Milton under Wychwood is a small Oxfordshire village, close to Burford and within the Cotswolds Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. When an inappropriate housing development was proposed on a local greenfield site, residents formed an action group to campaign against it. Their story is typical of many groups CPRE Oxfordshire works with, and we hope it may give you some hints and tips in your own campaign...
In July 2014, a property development company, Sharba Homes, announced its intent to build a housing development comprising around 70 houses on an open field adjacent to Milton-under-Wychwood’s southern boundary. Sharba circulated a professionally prepared leaflet, outlining the proposal, to all homes in the village and announced a public exhibition in the village hall where local views could be expressed. This meeting was quite well attended and Sharba representatives were on hand to provide answer to questions informally, one of which indicated that the proposed scheme could be a precursor to more extensive development .
The general reaction of the village to the proposal was negative, and a small group decided to form an organisation to ensure that this consensus was marshalled towards thwarting the development. At first an informal “Action Group” met and took immediate action to start a petition against the development and to provide simple “No Thanks” leaflets to all households which they were asked to display in their windows. Lapel stickers were also made available at the village fete. The positive response of villagers to these initiatives confirmed the strength and preponderance of antipathy to the development. The leaflets also announced an online petition. This was backed up by the circulation of “manual” petition sheets and the creation of a dedicated website. These measures ensured regular and effective communication to all as the process evolved and we eventually accumulated some 530 names on the petition.
The Action Group was then formally constituted as MuWAG with a proper constitution, officers and a bank account, which soon attracted donations and promises of quite large sums if eventually required.
We successfully asked for a slot at the next Parish Council meeting to present the Group’s concerns. An unprecedented public attendance heard MuWAG’s Chairman outline these, and the Parish Councillors were made graphically aware of the views of those who elected them. We also lobbied unsuccessfully for their cooperation with neighbouring village PCs in formally responding to the Draft Local Plan.
Professional posters were produced and a dedicated team went around the village assisting with their prominent display which showed clearly to all travelling through the village the overwhelming strength of opinion.
In the meantime, we wrote to local and national politicians, alerting them of the alarming situation produced by the National Planning Policy Framework whereby such schemes could be advanced. These produced no directly useful reaction, but may have heightened awareness of the national problem which provoked subsequent helpful clarification of the Framework.
The Sharba scheme was eventually transformed into a formal planning application much later than originally signalled, and the interim “phoney war” period challenged MuWAG’s ability to maintain the village’s original fervour: but being able to communicate easily with the majority of its supporters, facilitated this.
The Planning Application showed only minor changes to the original proposal and made no material concessions to locally voiced opinion. When it came to the Parish Council, there was again a good turnout of villagers against the scheme and MuWAG repeated the reasons for rejection. However some Councillors actually wanted the development and another, being Chairman of the District Planning Committee, felt unable to vote, so the result of a vote was only a very close “No”. However, the Chairman submitted to the District Council a clear and well-argued case for rejection.
MuWAG was able to count on the services of an extremely competent professional Landscape Architect and a similarly qualified Town Planner. These produced reports on the Sharba Application which were combined into a single document and submitted by MuWAG as its response to the application. This was published online as part of the planning process as were some 400 comments objecting to the scheme, most of which were submitted by MuWAG members.
We were concerned that Sharba had been negotiating with The Council outside of the formal Planning Process and accordingly made a Freedom of Information request for all documents relating the proposal. The District Council, much to its credit, obligingly provided a file of such documents, none of which, as it turned out, confirmed our fears.
The relevant date for the Planning Committee was twice postponed, but once this was defined, MuWAG “booked” its three minute slot for speaking against the Application prior to its being put to the Committee. Our arguments focussed on the lunacy of allocating the indicated housing requirement disproportionately to the most rural sub-region of the District, protected by its Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) status, to the consequential large proportional increase in village size and to the unacceptable landscape impact. The Parish Council Vice Chairman also spoke strongly against the proposal. Sharba’s argument in favour was “if not here, then where?”
The Planning Officer had recommended against acceptance mainly because of the AONB issue and other issues involving access etc.
Two District councillors spoke against the proposal, including the Chairman who endorsed all the arguments against and added his own suggestion of further NPPF- related reasons before putting the matter to the vote which was a unanimous rejection.
Sharba’s reaction is as yet unknown, MuWAG remains in place.
Oliver Chapple, Chairman, MuWAG, July 2015