The battle of Blandford
Plans to build up to 200 homes on the Blandford Deer Park, have the town in uproar, reports Nicci Brown
Published in January ’13
A battle is raging in a North Dorset town between the local population, the local planning authority, and the Crown, which owns a vast acreage of land in and around the town.
Two petitions have already been signed by thousands of people against proposals in the North Dorset New Plan or core strategy for fields next to the river Stour near the centre of Blandford to be developed for housing in what could be less than five years time.
Now the proposal remains in the draft strategy which was the subject of local public consultation district-wide until the middle of December, and will this month be published in a revised form by North Dorset District Council.
The strategy now envisages that the total number of homes needed across the district has dropped from 7000 over 20 years from 2006 to 2026 to 4200 over 15 years from 2011 to 2026, based on the numbers built in the last five years, and reduced demand for 280 instead of 350 a year.
Hundreds of people attended a presentation on the strategy as a whole in Blandford Parish Centre at the beginning of November after a concerted campaign by the Bryanston Park Preservation Group against the scheme for the Crown Meadows, part of the former deer park of the Bryanston estate, family seat of the Portmans.
The majority of the estate, more than 2000 hectares, has been owned by the Crown Estates since the Portman family suffered the burden of death duties when the 2nd, 3rd and 4th Viscounts Portman died within ten years of each other in the early 20th century.
The deer park is an area rich in wildlife which for centuries has formed part of the iconic view from the main bridge carrying traffic into the town from the south, and only last year, the World War 2 defences built on the site were accorded Grade II listed status by English Heritage.
It also, for the most part, lies in the flood plain of the river Stour, which has twice this summer been underwater and has remained waterlogged for most of the year.
But when the arrival of the first flood coincided with a glossy marketing leaflet promoting the scheme and delivered to every household in the town, the Crown Estate were quick to respond that the land on which it is hoped to build, described in the strategy as the ‘land west of Blandford’, is considerably higher than the flood level. They said the extent of flooding was still, at its nearest point, in excess of 100m from the area of land being considered for development.
Steve Melligan, Strategic Land Manager at the Crown Estate, said: ‘Even with the ground saturated and flooding on a scale that is comparable with the worst events seen in living memory, the West Blandford site has not been affected and it remains an excellent choice to help meet the town’s future housing needs.’
Many of the key objectors live in Bryanston Street, which predates the Blandford fire of 1731, and Parklands, built in the last century, all with homes and gardens overlooking the meadows, including chairman John Cook of the Bryanston Park Preservation Group (BPPG).
He said: ‘The height of the river at over 30 metres above sea level in a summer flood was too close to allow the building of up to 200 houses nearby.’
However, the main objections of the group, which when the site was first proposed in the draft core strategy two years ago canvassed for a petition signed by more than 4500 local people against the proposal and more recently presented a second petition signed by over 6000 to North Dorset District Council, are, in the words of that petition, its ‘failure to respect Blandford’s iconic setting’ and ‘exacerbation of the already severe traffic congestion in the one way system.’
The mass of objectors, including the town council, local parish, district and county councillors, the three main political parties, local civic society and the CPRE say the introduction of hundreds of vehicles, whose only access to the planned estate will be via the town centre, will cause severe congestion.
All traffic heading for the west of the town, even coming from the west, has to enter the one-way system in Park Road, travel down Damory Street, along East Street, up Salisbury Street and into Whitecliff Mill Street, from where the access to the new development is proposed.
It is a journey which can take, on busy market days or when large articulated trucks are making deliveries in the town centre, more than half an hour, and which frequently delays anyone trying to get to one of the town’s only two surgeries, also in Whitecliff Mill Street.
Objectors have challenged the Crown Estate’s assertion that 150 or 200 homes will result in any less than the same number of traffic movements a day, on the grounds that the majority of the occupiers of the new homes will travel into town on foot.
The response has been: ‘How will they get to work?’ or how will they get to and back from anywhere outside the town centre.
Crown Estate maintain that the development is likely to generate at least 15-20 per cent less additional peak hour traffic than a typical development elsewhere because of the good access to both a primary and secondary school, hospital, surgeries and shops.
‘At worst 55 to 70 additional vehicles could be expected along any part of Whitecliff Mill Street in the am and pm peak hours.’
Since the proposal was first mooted, the Crown Estate has offered to reduce the number of homes from 200 to 150, and the latest consultation asked the public to choose between the two figures – prompting anger that consultees were not being given the option to choose no development at all.
They have also now made the offer to make over the rest of the Crown Meadows, 17 hectares of the total 23 hectares, to a body for maintenance as community open space in perpetuity.
North Dorset D C has also introduced a further option, to build on a site opposite the Tesco roundabout between the A350 and A354 which at the time of the first consultation remained earmarked for a potential Charlton Marshall/Spetisbury bypass.
That scheme has now been pushed back so far into never-never land that the planning authority considers the land could be made available for housing. But the Crown Meadows remains North Dorset D C’s ‘preferred’ strategy, largely because it is so close to the town.
John Cook of the BPPG said: ‘I understand that around 300 people visited the exhibition in Blandford and that the overwhelming majority of residents/visitors rejected the proposal to build any housing on the Crown Meadows.
‘A vast number of people said that they would prefer the houses to be built on the site opposite the Tesco Roundabout between the A350/A354.
‘But when we sought clarity on why the same criteria did not appear to have been used in the sustainability assessment for that site as for the Crown Meadows, we did not really get an answer.’
North Dorset District Council’s senior planning policy officer Trevor Warrick said the drop in the number of homes from 200 to 150 would mean the development was even less visible from the road bridge into Blandford, and was in response to a key concern being the impact on the iconic view of the town.
‘The main reasons we feel it is a good site, and therefore the preferred option, is that both the Crown Meadows and the site at Lower Bryanston Farm in Blandford St Mary are within walking distance of town facilities.
‘And while the Crown Meadows may be beautiful, they are not a national protected landscape as is the area surrounding Blandford which falls into either the Dorset or Cranborne Chase area of outstanding natural beauty.’
Another 220 homes are proposed to be built on the farmland site west of Blandford St Mary which is also owned by the Crown Estates.
The alternative option for greenfield expansion of the town opposite Tesco has the benefit of good accessibility from the bypass, but raises issues of severance through being outside the Blandford bypass, further potential impacts on the landscape and wildlife, loss of agricultural land; and the need for any housing scheme on the site not to prejudice the long term implementation of the bypass.
The petition signatories and letters of objection have come from across the town and neighbourhood and in some cases from people living elsewhere and far afield. Blandford Town and neighbouring parish councils, including Blandford St Mary, Bryanston and Pimperne, all of whom have land put forward as other potential options for development, are working together to draw up a neighbourhood plan.
Bryanston has opposed the other potential housing site at Lower Bryanston Farm on grounds of an inadequate road system and lack of infrastructure.
But they are unanimous in agreeing that all are opposed to the Crown Meadows scheme, and Blandford Mayor, Councillor Sara Loch, in October, when the consultation was launched, urged residents who had signed the petition to write individually to the planning authority to register their protest.
Following this latest ‘targeted’ consultation on the key issues, the council will prepare the revised Core Strategy for submission to the Secretary of State, taking into account the responses received.
It will be subject to further consultation and go forward to examination in the spring of 2013 by a Planning Inspector, who will produce a report setting out a number of recommendations for consideration by the council prior to its adoption by the end of this year (2013).