“You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone”, as the song goes. This is what our local planners will discover if they pursue their intention of allocating a vast swathe of land north of Dorchester for housing in the revised Local Plan.
One of the most distinctive things about Dorchester is the sharp cut-off between town and country on the northern side. It’s the same boundary we’ve had since Roman times. North of the mill-stream are the water-meadows, the River Frome and the land sloping up towards the chalk hills.
It’s a stretch of countryside that is deeply loved by those living in the county town and gives us the chance of seeing kingfishers, otters, water voles and a wealth of wildlife on our doorstep. It gives us a direct link to the writings of Thomas Hardy, who describes a Casterbridge that is still recognisably Dorchester. All this would disappear if the 3,500 houses planned for the slopes beyond the water-meadows go ahead – a development bigger than Poundbury.
The scheme would also see 25 acres of ‘employment land’, a supermarket and other shops, schools and healthcare facilities. The building plot stretches from Charminster round to Stinsford and is in effect a small satellite town. Is Dorchester to become the next Milton Keynes?
Dorchester has fought off development here on more than one occasion; it’s one of the reasons Poundbury was built. This time it’s under greater threat; the housing situation in Britain has become so toxic that councils are clutching at straws in the hope they can provide affordable housing somewhere in their district. But what’s the likelihood of affordable housing being built here?
West Dorset District Council states that 35% of the site will be affordable. Yet the developers of the prison site claimed that their plans would not be viable if they were to include any, and the amount of affordable housing built in the UK has almost halved since the introduction of a ‘viability’ clause in 2012. Could WDDC really ensure the 35% claim? This would be a private development, not one like Poundbury where the Duchy of Cornwall has a commitment to social responsibility.
A new guidebook to Dorset, part of Bradt’s series of ‘Local, characterful guides to Britain’s Special Places’ opens its entry for Dorchester with this: “You may be tempted to assume that Dorchester, being Dorset’s county town, is large, crowded and surrounded by new, soulless housing developments. That is not the case. Dorchester is full of old-world charm, and with around 20,000 inhabitants is a very manageable size. The countryside and villages around it are alluring and many of Dorset’s archaeological and historical attractions are in this area.”
This is why people come to visit Dorchester. Because it has character, because it’s not one of those bland, soulless dormitory towns, because of all those aspects of its history that make it unique and its immediately adjacent countryside. Are we really going to shoot the goose that lays the golden egg?
“You can’t stop progress,” a councillor told me. But how is damaging your environment and your vital tourist industry ‘progress’?
And why should Dorchester shoulder 60% of the housing target imposed by the government on the West Dorset district when we have yet to absorb the changes made by Poundbury? (A target that was imposed before the Brexit referendum and presumably out of date.)
Dorchester is at a crossroads. It could choose to look east and become one of those towns of the South-East that once had some character but are now bland entities sprawling across the countryside. Or it could look west to those towns of the West Country that are confidently different and independent; it could celebrate its distinctiveness.
Dorchester is different – let’s keep it that way. If you want to help, join STAND – Save the Area North of Dorchester (see below).
What can I do to stop this?
Sign the petition here (in addition to sending comments): you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/stand-save-the-area-north-of-dorchester
Contact STAND at firstname.lastname@example.org for an information sheet, and watch for updates in the Dorchester Voice.
Write to your local councillors and ask them if they oppose the scheme. Say if not, you will vote for another candidate in the elections for the new super-Dorset council in May. The district councillors for Dorchester are: Andy Canning, Tim Harries, Susie Hosford, Stella Jones, Trevor Jones, Robin Potter, Molly Rennie and David Taylor. As the development areas are in Stinsford and Charminster, you could also write to their parish councils and West Dorset councillors Fred Horsington and Timothy Yarker.
The Dorset AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) is also having a consultation at present. How about a campaign to extend the AONB to include the area north of Dorchester? Visit www.dorsetaonb.org.uk/news/1434-have-your-say-2018
Write to your MP about government housing targets. Dorset is an outstanding county for wildlife and extra building will put pressure on the environment and damage tourism, so vital to the economy.