Finding something by accident is always more fun, and such was the case yesterday when I stumbled upon Channel 4’s new series of Amazing Spaces Shed of the Year. It is a programme that just epitomises the eccentricities of the British, and how some go to extremes in pursuit of their dreams – and more power to their elbow for doing so!
The first episode featured two categories of this year’s competition – Summerhouses and ‘Not a Shed’. The first of these was won by The Mushroom House an amazing creation built by a father for his 12-year-old daughter, and the second by an Underground Bunker accessed through a quite normal garden shed and created by an inventor, who demonstrated one of his inventions – a rock guitar that blasts flames from the headstock! However my favourite was the guy who had recreated a replica 1950s ABC Cinema in his back garden, complete with authentic foyer, auditorium with 34 seats, and original projector!
Which brings me to the reason for my enforced near-absence from blogging for a couple years – a potential new neighbour who was proposing building a shed at the bottom of my garden. However, this was no ordinary neighbour, nor a shed that would provide the type of joy generated by the entrants of the above competition. Our nextdoor neighbour’s shed would have been part of the category that encompasses industrial units, because ‘shed’ is the term developers casually use for a massive distribution centre.
Now, we live on the edge of a market town on the fringes of the Cotswolds, in a very leafy suburb just a hundred yards or so from the town’s bypass. The road itself causes us very little disturbance because when it was built over 25 years ago, the proper amount of noise attenuation was incorporated into its design. They also kindly incorporated a pedestrian underpass just a couple of minutes’ walk from our door, which will take you on foot under the road into open fields that stretch for miles, only interrupted by the occasional idyllic village.
The nearest of those, just a few hundred yards the other side of the road, is a medieval linear village with its own picturesque 14th century manor house, all of which is part of a conservation area. The attraction of living here is exactly that, having access to quiet open countryside on the doorstep whilst being close enough to a town centre to have the advantages that provides. Plus, not only does the bypass spirit us away quickly towards a motorway junction three miles north, but it also forms the border of the town – there could never be major development in those fields, certainly not in our lifetime. Or so the official local government plans stated when we moved here twenty years ago.
Then along came a document called the “Core Strategy”. Every local authority was instructed in 2006 to produce one of these to cover their overall strategy for development in their area for the following twenty years up to 2026 and, although our authority was slow off the mark, the early drafts when they appeared contained nothing to disturb our peace and quiet – in fact they re-iterated that the bypass formed the natural boundary in our area and there would be no development permitted beyond that boundary.
Then, in 2011, our county council evolved into a unitary authority and that new authority introduced a cabinet-style of local government, a change which I am sure will soon be exposed for what it is – probably the most anti-democratic move ever to be introduced into our democracy (just keep your eyes on the Grenfell Tower enquiry for how it has removed all manner of planning controls); but further explanation of that is for another day, for now let’s take up our story during the summer of 2014.
We were away in Australia, meeting our new Grandson, when a developer organised a short exhibition for a few hours on a workday afternoon at a local golfclub located outside of the town with virtually no public transport links to it. Luckily, some locals picked-up on this sparsely-advertised event, so went to see what it was about; and discovered outline plans for erecting a national distribution centre and superstore, for a household name, in the fields on the other side of the bypass – just 150 yards from our (and a couple of hundred other neighbours’) back gardens, and 250 yards from the medieval village conservation area.
Reaction was somewhat incredulous and, although there was clearly danger in this, the consensus opinion was that it would never get permission for all manner of reasons – not least of which being the no-development clause in the local plan. Nevertheless, an opposition group was formed to publicise the potential problems, activities which were well underway when we returned from the other side of the planet. I have to admit that my immediate thoughts on first encountering all of this was that it was all a bit of an over-reaction to a ridiculous idea that would never be given permission in a million years. How wrong I was, and how grateful I am that there were those with the foresight they exhibited. For little did I know at that point that the next two-and-a-half years of my life would be consumed with working with them to fight this.
