Forster Country campaigners go head to head with council and developers in bid to save author’s cherished homeland
PUBLISHED: 15:43 23 March 2017 | UPDATED: 16:26 23 March 2017
Council planners and developers faced off against local campaigners over whether homes should be built on a conservation area to the north of Stevenage today.
At an ongoing inquiry into Stevenage Borough Council’s Local Plan, Friends of the Forster Country who are seeking to protect the home and surrounding land where author EM Forster once lived, argued against council plans to put 800 homes on the Green Belt land between Martins Way and Great Ashby Way.
The council wants to build the homes as part of its need to meet a target of 7,600 new houses in Stevenage by 2020, but the campaigners say Forster Country has to be protected as it is the oldest part of Stevenage and draws walkers and fans of the author to the area.
Anne Conchie for the Ramblers Association said documents show that if the development goes ahead, the public may not be able to access areas of Forster County that will be used as hay meadows, but council lawyer Simon Bird QC said the council would manage the site and ensure people could use it.
Ms Conchie also argued that the views to the west from Forster Country would be blighted by the homes and that the developers had not taken this into account because their photos of the site had been taken in ‘hazy’ conditions.
Natalie Gates for Historic England said that while homes would cause a ‘significant’ amount of harm it was not ‘substantial’.
She said: “There is a level of harm to the assets for example the setting of St Nicholas Church.
“The experience of emerging from the churchyard and the views from there would be impacted on.
“It’s an area which protects the historic rural identity of the oldest part of Stevenage.”
She said Rooks Nest where EM Forster once lived has Grade 1 listed status because of historic importance and its 17th century architectural value and highlighted the author’s description of the “magnificent views” he could see when looking out from his home.
Representing FOFC, lawyer Michael Jefferies pointed to previous studies done in 2005 which stressed the need to guard against threats from large housing developments.
He said: “This is ancient farm land that dates back to the first settlement of Stevenage. It’s open undulating countryside and it’s the heart of Forster Country. The fact it has been given the status of a Conservation Area and the fact part of it has been designated as Green Belt land is an indication of the importance of protecting it.”
Council officials argued that the council needs to build on the site in order to meet its housing target and the need to build a mix of different types of homes and enough affordable homes across the borough.
Mr Bird said the heritage studies done by the council showed the development would not impact on the character of the conservation area as a whole and that development of the area around St Nicholas Church could have ‘significant heritage benefits’. By this he was referring to plans to create an improved heritage area around the church.
He argued that the ‘exceptional circumstances’ needed to build on Green Belt land do exist in this case but the campaigners dispute this.
The Local Plan also earmarks significant housing sites to the south and west of Stevenage. North Herts District Council has plans for a further 1,000 homes on land next to the proposed Forster Country homes and the campaigners fear the two sites will become an extensive housing development which fill in the open space between Stevenage and Graveley.
The Local Plan hearings continue every week day at the Ibis Forum in Stevenage from 10am to 5pm and conclude on Friday, March 31.
Planning Inspector Louise Crosby who is chairing the inquiry will then retire and consider whether the plan can be approved with amendments or has to be re-drafted. This process is expected to take some months.
More details can be found at www.stevenage.gov.uk.