There has been a strong and often radical resistance to the destruction of Winchester’s countryside setting in the past. The threats under this Government’s relaxation of measures for protection of biodiversity, landscape and heritage, together with their ‘economic growth at all costs’ agenda are very serious. With a local Council that seems increasingly indifferent to environmental concerns the future of Winchester’s precious landscape setting seems ever more precarious. Nothing illustrates this carelesness so much as their willingness to sacrifice, entirely on a Councillor’s whim, one of the last two of Winchester’s undeveloped hills – Bushfield Down....
In his Rural Rides in 1825, William Cobbett wrote:
“We went to King's Worthy; that is about two miles on the road from Winchester to London….Here, looking back at the city and at the fine valley above and below it, and at the many smaller valleys that run down from the high ridges into that great and fertile valley, I could not help admiring the taste of the ancient kings, who made this city … a chief place of their residence. There are not many finer spots in England; and if I were to take in a circle of eight or ten miles of semi-diameter, I should say that I believe there is not one so fine. Here are hill, dell, water, meadows, woods, corn-fields, downs: and all of them very fine and very beautifully disposed.”
Of Winchester’s hills that Cobbett so admired, only two remain more or less intact. While St Giles’ Hill (Magdalene Down) has retained its fine backdrop to the High Street, its summit is lost to housing; Sleepers Hill, Battery Hill and Teg Down have also gone to housing and the former more recently has lost its wooded slopes to the Hospital and the University; Easton Down has surrendered to the M3 motorway as has, more dramatically, Twyford Down. St Catherine’s Hill remains magnificent and opposite it is the last remaining piece of downland on the west side of the Itchen Valley – Bushfield Down, taking the eye up to Compton Down (and Yew Hill), across the lost valley filled with the chalk ripped from Twyford Down.
The top of Bushfield Down was turned into a military camp under wartime Emergency Powers and it ought, under any reasonable social contract, have reverted to the available public space it used to be. It has until fairly recently been a public space de facto, but the owners, the Church Commissioners, have detected a strong smell of money and are now intent on getting maximum profit from the land. Their ruthless determination has been such that they have used big legal powers to prevent the area getting Village Green status. On a timing technicality a recent Court of Appeal decision overturned the previous High Court decision that the application by local residents for this status should go to a public inquiry for examination. The County Council had supported the residents’ case and are now faced with a hefty bill from the big-shot lawyers at the Church Commissioners.
The Church Commissioners have been trying for years to turn this rural land into high value development property, but only recently have the City Council been so foolish as to open the way for them. A previous Leader of the Council had the bright idea of Winchester having a ‘Knowledge Park’. Never mind that Science Parks usually need a high reputation academic science presence and Winchester University does not have such; never mind that a Science Park already exists at Chilworth connected to Southampton University which does have a good science reputation; never mind that other councils have seen such ill-thought-out ambitions fail (e.g. Wiltshire Council’s disastrous Solstice Park – of which more below). In spite of its incoherence this idea still managed to get into the Council’s first attempt at a new Local Plan - but this draft Plan was floated informally in front of an Inspector from the Planning Inspectorate, who said ‘throw the Knowledge Park out’.
Undeterred, the Council sneaked it half-way back in by declaring Bushfield to be an ‘Special Opportunity Site’ in its draft Core Strategy (the new term for a Local Plan), but without adequately saying what they meant by it. At the Core Strategy Inquiry the Church Commissioners made it clear that they wanted to develop the site with whatever profitable enterprise they could get away with. Under questioning it was apparent that they would be happy with any of the motorway-based ‘megashed’ developments, including retail distribution centres, hypermarkets, drive-thru burger bars. The warning example of all this is Solstice Park at Amesbury, on the A303.
Unfortunately the Inspector for the Core Strategy Inquiry was clearly there to implement the Government’s ‘Growth Agenda’ - Eric Pickles’ and George Osborne’s view that economic development trumps everything – all environmental objections, all public welfare, all civilised values. He was having none of the ‘Special Opportunity Site’; Bushfield was to be a general ‘employment’ zone, i.e. it was suitable for any of the uses that the Church Commissioners thought they could maximise their profit on.
A new campaign has begun to bring the public’s attention to the threat that now faces the landscape of southern Winchester. Watch this space.