"16,000 letters of objections forced planners to accept their ideas were unpopular"

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Earlier this year I described my efforts to judge the finals of Gloucestershire's best-kept village competition, the Bledisloe Cup. Well, last weekend I went round with a small official party presenting the prizes, to Highnam, Oddington and Cherington, winners in the large, medium and small divisions.

It was a fine, windy day, with everyone in good spirits. Yet at Highnam, between Gloucester and Newent, I was outraged to hear that the village is under severe pressure from the County Council to accommodate dozens, if not hundreds, of new houses, in developments that would wreck the admirably balanced environment created by hard work and imagination. Almost as bad, every 12 hours the B-road which cuts through the edge of the village carries 400 lorries, many of them heading across country to evade the Severn bridges, whose crazy toll system permits drivers to cross free in a westerly direction, and to pay only when they come east.

Highnam, in other words, though judged the best-kept large village in the county, is on the point of being wrecked by inadequate planning controls. Moreover, it is only one among hundreds of rural settlements threatened by house-building on a monstrous scale - because the Government has decreed that Gloucestershire must find room for 53,000 new houses by the year 2011.

Is there any real need for so many new dwellings? Detailed investigation suggests that the figures from the Department of the Environment are seriously flawed. The numbers are merely a projection of trends between 1971 and 1993, and depend heavily on the fact that, during those years, annual migration into the county averaged 2,700. Privately commissioned research has shown that last year the figure was below 2,000, and that, at this rate, only 41,000 new houses may suffice.

The burning question is, how can local planners, who are goaded by developers offering fortunes for building land, be made to acknowledge such truths? With great difficulty, is the short answer. Yet one gleam of light has recently appeared. Opposition to the Gloucestershire County Council's draft structure plan proved so virulent that the document has been withdrawn. Some 1,600 letters of objection forced the planners to acknowledge that their ideas were highly unpopular, and now, for the first time, they are about to make an attempt to gauge grass-roots feeling.

Meanwhile, the most acute local threat is to Cirencester, which is anxiously awaiting a decision by the Environment Minister, John Gummer, on whether or not he will sanction the creation of two non-food retail parks on the outskirts of the town. Mr Gummer has professed his belief that small-town centres should be protected - but has he the power or the guts to put words into practice?

The centre of Cirencester is still amazingly intact. The broad, slightly curving Market Place is flanked by fine stone houses; street markets, held here since Domesday, still take place on Mondays and Fridays. Excellent shops - both in the Market Place itself, and in the narrow streets winding off it - make the town a very attractive place in which to stroll, chat, window-shop or buy things.

Two facts are clear. One is that locals loathe the idea of retail parks: a petition against the developments was signed by 4,000 people, with not one vote in favour. The other certainty is that the establishment of two parks would deal a deadly blow to traders in the centre of town. Already two new supermarkets on the fringes, a Tesco and a Waitrose, have drawn off much business. Small traders might survive one park, but not - it is generally agreed - two.

According to Peter Stringfellow, proprietor of the Crocodile toy shop and a leader of the opposition, the Cotswold District Council has made "a bloody nonsense" of the whole affair. "When the first application came in, from Bannertown Developments," he says, "Mr Gummer hadn't started to talk about rejuvenating town centres, and the council was minded to approve. When the rival, Kimberley Securities, applied to build on a site slightly closer to the centre, councillors were marginally in favour of that. In fact they don't want either." The result has been a public inquiry, with the decision referred to the minister.

I find it astonishing that councillors could have given the proposals any encouragement whatsoever. Have they not visited Stroud, whose centre is now a wasteland of boarded-up shops? Have they not seen how the middle of Tewkesbury has been gutted by out-of-town development?

Come on, minister! Even if it is one of the last constructive decisions you make in the present Parliament, for heaven's sake take a tough line and give the lie to the north-country verse which ends: "And a toothless ewe is a gummer."