The bombshell dropped in the second week of December 2014, when a full planning application was submitted to build this monstrous ‘shed’ – 1150 feet long, 650 feet wide and 65 feet high – that would be visited by nearly a thousand 38-ton HGVs every day, 24 hours a day, in a green field in open farmland where there was absolutely no precedent of anything remotely like it ever having been erected before. Note that this was a full application, not an outline idea, so it came with nearly 2500 pages of accompanying documentation giving full details, and we had less than four weeks to object, two of which were the Christmas break when nobody in the planning department would even be at work!
Some of the detail in the application was astounding. 74 bays on this huge building with an HGV arriving to unload every three minutes of the day, morning noon and night, manoeuvring, shunting and serviced by an army of forklifts scurrying about, crashing and banging doors and pallets 24/7. The marshalling yards would be lit by floodlights 60 feet up in the eaves of the building that would illuminate every garden adjacent to them well enough to have a barbecue at three o’clock in the morning. Skylights every few yards in the twenty-acre roof allowing the light inside to escape and light up the sky for miles around. Hundreds of parking spaces to accommodate staff changing shift three times a day, two of those during night-time hours.
Then there were the developer’s claims: for example, all of this extra traffic, most of it powered by heavy-duty diesel engines, in a field previously only occasionally-visited by a single tractor, would create a change in local air pollution that was only “negligible”. There would be no effect to the local ecology, because essentially they had examined the field and found that nothing lived there – no deer (see picture above), no bats, and certainly no newts inhabiting the streams that criss-crossed it. And, of course, how they would paint the building green to help it blend with its surroundings – I kid you not!
You may be getting a feeling, like we were at the time, that this was a bit of a stitch-up. The confirmation of that feeling came when we found out that, not only had the application been submitted just two days after the new core strategy had been fully-approved by a government inspector, but that the approved document included a last minute amendment to the non-development clause that allowed such development under special circumstances – the exact special circumstances that this application was using for justification! Clearly, an application of such complexity could not have been formulated in just two days – Christmas 2014 was to be a lot less relaxing than usual in local households.
It would be impossible to tell the whole story here in a blog. Suffice to say the ensuing two years were equally frought, during which there were numerous frustrations, but also some victories. The first major win was the confirmation of some serious Roman remains beneath the site – archaeology that the developer was completely aware of, but chose to ignore. The day those remains were officially listed as a National Monument was the beginning of the end for the development, but the developer still fought on for more than a year, trying first to appeal a non-appealable decision, then filibustering constantly thereafter, even for a further six months after their only potential end-user had publicly thrown his teddies from the pram on local radio, and committed to building the distribution centre twenty miles away in an area specifically allocated for this type of building.
It has to be said that the local authority did little throughout to assist their taxpayers, over 1800 of whom had taken the considerable time and effort to actually submit properly-documented objections – a completely unprecedented response to any planning application in the history of the authority. Eventually, in the autumn of 2016, the application was finally thrown-out by the planners, but that wasn’t the end of the story; because the amendment to the non-development clause still remained in the local plan.
Again somewhat luckily, the unitary authority had made a total cock-up of the part of the local plan applying to our town, and this had continued to be the subject of not one, but two public enquiries by another planning inspector. Finally in the late Spring of 2017, through our action group’s continued involvement, the clause was re-amended back to what it originally said and our border was sealed until 2026 at least, not only here but for the entire length of the bypass – a considerably greater loss of potential development land for the authority than they had sought to gain in the first place. And so, with this particular Sword of Damocles finally removed from our vicinity, life in our area returns to normality.
It has to be said that I had no idea, prior to this, just how much effort needs to be put into this type of taxpayer action to have any chance of succeeding against a system still heavily, and undemocratically, loaded in favour of the developer. We were lucky in having several retired people, like myself, willing to get involved virtually full-time for such a long period, plus the unwavering support of literally thousands of locals, all of whom must be thanked for their courage and patience.
What I need now is a new hobby to fill the space left by this. Maybe I could build a shed of my own, perhaps embodying a musically-themed man-cave to match my main interest. However, having been so visible to our local planners and politicians over the last three years, I wouldn’t hold out much hope of ever getting planning permission for it!