Country Matters: Inch by inch the ancient turf erodes

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The Independent Online
IF YOU strike a match anywhere in the lower end of the village of Quenington, Gloucestershire, this weekend, you will be in danger of touching off a major explosion, so highly charged is the atmosphere over a development project which, after lying dormant for a long period, has come back to life. Three cardboard placards in the window of a cottage opposite the site proclaim: 'Quenington Mourning', 'Wounded Meadow' and 'Scarred For Ever'.

The sight of bulldozers tearing into ancient turf is always an emotive one; but when machines began work here, in the softly undulating country east of Cirencester, on Tuesday afternoon, many of the villagers were deeply dejected by the all- too-visible evidence that their campaign to stop the project had failed.

The saga began way back in 1979, when the veteran architect Frank Gollins and his wife, Beryl, were granted permission by the local planning authority, the Cotswold District Council, to build three houses and a studio on a meadow flanking Church Road.

They themselves had moved to Quenington in 1969: they bought 30 acres of land, a derelict farmyard and a 13th-century gatehouse that had once belonged to the medieval Knights Hospitallers, who founded a community there.

The Gollinses restored the exterior of the gatehouse and converted its interior into offices. They also built themselves a new house in the remains of the farmyard - a single-storey building, constructed to high standards, but of uncompromisingly modern design.

It was not these projects, however, which raised such apprehension in the village. The controversial scheme is the one for the three houses and studio. The architects said that their interest in these buildings was - and is - largely philanthropic: they want to do something for the village, and the studio should create local employment. Other people, however, see the whole thing as a purely commercial exercise.

What riles villagers most is the fact that permission was granted 15 years ago, and that although construction of the studio started in 1983, the shell was left unfinished. Only now are the houses associated with it about to be built.

The objectors claim that during the interval, local circumstances have changed fundamentally, and that permission for the houses would never be granted today. They argue not only that planning regulations in general have tightened with the passage of time, but also that attitudes towards building in villages have developed out of all recognition. In particular, they say that planners have recognised the importance of retaining open spaces between houses - these being one of the key features that give villages their character and preserve a sense of what such settlements used to be like long ago.

According to present regulations, planning permission remains valid indefinitely, provided that a start has been made on the project. Only if no work has been done within five years does it lapse. Thus in Quenington, because the Gollinses built the studio within five years of receiving permission, their licence to complete the houses holds good.

In defending the scheme, this is their central point, and clearly they are right in law.

A cynic might well say that three more houses will make little difference, as Quenington has already been wrecked by indiscriminate development. The village lies on a slight slope, and at the upper end, on two sides of a triangular green, unsightly modern houses have sprouted in large numbers.

Yet the lower part still has integrity and charm. Church Road falls gently towards the little River Coln, flanked by old houses of Cotswold stone - and it is here, in a lovely, undulating meadow which formed one of the last open spaces, that the foundations of the new houses are now being dug.

When word leaked out last summer that the programme was about to be resuscitated, 80 signatures objecting to it were drummed up in a single afternoon. A later poll recorded more than 200 signatures against, and only nine for, in a population of 400-odd.

A village meeting came out overwhelmingly in favour of making an approach to the Gollinses, to see if they could be persuaded to put the field into a trust, or at least meet representatives of the objectors; but the architects declined the invitation.

Many prominent local figures joined the fray, including the concert pianist William Howard and the actor David Mallinson. Yet as leader of the opposition there emerged Lucy Abel Smith, an architectural historian and author of a book on Prague.

Together with her husband, David, an industrialist, Mrs Abel Smith lives in the Old Rectory, down by the river and within yelling distance of the disputed site. Her main ally has been the artist Jessica Douglas-Home - widow of Charlie, the former editor of the Times - whose home stands between the Knights' Gate and the river, also hard by the development.

It is easy to accuse these two of 'nimbyism' - and Mrs Abel Smith acknowledges that in rural terms she is a newcomer, having lived in Quenington only 11 years. Yet she claims to represent the feeling of the village and, on purely architectural grounds, deplores the design of the new, single-storey houses, with their narrow windows and dark wood frames, which she condemns as 'thoroughly urban', 'reminiscent of a prison' and 'utterly wrong for this traditional setting'.

Last year, finding no effective big gun close at hand, she wrote to John Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment, asking him to intervene; but in a reply to her local MP, Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, the Department concluded that it could not revoke the original permission unless 'the (Cotswold District) Council's decision appeared so grossly wrong as to damage the wider public interest in a matter of national concern'.

So the scheme has gone ahead, and feelings have become bitter. In the words of Frank Gollins, 'Every village has its people who create trouble, and those who help. We're really suffering from these two girls, who think they know better than everybody else.' He claims that their activities have split the village, and threatens to shut them up with legal action.

They, in turn, point out that, far from splitting the village, the row has united the entire population against the architects. Seeing that nothing can now prevent the houses being built, or even ameliorate their design, they have fallen back on the hope that the case may influence future decisions in other places, and that the Environment Secretary will reconsider the whole question of retroactive permission.

The state of Quenington now offers a sad contrast with that of its neighbour, Coln St Aldwyns, where the combination of a benevolent squire and energetic local defence action has managed to fight off almost all development and preserve the village intact.

Living as I do outside a much smaller Cotswold hamlet, I know all too well what anxieties such matters raise. The survival of the countryside hangs in the balance, and the main enemy is erosion by inches - a process so insidious that it is almost impossible to stop.