How green was our valley

PUBLISHED: 10:39 13 July 2009 | UPDATED: 15:02 20 February 2013



Ian Jardin, of Herefordshire's Campaign to Protect Rural England, looks at the possible effects of the Government's latest housing plans.

Ian Jardin, of Herefordshire's Campaign to Protect Rural England, looks at the possible effects of the Government's latest housing plans.

Herefordshire is fortunate: a compact cathedral city, a scattering of market towns, and around them unspoilt working countryside. There is little sign of the homogenous and congested semi-urban sprawl that now characterises so much of southern England. It is just the sort of place the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) was created over eighty years ago to defend.

Walk barely a mile south from Hereford Cathedral, cross the railway line and suddenly you are in open countryside. The land falls away past the church spire of Bullinghope village, across a valley of cornfields, before rising to the ancient hillfort on the wooded crest of Dinedor Hill. It is a scene that may soon disappear forever, thanks to the Government's housing plans.

The first blow has already been struck by Herefordshire Council in driving a new road along the valley to serve the Rotherwas industrial estate. Next, developers want to build 300 houses on a field beside the railway line.

Such a breach in the city boundary would open the way for much bigger ambitions, revealed in a plan developers presented to the Council nearly ten years ago. This shows some 2,000 houses, surrounding Bullinghope and stretching down the valley to meet the new road. Local campaigners are fighting the first 300, but, even if they win this battle, there is every reason to think the developers will be back.

One of Gordon Brown's first actions as prime minister was to declare a goal of building three million new homes across England. In December 2007 the West Midlands Regional Assembly obliged by proposing to increase the rate of house building in the region by nearly 50%. Herefordshire would be expected to build 16,600 new houses in the twenty years to 2026.

House building levels in Herefordshire were briefly this high in the 1990s, but then declined as the Assembly directed new housing into the big cities to encourage regeneration there and to relieve pressure on the countryside. Now this trend has been thrown into reverse. In January the Government announced that the Assembly's new numbers were still not high enough and consultants were to be appointed to produce a scheme for even more. If this matches the highest figures proposed by their academic advisers last year, it could mean raising the house building rate by over 80%.

In theory these are all just proposals: they must go through an 'examination in public' at which they can be questioned. This will be chaired by a planning inspector who produces an impartial report so that the Government can make the final decision. But the Government's views are already clear.

Where in Herefordshire could so many houses go? Much of the previously developed land in the county, such as former factories and defence sites, has already been absorbed by previous spates of house building. This leaves greenfield land. Using official statistics CPRE calculates that to meet the Assembly's target, let alone what the Government wants, nearly 800 acres could be lost. And that is just for housing: new roads, schools and workplaces would absorb yet more.

The market towns and villages would continue to be scoured for every spare plot, but they are just not big enough to absorb the numbers being proposed. This leaves the expansion of Hereford - which brings us back to the slopes of Dinedor Hill. And potentially every green field around the city.

The real housing problem in Herefordshire is the lack of affordable homes for local people who are unable to compete in the housing market. Adding large numbers of new houses to the market won't solve this problem. What would is more social renting and subsidised housing for sale. With these Herefordshire could still be a balanced and functioning community and yet retain its glorious rural character.

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