Another 625 will be placed on the outskirts of the area.

"Nobody has looked at the impact it will have on our roads, our primary schools, our GP surgeries, because these sites weren't the subjects of the inquiry,'' Warren said. "All we're saying is that this is a mammoth undertaking and these matters should be looked at first. The court action came as a great surprise to the powers that be."

Though this is the first such action taken by parish councils, it is unlikely to be the last. Ironically, last week, while they battled it out in court, the House of Commons environment committee made recommendations that parish councils get much more power, training and funds to influence future planning matters. This followed last year's Rural White Paper, which acknowledged that parish councillors are often the only true representatives of grassroots opinion.

The parishes have been forced to take on every speculative developer in the area. As soon as the parishes sought the judicial review, the conglomerate Berisford, a major owner of local "derelict land", sent letters to every resident warning that the action was a very costly mistake. Berisford then applied to be involved in the court proceedings - but were successfully opposed by the parishes. "For a small parish council like us, the pressures we're under are out of order,'' says Allen. "It's all voluntary - none of us are paid to do this - and we have no resources. When I first joined, I was put in charge of footpaths! I never dreamt it would come to this.''

John Gibb agrees. "In 1971, I was co-opted in because they couldn't find anyone else. I was told there was nothing to it. We just had to meet every two months and that was it. Our biggest enterprise was putting in some street lamps. Then came the airport."

Funding has been a massive undertaking, possible only because most villagers back the campaign. They have raised pounds 30,000 to cover legal fees through auctions, musical evenings, quiz nights, horse shows, car boot sales, sponsored walks and personal pledges. Such mobilisation in the Tory heartland is rarely seen.

"I saw those road protesters who live in the trees on TV the other day, and thought what a great job they're doing,'' Blanche Allen said. "It sounds stupid, but I don't know... if it came to it, maybe I'd lie on the A120 to stop these houses.''

Her husband agrees: "There's not enough green field left in this country, and it's got to be fought for,'' he said. "Some people stand in front of bulldozers, and we've spent thousands of pounds going to court. You have to do something extreme or you're ignored."

Uttlesford District Council is unwilling to comment in detail on the case, though council leader Alan Dean sounds worn out and not without sympathy. "We are a very small rural district with a major international airport in our midst,'' he sighed. "It brings responsibilities disproportionate to our size and we've made these views known to central government several times. Public inquiries cost a great deal of money. At the moment, I'm just looking forward to an early judgment so we can get this thing out of the way.''

Essex Council, who had instructed Uttlesford to provide the housing, are equally unwilling to comment. The original Fyre Inquiry of 1981 to 1983, which selected Stansted for expansion to 15 million passengers a year, calculated that Essex would have to find space for 10,000 extra dwellings within a 30-minute drive-time radius from the airport. "We have spread out the houses as much as we could,'' Robin Singleton, policy leader for planning in Essex, said. "Finding sites has not been easy."

"We were never overjoyed about Stansted,'' a council spokesman said. "We were always worried that we'd virtually have to build a new town to accommodate it.'' When asked to comment on the issues - and whether they even need this quantity of housing - a spokesman for Stansted Airport refused, insisting, "these aren't things we have any control over.''

The High Court case closed last Friday, and all parties await the outcome. Deputy Judge George Bartlett QC has warned that he may take up to three weeks to reach his judgment. Most residents seem agreed that it is a life or death decision.

"We have the threat of extinction hanging over our heads,'' Andrew Warren said. "There aren't many rural areas left in the South-east, and we can see the future if we lose. We'll become Gatwick-ised - urban sprawl with the odd green field in between. This will be the longest three weeks in these villages' lives.''