Controversial plans to build up to 120 houses close to Wolfeton House on Strawberry Field at Charminster have been decisively turned down by councillors.
The scheme has been widely criticised on a number of grounds, not least its proximity to the grade I-listed manor house, whose historic setting has remained substantially unchanged for centuries.
In a packed council chamber, objections to the scheme by Land Value Alliances were voiced by local residents, architects, historians and representatives speaking on behalf of the Thomas Hardy Society and English Heritage.
Simon Hickman of English Heritage told West Dorset District Council’s planning committee that Wolfeton was “one of the best historic houses in the country”, and “one of Dorset’s most important buildings” whose “setting is essential”.
He also criticised the recommendation by planning officers to grant outline planning permission “before establishing whether up to 120 houses could be accommodated” as “simply bad planning”.
Alistair Chisholm, dressed in his full Town Crier’s uniform, told how Thomas Hardy and John Cowper Powys both used the area for their fictional landscape.
He emphasised the value of the tourism potential of the area, and the number of visitors that flock to the area to see Hardy’s Wessex for themselves, and said the development would be “an act of irredeemable damage to the Hardyan landscape”.
Planners were accused of ignoring the written reports of several prominent architectural historians, one of whom, Roger White, referred to the planning officer’s first attempt to get the scheme passed back in January “without even arranging a site visit” as “shocking”, and warned that if the decision went against the developers and they decided on a judicial review, the council could be left open to prosecution. Local historian Gwen Yarker mentioned the Roman bypass road which was believed to cross the development site, and called the scheme “a palpably bad application”.
Residents spoke against the environmental damage that would be caused, criticised the lack of wildlife habitat assessments, and complained that a protected hedgerow would be breached in two places.
It was also pointed out that an extra 600 traffic movements a day would be generated on narrow country roads. The proposed access arrangements and road layout were said to be “unacceptable” and the traffic-calming measures “intrusive”.
Paul Ryan of Wolfeton Farm was worried that children living in the new housing would trespass on his property, to their own danger, enticed by the lake on his land and his herd of alpacas.
Much was made of the “intervisibility” between the proposed development and Wolfeton House, a mere 200 yards away.
The planning officer had suggested that English Heritage’s objections to the development could be mitigated if it could be proved the development would not be visible from Wolfeton House. Photographs annotated to include the proposed roof and window lines were produced by the developer’s agent, which proved only that the principle of “intervisibility” is rather vague and open to interpretation.
The images also proved not to have been made to an acceptable standard due to a lack of access by the photographer, who did not have the correct equipment.
Planning officer Jean Marshall tried to establish whether a reduced scheme, using only the northern part of the site, and therefore further from Wolfeton would be acceptable to English Heritage, and accused English Heritage of changing their stance on the issue.
Simon Hickman emphasised that in establishing whether “substantial damage” would be caused to the setting of a historic building, through “intervisibility” or any other criterion, the more important the building, the more substantial the impact would be, and reiterated that Wolfeton House was one of the most important.
After nearly three hours of debate councillors voted overwhelmingly for a proposal to reject the application by a margin of ten to one, with one abstention.
Tony Fincham, chairman of the Hardy Society said: “It’s wholly appropriate that the committee rejected the plan. We objected on the grounds that Wolfeton House features in one of Hardy’s short stories and the front of the house is very much as he described it then. This development is within the curtilage of the house.
“If you fill in every field around Dorchester you’ll ruin the landscape Hardy described and spoil it for future generations. There is every chance the developer will appeal but this is a very encouraging first step and one just hopes they won’t get it through on appeal.”