There have been a few compromises and defeats along the way but this afternoon, after more than 40 years of local campaigning, most of Leckhampton’s much-loved green fields around Kidnappers’ Lane and Farm Lane will today be designated as a protected Local Green Space when the new Cheltenham Plan is adopted by the borough council.
The green fields are an oasis of green space, ancient hedgerows and accessible pathways, the last remnant within the borough of Cheltenham of the medieval pattern of small fields, meadows and smallholdings that once characterised most of this area. Thousands of local people have joined repeated campaigns to fend off the loss of the entire area almost all of which has been optioned by developers.
As well as protecting much of the green space, today’s Cheltenham Plan, in accordance with the hotly contested Joint Core Strategy agreed with Gloucester and Tewkesbury, also allows space for at least 250 new homes, most of them next to the Shurdington Road in the so-called ‘northern fields’ with some going on old nursery sites further up Kidnappers Lane. Since hundreds of new homes have also just been built at the corner of Farm Lane and Leckhampton Lane (permitted against furious local opposition by the neighbouring borough of Tewkesbury), the Leckhampton community is currently contributing more to local housing need than most other parts of Cheltenham. And thanks to the county council literally moving the goalposts, a new secondary school is also expected to be built on fields that were previously agreed to be remaining entirely green as playing fields. Your local Lib Dem councillors Iain Dobie and myself have fought to ensure that at least the buildings are more environmentally friendly and local hedgerows and natural habitats are protected in the process. And while many planning inspectors’ enquiries have supported campaigners in protecting the valued green fields for their rural character, the most recent inspector arbitrarily reduced the size of the Local Green Space designation which could be protected.
The Local Green Space designation didn’t even exist 40 years ago and the whole area was ‘safeguarded’ for future development. Campaigners like local Liberal councillor Kit Braunholtz and my father Don Horwood couldn’t claim the area enjoyed the chocolate box landscape of the nearby Cotswolds AONB or many particularly rare species that would have earned scientific protection nor was any of the area recognised under archaic ‘village green’ laws. But they rallied thousands of local people under the banner of the Leckhampton Green Land Action Group. Wider opinion about the environment was already changing too: the value of local green spaces to peoples’ mental and physical health, their biodiversity and ‘ecosytem services’ in reducing carbon emissions, filtering out air pollution, absorbing flood water and providing free recreation were all gaining more recognition.
In 2006 a previous Cheltenham Plan introduced by the Lib Dem administration recognised the area’s unique rural character and importance but the threats were still there: Labour’s top-down Regional Spatial Strategy or RSS threatened to overturn local plans and impose urban sprawl on Leckhampton, sacrificing all the green fields. I had just become an MP and wrote a new policy for the Lib Dem opposition which would create a new designation that offered a high level of protection on the basis of a green space’s well-established importance to local people, not just to great crested newts or landscape painters. This policy made it into the Lib Dem manifesto in 2010 and from there straight into the new coalition’s Programme for Government. The coalition quickly abolished Labour’s toxic RSS and, against all the odds, the new Local Green Space designation made it into the new National Planning Policy Framework in 2012. Some councils (like Tewkesbury) largely ignored it but Cheltenham’s Lib Dem administration enthusiastically planned to designate dozens of vital green spaces across Cheltenham’s urban area including the Leckhampton fields. In all 16 will be designated today including vital green spaces in Fairview, St.Mark’s, Hesters Way, Benhall, Charlton Park and Hatherley.
While this process ground slowly forward, Leckhampton’s active Parish Council picked up where the early campaigners left off and fought tooth and nail alongside local borough councillors to protect the fields from overdevelopment based on growth-based housing projections often way in excess of local housing need.
The outcome isn’t the complete protection of the whole area my father and others originally campaigned for but councils rightly have to strike a balance between the genuine pressures for new homes and schools and the need to protect the most important green spaces for local people and particularly the children who will live in those homes and go to those schools. I’m proud that Cheltenham Borough Council has managed to square that awkward circle and will today deliver the strong protection for most of the Leckhampton fields for which we have campaigned for decades – and proud to have played my own part over decades.
We now have to make sure this protection is defended against reviews of the Joint Core Strategy, planning “reforms” by the new Conservative government and the constant, well-funded pressure of developers. We can develop our own Neighbourhood Plan and plan to encourage use of the green fields and educate everyone about their importance to our own health and wellbeing, our community and the local and global environment.
Parish and borough councillor Martin Horwood, 20 July 2020