After a 40 year battle, Leckhampton’s green fields are protected today

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.

Lott Meadow, a miraculous survival of an ancient field from medieval times, now a haven for local bats and many other species, and enjoyed and valued by thousands of local people – and now finally protected at the heart of the new Local Green Space designation

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.

Leckhampton in the Cheltenham Plan being adopted today. The new Local Green Space designation which offers strong protection to green spaces important to local people, is shaded in green.

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.

Leckhampton’s green fields from the Cotswolds Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty at Leckhampton Hill, visible as islands of green amongst the growing urban area.

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

Gloucestershire, Covid19 and Cheltenham General – an update

Today the county’s Health Overview & Scrutiny Committee (HOSC) met in private for a joint Q&A session with the parallel scrutiny committee on adult social care and with senior local health and social care managers. I was part of this meeting as Cheltenham Borough Council’s representative but I don’t think it should have been held in private – and I said so. The county’s planning committee managed to hold a public virtual meeting last month yet the HOSC – which hasn’t met properly since January – isn’t even going to try to meet formally and in public until July. And this at a time of obviously heightened concern about public health, the NHS, care homes and the reconfiguration of local services like Cheltenham’s A&E during the crisis.

So here’s my public report back on some of the key questions raised and points made:

  • We did take time to thank the NHS, public health and social care teams and all their staff. And I added thanks to managers for innovations like mobile chemotherapy and online GP appointments that we should stick with even after the virus is defeated!
  • I questioned hospital chief executive Deborah Lee and Mary Hutton from the Gloucestershire clinical commissioning group (the NHS body that pays for local NHS services) about the planned reconfiguration of local services during the coronavirus crisis and whether or not these were genuinely temporary. The changes are aimed at separating Covid19 and non-Covid19 patients as far as possible, limiting the risk of transmission and enabling other services to return to something like normality. But they do involve temporarily downgrading Cheltenham A&E to a minor injuries unit (and possibly only a daytime one) while Gloucestershire Royal becomes the ‘front door’ for emergency admissions where Covid (‘red’) and non-Covid (‘green’) patients are separated, as well as centralising general surgery and possibly other surgical specialities in Gloucester while Cheltenham is kept clear of Covid for other intensive care cases, oncology, acute stroke care and some ‘elective’ or planned surgery.
Local Lib Dems have campaigned for years to protect the future of Cheltenham’s A&E department

What’s worrying local campaigners like REACH is that this doesn’t obviously reflect a neat red/green split and looks suspiciously like the rejected plan to downgrade Cheltenham General emergency and general surgical care that we all thought had been ditched. I was assured that the detailed changes were genuinely aimed at separating red and green patient pathways and that, yes, a full ‘Type 1’ A&E would be restored at Cheltenham in the end. I hope so.

  • Local Director of Public Health Sarah Scott reported the latest county statistics on the coronavirus. Following the national trend, they show fewer cases and deaths from Covid19 in Gloucestershire. Our total of 1369 confirmed cases (national data) and 533 deaths remains higher than more rural areas further south west but comparable to neighbouring counties and to statistically similar ones across the country. The urban areas of Gloucester (402 cases) and Cheltenham (320) are highest, again reflecting the pattern elsewhere. Questioned by Lib Dem representative from the Costwolds Paul Hodgkinson, she said there was no evidence that the Cheltenham Festival had caused extra deaths, not least because no attendees were traced or tested. The racecourse itself took the decision to carry on, following government guidance at the time.
  • Leckhampton & Warden Hill county councillor Iain Dobie raised the sharp drop in cancer treatment reported by the hospitals trust. He was told that referrals in from GPs and elsewhere were still running at only 55% of the normal rate suggesting many people with worrying symptoms are still staying away, even from their GPs. If that’s you, don’t delay.
  • I asked about the government’s test & trace strategy announced as ‘live’ on 28 May. It clearly isn’t up and running at full tilt locally with some data already coming through from national level but not yet in a format that allowed local public health teams to act on it effectively. We were told that could still be weeks away. Which makes the ongoing government lifting of lockdown measures look risky in the extreme.
  • The county council reported on the situation in care homes which is still concerning but at least testing and personal protective equipment (PPE) provision are now much better. Still, we were told some care homes had refused training in the proper use of PPE and that this training has only just started for domiciliary care workers who visit vulnerable people at home. Another alarming statistic was that there had been no great rise in hospital admissions fom care homes despite Covid. While some very frail residents wouldn’t have wanted admission regardless of illness, that still suggests to me that elderly people who should have gone to hospital didn’t. Perhaps part of the emerging national picture that government simply wasn’t on top of the lethal crisis in our care homes.

