A rural retreat near Stratford-upon-Avon? Not if you build 4,800 homes on it

Country idyll under threat - and residents fear Tory cronyism could be at work

Fourteen miles west of William Shakespeare’s birthplace is a stretch of 44 acres of agricultural land which would be a pleasant place to take refuge from human noise, but for the never-ending babble of traffic on the M40 nearby.

Around it lie three small villages – Gaydon, Lighthorne and Lighthorne Heath – where professional families seeking to escape city life have made their homes.

But now urban life is threatening to invade their country retreat, in the form of a plan by Stratford-on-Avon District Council to fill those 44 acres with a “green village” including 4,800 homes.

Britain desperately needs more houses, but is strangely reluctant to build them. Before the 2008 banking crisis, the UK invested 3.5 per cent of GDP in housing, compared with 6 per cent in Germany and France, creating a backlog of some two million homes, in a country where 230,000 new households a year are adding to demand. As a result, house prices and the average age of first-time buyers go ever upwards.

A report drawn up last year by the Future Homes Commission called for an accelerated programme that would produce 300,000 new homes every year, for which “land will be needed in or close to virtually every city, town and village.”

That need threatens to turn the three rural Warwickshire villages into suburbs of a new town. The residents fear that they will lose their village schools, shops and pubs to the giant settlement in their back yard. They are holding protest meetings and starting a fundraising drive to hire a planning consultant in the hope of forcing the council to back down.

One dark suspicion voiced to The Independent by one of the villagers is that Tory “cronyism” is at work. One of the members of the consortium that will benefit if planning consent is given is the Stratford-based Bird Group, whose joint managing director, Tony Bird, is the chairman of the Stratford Conservatives Patron Club. Stratford Council is under Conservative control, but its leader, Christopher Saint, insists that Mr Bird’s connection to the party has not influenced its  decision.

Christopher Saint, Stratford District Council leader Christopher Saint, Stratford District Council leader  

Laura Steele, a criminal barrister on extended maternity leave, and her partner, a long-haul airline pilot, moved to Lighthorne three years ago because it was a peaceful location in which to raise their three-year-old daughter. Ms Steele now chairs the Lighthorne parish council.

She said: “We fully appreciate that houses have to be built somewhere, but we were told that the policy was to be a fair distribution, not to distribute them in a way that would devastate any one community. If this development was in London, it would stretch from the Houses of Parliament to St Paul’s Cathedral. There will be at least 10,000 cars going through the village to the M40.”

Carol Schofield, who also moved to Lighthorne three years ago, said: “A lot of people feel the injustice of it because it has come out of nowhere and we haven’t been given enough time to respond. One thing that really annoyed us is that most of the village did not find out about this until the end of July.”

But Mr Saint says the council’s options are limited, because it has to follow rules set by the planning authority in Whitehall, which is part of Eric Pickles’s Communities Department. In April, after analysing the drift of population out of big cities into attractive rural areas, the planners in Whitehall ordered Stratford council to add 1,500 more homes to its 20-year plan, meaning it would have to find room for 9,500 dwellings altogether.

The council was advised by the developers it consulted that one option was to put more than half the required new houses on one site – and the Lighthorne site’s proximity to the motorway would avoid the cost of building a new road.

The village of Lighthorne The village of Lighthorne  

Mr Saint is confident enough of his case to agree to go in front of a meeting of irate villagers to defend it. He insists that it has been made on planning grounds alone, and the fact that it would give a lucrative contract to a company run by a prominent local Conservative is irrelevant.

“I can understand why people would think that, but the charge of cronyism is ill-founded,” he said. “The Patrons’ Club is a fundraising organisation. It’s not part of the Conservative Party constitutionally but it has existed for some time and is recognised.

“I have spoken to Tony Bird. I said to him, ‘Tony, if you come up with a good scheme, I’ll support you. If you come up with a lousy scheme, you will get nowhere.’ I’m not in his pocket. The fact that he and I subscribe to the same political group – that’s fine – but I refute any charge of that sort of connection giving him any more influence than somebody else.”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
2015 General Election
May2015

Poll of Polls

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped commission: SThree: Does earning a 6 figu...

Recruitment Genius: SEO Executive

£18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: New Lift Sales Executive - Lift and Elevators

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A challenging opportunity for a...

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss