Nimbies and offcomers

So why would we not want a 320-house development, straddling a beautiful stretch of green belt on the edge of town and, coincidentally, just across the road from our home?

I pause awhile, having written what I hope is something of a rhetorical question, to consider another tale, from Lower Heyford in Oxfordshire.

Only 320? Try multiplying that by fifteen and then some.

Friends of mine live in the village of Upper Heyford, just next door to its ‘lower’ cousin. Already reeling from the major redevelopment of the old RAF base adjacent to their village with homes of predominantly five to seven bedrooms (this is ideal London-commuter territory), they were stunned when speculative developers wanted to build a further 5,000 homes on their doorstep. Or, in Lower Heyford’s case, just 160 doorsteps (population at the last census: 495). Thus instantly transforming their picture postcard Cotswold village into a small town. This new town would be called ‘Great Heyford’ (yes, really) and would be built across a conservation area.

Not surprisingly, at a public meeting to discuss the plans in April, sparks flew. The thoughts expressed that evening are described as unprintable. So far, this is all sounding so familiar.

The plans showed the 5,000 new homes located around a country park. There was provision for primary and secondary schools, new GPs, dental surgeries and shops. There was even land earmarked for commerce and light industry. Where is the line, I wonder, beyond which all of these resources must be provided? 500 homes? A thousand? Two thousand? Or does this all depend on the Section 106 agreement, which (I learn through the planning portal, that pixellated doorway to a world I wish I’d never even glimpsed) ‘makes a development proposal acceptable in planning terms, that would not otherwise be acceptable’: the bargaining power of the council in question versus the developer’s natural inclination to resist giving too much in return. The rule of profit margins.

One lady, invited to view the plans, discovered a ‘park and ride’ would be sited next to her modest cottage. Another resident, a gentleman, learned that feeder roads would go next to his garden and through his land. Others made it clear that, had they wanted to live near a town, they would have bought a home near a town!

Great Heyford would be nearly half the size of neighbouring Bicester and the majority of its residents would commute to work by means of an already congested road system (Bicester Village being a popular tourist attraction) or via a tiny train station, with woefully inadequate train provision.

Following the meeting, I hear that the land was withdrawn from the local plan – proof, incidentally, that these things can be done – but the threat remains, as Cherwell ‘has to decide’ where to contribute thousands of homes. Why? Because, apparently, we ‘need more houses’. And across the country, distraught communities spin round the same hamster wheel, do the same research, draw the same conclusions, write the same letters and suffer the same frustrations as we did. While councils and developers appear to have ‘carte blanche’ to do as they wish, regardless of what their communities think, the system designed to absorb pressure from we ‘mischief-makers’, to absorb, learn and ultimately mutate, confident in their power, ready for the next onslaught.

Nearer home, in March 2016, the village of Thursby began its own battle with planners (incidentally, involving our own nemesis). Story Homes plan a 69-home development on the edge of the village, proudly reported by the press as ‘the biggest development in the community for many years’.

Around 50 residents of Thursby (population 1,216 at the 2011 census) gathered at the village hall. Their list of concerns rang a few bells: increased volume of traffic (particularly through the village), lack of suitable access to the A595, possible flooding on the site (an ever-present Cumbrian concern), a village school which is already filled to capacity, potential drainage problems and ‘the effect the development would have on the ambiance and nature of the rural community’.

Residents had been urged to write their objection letters to Allerdale council – the only way ‘the system’ allows we mere mortals to formally voice our objections. Like us, they hoped to preserve their community. Peter Hunter, who chaired the meeting, said: ‘The more objections we get, the stronger a case we have.’ For their sakes, I hope this is true, despite our own evidence to the contrary (875 people objected to the Strawberry How plans, anecdotally an unprecedented number. And maybe, for West Cumbria, it is.)

It remains to be seen what happens to Thursby but, sadly, they join the game three years after us, challenging a system that has already absorbed, learned and mutated. I wish them well.

So, back in Cockermouth: what are we? A bunch of whining ‘nimbies’, pulling up what remains of that rickety old property ladder, now we’ve climbed it, desperate to retain our precious view? Or meddling offcomers, who don’t understand the needs of local people? (Just two of the printable – and frankly unimaginative – brickbats chucked our way this last couple of years.)

Well, I guess there’s an element of both those things.

We were certainly drawn to this spot because it’s on the edge of town, close enough for an invigorating walk into town, far enough away to feel close to the mountains, which nestle just over the horizon. Walk back along this road late in the evening, after sunset, and you walk into darkness, home to owls and bats, nesting birds and resting squirrels. But not for much longer. The sounds and smells of spring – all chattering birds and swooping swallows, muck spreading and cow pats – are already crowded out by the hedge mower and the tree shredder, rattling away at that poor hedgerow. Soon, it will be cement hoppers, pile drivers, rumbling wagons and the smell of diesel. And light pollution.

Shape of things to come © Hackette on the How.

A good number of the campaigners I’ve got to know, the new friends I’ve made, are indeed offcomers – defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as dialect for ‘outsiders or newcomers to a district’. I’ve heard it said (by locally-born Cumbrians, usually with tongue firmly held in cheek and a wry smile on their lips), that it can take twenty years or more to cease being an offcomer, the subtext being, I suspect, that until that time you remain unqualified to have an opinion about anything remotely local.

Yet many of my new friends have lived here for many years more than that, often introducing second and third generations of children and grandchildren into the mix. How can they not have an understanding of what their adopted home needs? They moved here to take up work or retire, or (like me) to follow their hearts, to bring their families up in a place of clean air, where the pace of life is slower and the people friendly, where there are opportunities for sport and recreation, a place steeped in history.

As for me, I may be still very green – at two and a half years here, I’m still a shiny new coin – but ‘the climbing gremlin’ has lived here for over twenty-five years AND contributed a great deal towards his community through mountain rescue. Admittedly, he too is an outsider, having crossed the border from Yorkshire in search of employment but, as far as I’m concerned, this town and this community are important to him, so they’re important to me too. So much so that I left my own familiar ground to move here and share it with him.

But I’m in danger of rambling a little too far from the point, too soon. Or maybe not. Maybe that IS the precisely the point. Why would any of us object to a 320-home development, straddling a beautiful stretch of green belt on the edge of town? Well, because we’ve cared about this place enough to make it our home (like the birds and the otters! I will return to the otters, I promise).

There’s beauty in everything, even blue nets © Hackette on the How.

We want other people to see it how we see it, love it was we do. And we can’t understand why those who make the decisions can’t see what we see – or if they do, seem unable or willing to do anything about it (with a few notable exceptions) – that the amount of new development currently nibbling away at this town like a cancer, is unsustainable. That it will affect the already strangulated traffic flow through town, put further strain on limited resources for health and education and – most significantly of all – that the development of Strawberry How in particular can only add to the flood risk downstream, for a town which has flooded twice in six short years and many times before that. We might be wrong. But if we’re right – by the time we’re proved right – it will be too late.




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