Latest five-year housing figures offer chance of hillfort estate reprieve, say campaigners

New figures showing Shropshire’s 5 year housing land supply in surplus have raised hopes that controversial housing earmarked for a nationally important Iron Age site can be reconsidered.

Old Oswestry Hillfort
Old Oswestry Hillfort

Despite huge opposition, land near Old Oswestry hillfort was included in Shropshire’s SAMDev Local Plan primarily to meet targets for 5 year housing delivery. But Shropshire Council’s latest 5 year housing statement to 2022 reveals that the County has a 6.04 years supply of deliverable housing land, equating to 2,140 homes above target.

Campaign group HOOOH says that the 117 houses allocated within the hillfort’s landscape (OSW004), which are included in the 5 year figure, should now be reviewed and removed.

“Shropshire planners have clearly been working hard to turn around housing land supply and should be congratulated on the new figures,” said Dr George Nash, a heritage adviser to HOOOH.

“This must now provide the basis to review the hillfort allocation which is strongly opposed by many County electors, national heritage and environmental groups, and at the highest levels of British archaeology.”

The report also reveals that Shropshire’s rate of housing completions in 2016/17 is exceptionally high and “significantly exceeds the housing requirement”. In all, 520 extra homes were built during this period, some 37% more than the 1390 required.

Dr Nash said: “Shropshire’s 5 year target is 10,282 houses, almost 50% more than the County’s identified housing requirement of 7,090. Given the latest figure exceeds this requirement by a massive 5,331 homes, surely the statistics can sustain the removal of 117 houses impacting on a national heritage icon?”

Drilling into the numbers, HOOOH says that they include an unnecessarily large buffer to account for persistent under-delivery even though the report declares that “there is much evidence to suggest that past under-delivery is not ‘persistent’.”

This is backed up by the statement that housing completions over the last four years are generally comparable with the housing requirement, with 5,546 homes built of 5,560 required. In its conclusion, the report says: “….The reality is, there is a significant and growing supply of housing land in Shropshire….”

Tim Malim, a heritage expert and adviser to the campaign, said: “The imperative that the hillfort site, in the absence of alternatives, is needed to meet 5 year housing targets is now obsolete.

“With the established upward trend in supply of housing land, other more appropriate sites are clearly available, providing ample justification to remove OSW004 from the plan.”

HOOOH adds that, while 5 year supply is a County-wide target, many new sites in Oswestry are coming forward for housing that can meet local need instead of despoiling an outstanding heritage asset. They include land for 24 dwellings which had originally been rejected in the SAMDev process.

The campaign group is also urging planners to resolve housing delivery on Oswestry’s Sustainable Urban Extension (SUE), earmarked in SAMDev for up to 900 homes.

HOOOH points out that the site has been allocated for development since 2010, and was due to provide 76 houses by March 2019 with the first expected in 2016. Nothing has yet been built, and the new 5 year figures show that just 10 dwellings are in prospect during 2018/19.

Dr Nash said: “The authorities and developer should be prioritising this site over controversial plots like OSW004. It should not be lying idle when young couples, families and the elderly are in desperate need of the housing it has long been earmarked to supply.”

Old Oswestry is one of the largest, most complex, and best preserved hillforts in Britain – and now also the most conspicuous, say campaigners, due to publicity surrounding the planning bid.

Contemporary testimony of its heritage significance has been compiled and signed by leading academics of British archaeology, paving the way to Old Oswestry’s recognition as “The Stonehenge of the Iron Age”. This new label acknowledges that the 3,000-year-old Scheduled Monument and outlying landscape are as significant to the understanding of Celtic Britain as Stonehenge is for the Stone Age.

Campaigners, archaeologists, heritage specialists, as well as Oswestry Town Council, have called for extended protection around the hillfort to preserve the ancient landscape integral to its archaeological importance and visitor experience. At present the hillfort has only a 5 metres buffer zone around its outer ramparts as part of its scheduled protection.

Mr Malim said: “Old Oswestry within its unspoilt setting is used frequently in magazines and publicity promoting tourism in Shropshire. But it will not be such an iconic image when it has been blighted by housing with associated detriment to the local economy.”

HOOOH says it is writing to the local planning authority, Oswestry Town Council, and other stakeholders to invite new discussion about an appropriate conservation strategy for Old Oswestry and its ancient environs.