COUNTRY MATTERS : Ugly towns need grass too

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The Independent Online
What rights or powers have the members of a rural community to shape the future of their own environment? The inhabitants of Stonehouse, a small town near Stroud, are anxiously awaiting the answer to that question, which will be given when a public inquiry resumes early next month.

The planning issue which has Stonehouse on edge is typical of hundreds up and down the country. Broadly speaking, one vendor of land and one developer are trying to make money at the expense of everyone else.

The site in question is the Berryfield, a 131/2-acre expanse of grass sports pitches in the middle of the town. Its owner, the public school Wycliffe College, wants to sell the land to Bovis, the construction company, for a figure reputed to be £21/2 m.

Bovis's original application, lodged with Stroud District Council, was to develop the whole site and build about 130 houses. Meeting stiff local opposition, the company changed plans and has now applied to develop the western part of the field only - but objectors feel sure that this is a tactical move, and would soon lead to the entire field being built over.

Nobody disputes Wycliffe's legal right to sell the land: the college owns the grounds and needs capital to improve its facilities and to secure its future - especially now that it is faced with the strong possibility of a Labour government unsympathetic to private education. What locals cannot accept is that the college has the moral right to obliterate one of the town's last open spaces.

The college points out that the land is private, and that although a footpath crosses one corner, members of the public have no general right of access. In spite of this, some people do walk their dogs on it - and indeed, one of Wycliffe's reasons for wanting to sell is that persistent dog-fouling has made it unpleasant, if not impossible, to play rugger and hockey on the field.

The college can also cite the need for new houses embodied in the structure plan for the area as a whole. Planners have been told that Gloucestershire must find room for more than 50,000 houses by the year 2011, and although this figure is vigorously disputed by bodies like the Council for the Preservation of Rural England, it is a useful cudgel for would-be developers to wave in the air.

One problem for the objectors is that Stonehouse is no longer an attractive place. Unlike the limestone villages which cling picturesquely to the slopes of the Cotswolds, the town stands dourly on the flat plain, a couple of miles out from the edge of the hills. Once it consisted mainly of wool mills along the River Frome, cottages, cider orchards, the handsome church of St Cyr, a manor house and park. Now it has sprawled out into uncoordinated industrial sites and housing estates, with a population of nearly 6,000, and is, quite frankly, a mess.

Yet this very fact - in the eyes of the objectors - makes preservation of the Berryfield even more essential. People see it as the green heart or the green lung of Stonehouse, and claim that its loss would be the beginning of the end. If the Berryfield goes, they say, developers will run riot, and the place will turn into a miniature version of Swindon.

The resistance group, Friends of the Berryfield, has received 450 letters objecting to the planning applications, and only 17 in favour, most of them from representatives of the college. Stonehouse Town Council has resolutely opposed the development from the start, regarding the field as a vital amenity. The planning committee of Stroud District Council voted overwhelmingly to reject it.

In spite of this united opposition, an appeal from the developers to the Department of the Environment was enough to keep the matter in the air. An inspector from the DoE went down to Stroud for the hearing in January, but so many objectors turned up that the two days allocated proved insufficient, and the second half of the hearing will take place in April.

I do not envy the inspector his task. How is he to weigh the well-being of the majority against the commercial gain of the few?

If the developers get their way, they may be in for a shock. According to legend, one of the last skirmishes of the Wars of the Roses took place on what was then called the Buryefield, and the bodies of the slain were interred there. So if the bulldozers go in, the drivers may well start finding their buckets full of human bones.