Monday, July 16, 2007

New policies suggested to protect Jefferies Land.
Swindon Friends of the Earth, the Richard Jefferies Society, the Jefferies Land Conservation Trust and the Swindon Civic Trust have written to Swindon Borough Council's Forward Planning team to consider the following changes to the next Swindon Swindon Local Development Framework Plan :

- a focus on North Star as the favoured site for tertiary education as proposed in the deposit draft Swindon Local Plan 2011 along with other town centre sites.

- the reinstatement of the former Thamesdown/Swindon Borough Council Local Plan policies and Wiltshire Structure Plan policy that afforded protection and enhancement of the high and unique landscape value of the countryside in the foothills of the North Wessex Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty that stretches to Coate Water Country Park, a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and Burderop Wood Local Nature Reserve and which includes Day House Copse Local Nature Reserve. As such it would be necessary to re-evaluate the area that might be developed without harm to the environment and to allow for some hospital expansion.

- a new policy that seeks to protect and enhance the landscape setting of Coate Farm that houses the Jefferies Museum and other features associated with the world class nature and countryside writer, Richard Jefferies.

The emerging Regional Spatial Strategy for the South-West offers this observation for the forward planning of Swindon to 2026: "the town has aspirations to establish a university". (paragraph 4.2.26) There is no further reference to making provision for a university in the Swindon strategy. Given that the University of Bath has dropped all proposals to provide a major campus at Coate or a medical research facility at Commonhead and whilst the Higher Education Funding Council of England is no longer supporting grants to establish new out-of-town campus-style educational facilities, the time is ripe to re-visit the planning policies for the Coate area that were only introduced to satisfy the needs of the University of Bath. As such, the emerging Framework Plan for Swindon should focus the town’s tertiary education needs at North Star and the town centre as part of the regeneration programme.

There is a considerable amount of new evidence related to the Coate area since both the Examination in Public of the Wiltshire and Swindon Structure Plan 2016 and the Public Inquiry of the Swindon Borough Local Plan 2011 took place. The area, that was thought to be suitable for development at the time by some, is far more heavily constrained by environmental and historic assets than previously recognised whilst environmental considerations such as the presence of unstable contaminated land and potential flood areas have been brushed aside. The archaeological study alone has revealed major constraints to development, unknown previously, that must now be protected. Further evidence has emerged to show that the ecological studies carried out on behalf of the developers were flawed and unreliable suggesting that the precautionary buffer of 0.5km to protect Coate Water SSSI, as proposed by Natural England (formerly English Nature), is more realistic. Furthermore, planners have demonstrated no appreciation of the importance of the unique literary landscape quality of the area and have failed to undertake any study that might shed light on the matter. If they had done so, they might understand why Richard Jefferies, particularly in his position as a pioneer environmentalist, is one of Swindon’s greatest assets and why the landscape that inspired Jefferies’ writing is of significant literary importance.

As such we believe that the Coate/Badbury Wick/Burderop area, that just escaped official national designation as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (as part of the North Wessex Downs) in the 1970s, should be re-designated as a Landscape Character Area subject to a policy of protection and enhancement that would require any permitted development to be in keeping with the historic setting of the landscape. Land that might be excluded from the policy might be evaluated in order to allow for some expansion of the hospital.

Richard Jefferies (1848-1887) was born at Coate Farm and lived at Coate for the best part of his first 28 years. In his short writing career, he wrote over 20 books and hundreds of essays and articles, many of them heavily influenced by his years of living in a farming community at Coate. Coate Farm was purchased by Swindon Corporation in 1926. Since that positive act of preservation 81 years ago, it is unfortunate that the Corporation's successors have made many unsympathetic changes to the property that include selling off meadow to the Sun Inn to extend their car-park, building a large “shed” in the same meadow (Brook Field) that was intended for use as an agricultural museum, reducing the size of the orchards and front garden for road widening, pulling down the thatched cow-sheds and thatched rick-shed, and replacing the thatch on the cart-house with an asbestos roof. A public outcry in the 1970s stopped the council from pulling down the pig-sties and barn. It was as a result of a national appeal by Sir John Betjeman, Spike Milligan, Johnny Morris and other national figures who helped the Richard Jefferies Society raise money for repairs, that the buildings were saved from demolition.

The Jefferies Museum attracts visitors from all around the world. This year alone there have been visitors from Canada, Australia, New Zealand and France drawn there because of their admiration for Jefferies’ writing. Visitors are thrilled that they can still see so many natural and man-made features in the area that Jefferies clearly identified and described in his books, albeit that he used fictitious place names. The development pressures on Swindon make Jefferies’ home vulnerable. Any further degradation of the property or of the setting of the Grade II listed building must not be permitted in order to allow future generations the opportunity to appreciate this literary heritage site. As such, we request that a policy is introduced in the Framework Plan that recognises the importance of the Jefferies house at Coate and ensures that it is preserved and enhanced.