By Town Crier Alistair Chisholm
Let’s be clear on the important issues surrounding the much used word ‘development’.
Dorchester, like any other market town, cannot and should not aspire to stand still. Over the millennia and the centuries it has changed, and change will continue to be part of its future.
Dorchester’s unique setting of ‘town and down’ is a precious asset that must not be lost
The question we should be asking, and in which all residents, workers and visitors have an all-important stake is:
“What kind of development is a) needed, b) appropriate and c) suitable for our town and where should these developments be located ?
The recent review of the Local Plan (the document which, once approved, will determine what areas will be allotted for development and what kinds of development will be permitted) is drawing to a close, and decisions are about to be made that will affect the county town for centuries to come.
As residents, workers and visitors, are our views and opinions being taken into account? Are our visions for the future, our aspirations for generations to come being faithfully and vigorously voiced by our elected representatives on Dorchestser Town Council, the soon-to-disappear district council and the county council?
Sadly and disappointingly, I fear they are not. Too many of our elected representatives wear too many hats and serve on too many councils. As town councillors, many seem to churn out the lines they’ve been fed in their role as district and/or county councillors and are out of step with those who are focused on the existing and future welfare of the town and its residents.
Dorchester is a very special place – a fact recognised by none other than the Prince of Wales when he decided to choose the county town as the place to put into practice the principles of urban design he had addressed in his 1989 book A Vision of Britain.
Three former Duchy farms now constitute Poundbury which, when completed over the next 10 years, will have increased the size of the town by 50%. Dorchester’s pre-Poundbury population was 16,000; when it is complete this figure will have risen to 24,000.
This huge increase in size has happened over a mere 20 years or so and, as a town, Dorchester has yet to digest this most significant change in its “fighting weight”. We are still in the throes of coming to terms with the reality that is Poundbury. Unfortunately there are still some who hold that Poundbury is NOT part of Dorchester, that it is somehow fundamentally different and should remain so. While this view may well echo that of Fordington folk some years ago, I don’t think that is an issue today, as enough time has elapsed to make one place out of what were formerly two. (Another local example is Weymouth and Melcombe Regis.)
And now in 2018, a decade or more before Poundbury is even completed, Dorchester is being expected to accept a further 3,500 homes under the ‘preferred options’ in the Local Plan. This development will take place north of the town on the rising ground beyond the water meadows of the River Frome.
The northern boundary of the town has remained the same since Roman times and is described eloquently by Thomas Hardy in his novel The Mayor of Casterbridge.
It would be lost forever and with it the uniqueness and the “timelessness” (to use the word chosen by the planning inspector when he refused an appeal to build on this land previously) of Dorchester’s setting on a chalk prominence above the flood-plain of the River Frome.
The countryside immediately north of the town centre, so close and so clearly visible today from the Town Pump and North Square, would be concreted over and valuable farming land sacrificed – for what exactly?
Is it to provide the much needed affordable homes for young working people or is it to satisfy the insatiable greed of landowners and developers who will sell their new houses to more wealthy people who find themselves in the fortunate position of being able to buy in Dorset – a very attractive part of the country?
I am sure the developers will show us attractive computer-generated pictures of three or four little “hamlets” nestling in the folds of the landscape; but have no doubt whatsoever that, in time, what are currently parts of the parishes of Charminster and Stinsford will finish up as Greater Dorchester and those attractive green areas between the “hamlets“ will be slowly but steadily concreted over.
If, as is currently being advocated by the town council, our long and fascinating past is to play a much more significant part in our planning for the future, then the need to protect and defend the town’s unique setting becomes paramount.
Based on pre-Brexit referendum data, who dictates that we MUST have 3,500 more homes in the town when we already have a growing number of empty properties and occasionally occupied second homes here?
What about existing large sites within the town such as the Territorial Army base at the Top o’ Town? After all the prison site was suddenly sold off by the Ministry of Justice – might not the Ministry of Defence decide to sell off this Dorchester property? What about County Hall? Is it still needed with the merger of Dorset councils? Would it not make sense to spread this so-called ‘requirement’ more evenly around the county, boosting the viability of some villages desperate to hang on to their remaining services? Finally, why must we be making this decision now, years before the massive Poundbury urban extension is even completed?
If you feel half as strongly about this issue as I do please get involved and join the fight to save something so special and important, not only to existing folk but to generations to come.
Question your councillors, demand a rational explanation for this desecration of much-needed good quality farmland. Insist on a significant delay in writing off acres of green fields. Ensure that every other option is explored thoroughly such as developing accommodation over shops in the town centre and stopping developers’ claims that their schemes would become “unviable” if they were to provide the one real housing need we have, namely “affordable” housing.
As a director of the recently formed Dorchester Area Community Land Trust (DACLT), I am very aware of the urgent need for “affordable” housing for younger working people in the town.
However I question whether getting a handful of these in the proposed development north of the water meadows is the only solution possible, and whether even that provision is worth the everlasting damage that would follow from development of this unspoilt area.
The Dorchester Voice is organising a campaign to halt this planned development that would forever destroy the character of Hardy’s Dorchester.
Everyone who cares about the future of this beautiful town should get together to fight this proposal, tooth and nail.
If you would like to get involved, just send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org