Almost 1,000 new homes will be built in an area which inspired renowned English author Thomas Hardy after a High Court judge threw out a legal challenge against the approval of the plans.
In what is the biggest ever development of an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) anywhere in England, work will now be allowed on the new homes at Vearse Farm, near Bridport, West Dorset.
The area of green countryside which will be developed is equivalent in size to 63 football pitches.
The controversial housing development, for which planning approval was previously granted by Dorset Council, will fill in part of the picturesque landscape which inspired author Thomas Hardy more than a century ago.
The poet and novelist, who featured the fictitious Egdon Heath in some of his famous works, wrote about a hill near to the planned development in his short story ‘Fellow Townsmen’.
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Campaigners opposing the site say it will also be ‘slap bang in the middle’ of a proposed new National Park – the highest level of conservation status afforded to important countryside.
The group, backed by the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), had previously raised over £30,000 to take Dorset Council’s decision to grant the development planning permission to a judicial review.
What is an area of Outstanding Natural Beauty?
An area of outstanding natural beauty (AONB) is land protected by law, which protects the land to conserve and enhance its natural beauty.
There are 46 AONBs across the UK, 34 of which are in England.
They include the North Wessex Downs, which stretch across Berkshire, Hampshire, Oxfordshire and Wiltshire and the Norfolk Coast.
Only local authorities or the Secretary of State can give permission for development in, or affecting, an AONB.
However, authorities must make sure any proposals have regard for the purpose of conserving and enhancing the natural beauty of the AONB.
The status is different from National Park status, which has significantly higher protection from development.
Source: Natural England
But a High Court judge has today ruled the development can go ahead.
Mr Justice Jonathan Swift found he had no right to overrule the council’s decision unless there had been illegality in the application process.
He said: ‘The role of the court is no more than to ensure that the decision and the decision-making process meet basic legal standards.
‘Planning issues are often controversial, all those affected by them deserve to be reassured that the officers’ reports that inform councillors’ decisions are sufficient to identify how any particular proposal is affected by specific statutory obligations and by material policies.’
The new housing estate will be on farmland near Bridport.
It will see the population of the market town dramatically increase by 25 per cent at a stroke.
The site, which is about a mile away from the UNESCO World Heritage Jurassic Coast, is part of a proposed site for Britain’s 16th National Park, which will encompass much of the Dorset countryside and south east Devon.
Although the expected award of National Park status will be too late for the Vearse Farm development, campaigners say it should protect other green spaces from being targeted by developers in the future.
Peter Bowyer, chairman of Dorset Campaign to Protect Rural England, said: ‘This outcome is very disappointing.
‘It is clear that the planning authority in Dorset has little respect for the designation of the AONB.
‘We now need the Dorset AONB to be upgraded to a National Park.
‘This would have the responsibility and resources to conserve and embrace our wonderful landscapes while also having the duty to respond proactively to local housing needs and so develop the local housing that local people need’.
Barry Bates, chairman ADVERSE, the campaign group set up to fight the plans, said: ‘After fighting tooth and nail we have been let down at every stage of the planning process.
‘The judicial review was a last-ditch attempt to stop, or at best delay, this development.
‘We are bitterly disappointed but accept that the courts are limited to looking at the legality of the process rather than the political or moral rights or wrongs of the case.’
Thomas Hardy: A renowned writer inspired by his county
Born in Dorset in 1840, Thomas Hardy would go on to become one of the most renowned poets and novelists in English literary history.
Hardy lived in Dorset for most of his life and died in the county in 1928, aged 87.
Dorset provided him with material for his fiction and poetry.
He set all of his major novels in the south of England in an area named ‘Wessex’ – after the real-life Anglo-Saxon kingdom.
Hardy’s Wessex contained the fictitious area of Egdon Heath, which featured in The Return of the Native (1878) and The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886).
Hardy’s other great novels include Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891) and Jude the Obscure (1895).
Source: The Poetry Society
The development land in question sits in a valley surrounded by a series of hills including the famous beauty spot of Colmer’s Hill.
In his 1880 short story ‘Fellow Townsmen’, Hardy wrote of how one shepherd would stand on the east hill and shout lambing intelligence to the shepherd on the west hill.
The short story is one of those to feature in Hardy’s collection ‘Wessex Tales’.
The collection, published in 1888, reflects on social issues in Victorian society, including class status.
A number of the short stories, including the ‘Fellow Townsmen’ were converted into BBC television dramas in 1973.
Dr Tony Fincham, chairman of the Hardy Society, said: ‘This proposal is just the kind of over-development which irretrievably destroys part of Hardy’s Wessex.
‘This plan is just another nail in the coffin of Hardy Country.’
Dorset Council is under pressure to build over 15,000 new homes in west Dorset – one of the worst areas in Britain for affordable housing – by 2036.
The average price of property in the area now stands at £318,000, well beyond the means of most people born and brought up in the area.
According to the plans, 25 per cent of the new homes built on Vearse Farm should be affordable housing.