Several of the senior public health and NHS staff agreed we are not out of the woods yet. In the absence of widespread vaccination or more effective treatment, Covid19 may be a real threat for at least a year more. A second surge in infection is quite posssible. So please abide by the measures still in force including keeping your distance, regular handwashing and limiting contact with those from outside your household. More details here.

Why I’m opposing the Kidnappers Lane school planning application today

In a virtual county planning committee meeting today that you can follow live online here, I’m going to be opposing the planning application for a new secondary school in Kidnappers Lane, Leckhampton.

Although I’m not arguing against a school in principle – there is provision made for a school in the area in local plans already – I am sceptical about the need for it. Only a few brief paragraphs of ‘educational rationale’ have been provided to today’s committee and I fear that if the school proves as popular as Balcarras, it may just ‘poach’ admissions from nearby Bournside and parents hoping to close the notorious ‘Leckhampton Corridor’ may still find themselves more than a mile from all local schools and so still unsure of getting their kids into any of them.

The new school will sit within the Bournside priority area and may not close the infamous ‘Leckhampton Corridor’

But my main objections are on grounds of biodiversity loss, landscape impact and the poor design of the school building. I also support Leckhampton with Warden Hill Parish Council’s strong opposition on air quality and traffic grounds.

Last year the county council voted to protect biodiversity in the county in a full council motion. But their own chief ecologist in his report to today’s committee says the application “could be refused on biodiversity grounds alone”. Another expert ecologist report to the committee todays predicts “net loss of habitat units down to -56.69%” even with parallel increases in hedgerows nearby and other mitigation measures without which the habitat loss would have been nearly total (-95%).

Hatherley Brook runs the entire length of the application site but is an important habitat for many species and would be seriously affected, including by floodlighting.

The reports catalogue a huge diversity of species on the site including at least 11 bird species and 10 bat species – both protected from habitat disturbance by law – with 9 trees lost if the application proceeds and 3o more affected, one hedgerow lost completely and others damaged and the important brook habitat that runs the length of the site infiltrated by floodlighting which could disturb hibernating bats when the floodlighting is used in winter, causing them to wake and starve.

The south of the application site and the brookline running its whole length was given the highest possible rating for landscape sensitivity during the recent Joint Core Strategy (JCS) planning process..

Turning to landscape sensitivity, this is something that has been highlighted by successive Planning Inspectors and reports over decades, agreeing to protection for the Leckhampton fields area’s “special historical, landscape and amenity value” and “attractive pastoral character.. linked strongly into the landscape of the AONB”. In 2012 the Gloucester, Cheltenham & Tewkesbury Joint Core Strategy (JCS) landscape report considered the area a “valuable landscape resource” with ”a good brookline and associated tree cover” and gave parts of the application site the highest category of landscape and visual sensitivity. Many local and national planning policies instruct planning authorities to protect valued landscapes but this application and design does not do that, placing a huge “office block’ design into this sensitive local landscape.

The square urban “office block” design of the proposed school building is a major problem with the application, especially in such a highly rated landscape area.

Local plans also specifically protect the views into and out of the neraby Cotswold Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. This site is very prominent in iconic views from within the AONB at Leckhampton Hill and the building proposed would stick out like a sore thumb.

The site (outlined in red) would be extremely prominent in the most iconic views from within the AONB at Leckhampton Hill. Local and national policies instruct councillors to protect such views.

Buildings, even large buildings, can be placed in sensitive locations. Think of how the radical, environmentally-friendly design of Gloucester Services on the M5 blends into the Severn Vale landscape. But this building won’t.

So for all these reasons, I’m opposing the planning application today. You can read my full comment and written objection document online here. Enter reference 19/0058/CHR3MJ.

The best places for advice on the virus & how to get and offer help

These are worrying times but we need to focus on keeping those at risk safe by sticking to government guidance and looking out for anyone who needs help.

For advice on staying at home, social distancing if you’re well, self-isolating if you’re unwell, symptoms, employment advice and much more, go to https://www.gov.uk/coronavirus.

Don’t phone 111 (that’s only for people whose symptoms are really getting worse). If you are worried about your symptoms you can also go to 111 online.

