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.

Coffee with Caroline & Martin: What’s next for Brexit

Caroline Voaden and I met up for coffee and a chat this week to get our heads around the recent dramatic Withdrawal Agreement Bill vote in Westminster, and what happens next here in the European Parliament.

Vice-Chair of the Iran Delegation

I’m delighted to have been elected as the Vice-Chair of the European Parliament’s Iran Delegation.

This is a worrying time in the Persian Gulf. If we can play a small part in the European Parliament in promoting peace in the region then I think we’ll be doing something very valuable indeed.

If I can play a small part in that I’ll be deeply honoured and very proud to be representing Britain as an MEP taking part in the European Union as a real peace project – not just for peace within our own borders, but around the world.

Leckhampton secondary school & green fields update

There is news on the planned new secondary school at Kidnappers Lane – and it’s a mixed bag for local residents.

First of all, a government inspector, Wendy Burden, has issued her interim advice on the draft Cheltenham Local Plan – one of the key local planning documents for our area. Against the run of previous inspections and the wishes of both the Borough and Parish Councils – she concluded that the 39 hectares proposed by our local councils as protected Local Green Space at Leckhampton might be too “extensive” and not justified. This is very surprising since an enormous amount of evidence has been amassed to justify the protection of the Leckhampton green fields (alongside a substantial amount of new housing next to the Shurdington Road). Under the National Planning Policy Framework, there is no upper size limit on LGS and it should for local communities to determine this but nevertheless the opinions of this experienced inspector carry huge weight in the process and the councils have to pay attention to this or risk the whole draft plan being declared “unsound”. I have been in discussion with Cheltenham planning officers along with fellow parish councillors to see what we can salvage from this situation.

The inspector’s verdict has played right into the hands of the Conservative-led county council who want to grab some of the planned Local Green Space for their controversial new secondary school instead of building it on the land next to Shurdington Road which had been earmarked for development (see my earlier update here). The county presented plans for the Kidnappers Lane site at a recent public meeting:

The site proposed by the county council for the new secondary school between Farm Lane and Kidnappers Lane – with apologies for the poor quality of the image.
Again with apologies for the image quality, a plan of the county’s proposed school building and playing fields.

There are some positives to these plans: it’s noticeable that they retain the extensive and ancient hedgerow around the school site which will be really important in Kidnappers Lane and Farm Lane retaining some of their current charm and rural character and will make an attractive green environment for the school students themselves. The plans also set the school building right at the northern end of the site, closest to planned development and the least intrusive location in respect of the planned protected Local Green Space to the south and east. The playing fields – and in particular the all-weather Astro pitch could be important community assets for local young people, including Leckhampton Rovers Football Club.

A sketch of the proposed new school building including some natural-looking materials but little evidfence of genuinely environmentally freindly features – and the apparently small scale is pretty misleading!

But local residents still have deep and – in my view – well-founded worries about the safety and traffic implications of such a large school set amongst what are now rural lanes with already congested roads around them, not least because the county’s shifting of the site will make way for developers to try to put even more housing on the fields next to the Shurdington Road. It’s also disappointing that the building and site so close to a Local Green Space and clearly visible from the AONB seem to boast so little in the way of green features, in stark contrast to exciting low energy new developments like the two Gloucester Services on the M5 which are camouflaged so well as to be nearly invisible from any distance or even the headquarters of Gloucestershire Constabulary in Quedgeley which boasts a fantastic reneweable energy resource in the shape of a large ground-source heat pump.

Unusually the county is applying to itself for planning permission to build the school instead of to the usual planning authority, Cheltenham Borough Council. A further consultation event is planned for 4.30-7pm 27 June at Hatherley & Reddings Cricket Club (on the left of the Shurdington Road outside town down towards Shurdington). Come along and make your views known!

Leckhampton secondary school update Jan 2019

In December 2017, Gloucestershire County Council cabinet decided to establish a new 900 place 11-16 secondary school in Cheltenham, widely regarded as necessary because of a looming crisis in secondary school admissions.  They identified Kidnappers Lane in Leckhampton as their preferred site.  Funding for the school was approved in February 2018 and the school is expected to open to new Year 7s in September 2021. It is being sponsored by outstanding local secondary school Balcarras who bring a welcome reputation for high academic standards and positive engagement with their local community.

The planned Local Green Space where the county council want to build the new secondary school, instead of in the area already agreed for development.

But the site of the new school is causing real concern and controversy and not just because of the likely impact on local traffic through narrow rural lanes.

