On the warpath

Campaigners are up in arms over plans to develop one of Britain's most important battlefields. Matthew Brace provides some strategic advice
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The Independent Online
Leave the thundering traffic of the A38 south of Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire, go through a gate by a rose-and-crossed-swords sign and you step into the past. Here, on Gastons Field, more than 500 years ago, one of Britain's most important battles took place. During the Wars of the Roses, the Yorkist army scored a conclusive victory here over the Lancastrian forces led by Margaret of Anjou, reconfirming the deposed Edward IV as king.

Historians rank Gastons Field among the top six most important battlefields in Britain. Now a housing development threatens to tear this living chapter from the history books. Despite pleas from historians and objections from English Heritage, Gloucestershire County Council and Tewkesbury Town Council, the local borough council has in principle agreed planning permission for 51 homes to be built on the site.

Bryant Mercia Homes Ltd has pledged to keep the battlefield trail on part of Gastons Field but campaigners say the site will be ruined. Of the seven fields believed to have been fought on, five have already been covered with houses. Only these two are left.

Historical research has unearthed important finds and recently an ecologist and battlefield enthusiast said that many of the hedgerows skirting the field were there at the time of the battle. However, the chairman of the borough council's planning committee, Derek Davies, said the council's own research found no evidence that fighting took place on the field itself. "Campaigners say why build here, why not somewhere else? But you could say why not north of Coventry or south of Birmingham," Mr Davies said.

"These houses were in the Tewkesbury Borough Council Local Plan which has been around for some years and which have been discussed at a public inquiry, so where were [the campaigners] then?"

Those opposing the plans would not mind so much if there was no alternative site; after all the 4.4 million new homes needed in Britain in the next 15 years have to go somewhere. They argue that a previously developed site a few miles away would be ideal but there are already plans for homes there, too.

The plan for Gastons Field is another example, says Steven Goodchild of the Tewkesbury Battlefield Society, of how "the planning system is weighed against the individual in favour of the developer. In a lot of these planning projects around the country, developers put barristers in to argue their case and oversee all the details - and ordinary people don't stand a chance."

Mr Goodchild is not alone is his view. For numerous groups of residents across Britain, whether they be faced by the ruin of local heritage or the shattering of rural peace by a bypass, protest is a daunting prospect.

But help is at hand in the shape of a new book by Sir Antony Jay, the co-author of the television series Yes Minister, which masterfully exposed the sticky mire of bureaucracy. How to beat Sir Humphrey is a pocket guide to picking apart the tangled web of government red tape, and it has deep ramifications for the countryside.

"It seems like an unwinnable battle. It is nothing of the sort. You can win; not all the time but bureaucrats are more fallible than you think," says Sir Antony.

"Get together," he advises in his book. "Find out what skills your local people have. There's bound to be a lawyer among you, or a professor of geography from the local university who can add weight to your arguments.

"There are still a lot of things people don't know about protesting - like the need to get people's names correct when you write to them, or sending a copy of your letters to the Duke of Edinburgh. Civil servants get frightfully worried if they think they might be put in a bad light in regard to their knighthoods if the Duke of Edinburgh or the Queen heard about what they were doing."

But doesn't this assault on officialdom smack of Nimbyism? "No," Sir Antony insists. "Nimbyism is hypocrisy. It is telling someone not to build a house when you built one yourself just the month before. This is territorial defence and everyone wants to do that, don't they?"

Despite the plight of Gastons Field and others like it, he believes the tide has turned in favour of the public. "I think the worst days are over. Local councils are trying harder. It's a step in the right direction."

Whether Sir Antony's words have come too late for the Tewkesbury campaigners is not clear. Earlier this month the Department of Environment exercised a "Section 14" on the site, which means the Secretary of State for the Environment, John Prescott, may "call in" the application for a governmental decision which could end in an over-turning of the plans. Steven Goodchild is holding out hope. "I can't believe that with the strong objections from English Heritage and others this can go ahead." Only time and Sir Humphrey will tell.

`How to Beat Sir Humphrey' by Sir Antony Jay is available from all good bookshops, priced pounds 6.99, or direct from Long Barn Books, Ebrington, Gloucestershire GL55 6NW

Beating the bureaucrats

Understand the nature of the plan: try to look at it through the eyes of Sir Humphrey and the men who drew it up

Understand the nature of the planners: refrain from attacking any individual or group or official or department until you know precisely who your true enemies are

Be vigilant: place your spies and act quickly on their reports

Create a command structure and choose an action committee

Raise your funds: car boot sales organising with military precision by retured colonels or the WI

Choose a campaign slogan: short and simple

Make clear your objectives

Get the press involved: local papers love a good campaign to get behind

Keep records of all correspondence and send copies to eminent people

Study your law books to find legal loopholes