In Gloucestershire there is a great Community help hub up and running where you can ask for help, volunteer to provide help or highlight a neighbour who needs help.

You can also listen to BBC Radio Gloucestershire live which is offering a running commentary on the local situation, often featuring definitive advice from our local Director of Public Health Sarah Scott and generally trying to find answers to some of the trickier questions. You do have to put up with Mark Cummings’ sense of humour but these are tough times.

This BBC Explainer gives details of where struggling businesses can get help.

I’m obviously not conducting surgeries at the moment but you can still email me on Borough council-related issues at martin@martinhorwood.net.

All the best. Keep safe & keep others safe.

Martin

Martin Horwood MEP dissects Brexit Withdrawal Agreement

Early votes have been taking place in the European Parliament on Boris’s Brexit deal. They suggest it will be passed when the full Parliament votes tomorrow. But I’m finding more and more reasons to vote against it.

Early votes have been taking place in the European Parliament on Boris’s Brexit deal. They suggest it will be passed when the full Parliament votes tomorrow. But I’m finding more and more reasons to vote against it.

Martin Horwood MEP questions Saudi minister on human rights in the European Parliament

Last week in Brussels at my last European Parliament foreign affairs committee I grilled a Saudi minister who bravely attended – an opportunity I never got as a Westminster MP

Last week in Brussels at my last European Parliament foreign affairs committee I grilled a Saudi minister who bravely attended on their human rights record – an opportunity I never got as a Westminster MP.

Martin Horwood MEP speaks out on citizens’ rights post-Brexit

I had the chance to speak up for citizens’ rights in ⁦the European Parliament⁩ this week. I paid tribute to ⁦Guy Verhofstadt⁩ for his focus on EU27 citizens’ rights in the UK & the rights of Brits in the EU.

Plus a surprising model for EU associate individual citizenship…

I have told many constituents that I share their wish to find a solution that will allow UK citizens to retain their EU citizenship on an individual basis, and fully support associate EU citizenship as a possible course of action.

Liberal Democrat MEPs sit with the Renew Europe group in the European Parliament. I actively lobbied my Renew colleague, Guy Verhofstadt, the Chair of the European Parliament’s Brexit Steering Group, to keep pushing the European Commission and European Council to grant associate citizenship for UK nationals after Brexit.

As the Parliament’s lead Brexit negotiator, Guy is also responsible for drawing up a recommendation for Parliament on whether to approve or reject the Withdrawal Agreement. MEPs from all groups in Parliament are currently negotiating a motion that sets out the conditions that need to be met for Parliament to approve the Withdrawal Agreement.

Section 20 of the motion offers an opportunity to pave the way for future discussions on associate citizenship for UK citizens, which I lobbied Guy to include. The motion was still being negotiated between all the groups last week and, of course, we have to be realistic about the chances of the EU and its remaining Member States agreeing to this. But I will continue to fight hard for associate citizenship, and we asked Guy for this section to be strengthened even further if it is possible to do so. The motion for a resolution will be put to a vote in the full European Parliament this Wednesday.

Since being elected on 23 May, all 16 Liberal Democrat MEPs have worked tirelessly with MEP colleagues from Renew Europe to highlight the damage Brexit will do to the UK and to our relationship with Europe. We will continue to push for associate citizenship with the EU and will vote for it at every opportunity. We will also press for the closest possible relationship between the UK and the EU after Brexit to ensure UK citizens’ rights in the EU27 and EU27 citizens’ rights in the UK are protected.


Martin Horwood MEP raises contradictory UK stance on Iran nuclear deal in the European Parliament

Yesterday in ⁦⁦the European Parliament⁩ I raised the contradiction between Foreign Sec Raab’s support for JCPOA (the Iran nuclear deal) and Boris Johnson’s call to replace it with a ‘Trump deal’.

Yesterday in ⁦⁦the European Parliament⁩ I raised the contradiction between Foreign Sec Raab’s support for JCPOA (the Iran nuclear deal) and Boris Johnson’s call to replace it with a ‘Trump deal’.

EU foreign polic⁦y chief Josep Borrell Fontelles⁩ wisely replied he believes Raab.

European Union action on conflict in the Middle East

The Middle East poses very difficult questions but, acting together, the EU and its Member states can be a force for good in this troubled region. From Israel and Palestine to Iran, the European Union is working to promote dialogue and reconciliation and the fight for human rights.