After more than ten years’ campaigning against the imposition of thousands of new houses all over Leckhampton’s green fields, local campaigners like the Leckhampton Green Land Action Group (LEGLAG) and the Parish Council accepted that the fields immediately next to the A46 Shurdington Road would be built on, principally for new homes.   The remaining fields would be protected as Local Green Space, a new designation for local green spaces important to communities which I initiated when I was MP for Cheltenham and which is now national policy.  After discussions with the county council, Cheltenham Borough Council included the new secondary school in their draft Local Plan on the land to be developed – at the corner of Shurdington Road and Kidnappers Lane.  It was accepted that the school’s playing fields could be within the planned Local Green Space area further up Kidnappers Lane.  This was agreed in writing by Gloucestershire County Council in March 2018 (as explained in these Cheltenham Borough Council minutes – see Question 10).

Then in September 2018 the county council changed its mind and announced that despite all the previous discussions, it wanted to build the school in the area further up Kidnappers Lane everyone expected to be protected Local Green Space.  Why?  To save the county money.  The new site was land they owned and would not have to buy in opposition to the housing developers.

This would be a double whammy for Leckhampton: not only would green fields be lost to the newly built school but more of the land agreed for development would then go to housing as the developer always wanted but this would now be in addition to the new school.  Local Lib Dem councillors, LEGLAG, the Parish Council and Cheltenham Borough Council have all lined up to oppose the loss of green space and likely overdevelopment.

Unfortunately, local Conservative councillor Stephen Cooke has refused to oppose the county’s plan, describing it as the “lesser of two evils” and complaining that no-one had got the agreement of the developers!

Worse, since the county council own the land proposed for the new school, they are allowed to apply to themselves for planning permission to build it instead of to the usual local planning authority, Cheltenham Borough Council.  But this decision will be carefully scrutinised by the plan’s opponents.  In law, the county council must pay proper attention to the traffic problems too much development would cause, as well as to the emerging Cheltenham Local Plan, the previous Cheltenham Local Plan and the emerging Leckhampton Neighbourhood Plan, all of which would rule out the use of the protected green field site.

The county council’s summary of the situation can be found here but it contains fake news!  It suggests that only one site was ever considered (not true, as the Cheltenham minutes show), that the site was previously identified for housing but this was “not taken up” (not true; the land had been earmarked for development until the plan for thousands of houses was ruled out by a government inspector) and that local Lib Dem councillor Iain Dobie supports the plan (not true; Iain welcomes a new school but has vociferously opposed the proposed green field site).

 

Leckhampton primary school update

There have been some important developments in Leckhampton recently relating to local schools – and there are more to come.

Leckhampton CofE Primary School in Hall Road is an outstanding local primary school currently educating just over 430 local pupils under the leadership of popular headteacher Sam Porter.

Last April, Gloucestershire County Council proposed an increase from two to three forms of entry which would gradually increase the size of the school to at least 630 pupils from September 2019.  The justification for this was increasing demand for primary school places in the local area although the actual model and assumptions behind this argument have proved infuriatingly difficult to extract from the county council.  Nevertheless they insisted it showed sufficient demand within the immediate local area and no spare capacity at other local schools either so in May 2018 the council proceeded to consult with a wide range of stakeholders including parents, teachers and governors. 215 of the 372 respondents (58%) disagreed or strongly disagreed with the proposal.  The most opposition came from parents (whether their children were at Leckhampton, pre-school or at another school).  Staff and governors, by contrast, were strongly in favour but obviously fewer in number.  Leckhampton with Warden Hill Parish Council opposed the plan.

The county council then published a statutory notice that it intended to proceed and conducted further consultation during which I took local parents concerned about the expansion to see the responsible Conservative county cabinet member, Cllr Lynden Stowe, along with education officers.  It was good of him to meet us and discuss the plans but we never did get the really detailed modelling and assumptions behind the decision.  On 23 November 2018 Cllr Stowe approved the expansion and this will now go ahead unless the necessary building to accommodate hundreds of extra pupils is frustrated by the planning process in which case a rethink will be necessary.

The usual planning authority in Cheltenham is Cheltenham Borough Council but on this occasion the county council has decided to apply to itself for planning permission.  Astonishingly, the law permits this where the county council is itself the landowner. This is not a decision which will reassure local people concerned that the impact on the local neighbourhood  – including its already very congested roads – will be adequately considered.  Local Lib Dem county councillor Iain Dobie is working hard to see if mitigating proposals can be brought forward, such as a rear access route for walking and cycling from Burrows Field where there is already a pathway almost to the back of the school.  Iain regularly updates his Facebook page with the latest school news.  Latest news from the county itself can be found here and the background documents to their decision are here (click the tab for ‘supporting documents’).

There will be an open drop-in at the school on Wednesday 30 January 3:30pm – 7pm, when members of the public can view the building plans to be submitted for planning approval later this year.