• Joe

Sulis Down: The most callous objection of all

Updated: Jul 13

A response to the South of Bath Alliance campaign to prevent house building on Sulis Down

By Joe Scofield

Proposals to build 300 homes across two fields close to Southstoke Village have led to a predictable storm of protest. A rising number of objections are streaming to the council, aided by leaflets, a roadside banner, a website, and social media imploring the public to stand against the scheme.

The campaigners hoping to save these fields have a case. The site falls within the Cotswold Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and supports endangered species: skylarks and greater and lesser horseshoe bats.

Part of the landscape where the houses would go. The plastic wallet on the post contains leaflets calling on walkers to resist the plans.

The 300 homes would add to the 171 being erected on a field closer to the Odd Down Park and Ride, making a total of 471 dwellings across the Sulis Down (also called the Southstoke Plateau). There would be an impact on the nearby Southstoke Village.

And yet, as an ancient writer of wisdom once noted, a case is always convincing until you hear the other side (Proverbs 18:17). For those who want to read on, here are some issues to do with the campaign by the South of Bath Alliance.

Natural habitat

Perhaps the most common objection to the scheme is the one expressing concerns over the ecological habitat that would be lost if homes were built on this land.

Following the South of Bath Alliance's list of recommended objections to make, protestors bring up the subject of the horseshoe bats and skylarks again and again.

But this objection becomes less compelling when one reads that the housing scheme also includes the planting of new woodland, the extension of existing woodland, the reinforcement of hedgerows, strips of open green space, roosting barns for horseshoe bats, a specially managed area of grassland for skylarks, and other mitigations.

The council’s Placemaking Plan is clear that safeguarding measures for bats and skylarks would have to be incorporated for the construction to go ahead.

The proposal could even be said to reinforce wildlife in some respects, with the developer claiming it would increase biodiversity by 11 per cent. After all, the current fields of dense cereal crops preclude most species from entering this space. And that's before we consider whatever pesticides the fields might be sprayed with: chemicals that enter the food chain and are toxic to living organisms.

Housing crisis

Some protestors may be able to mentally diminish the need to build affordable housing in Bath but the council cannot. On its Homesearch register sit more than 5,500 people longing to find an affordable place to live.

There's a crying need for low-cost housing for single young people who want to live and work in Bath rather than getting forced out of the city - pushed away from their networks of family and friends by the unaffordable housing market. Meanwhile, in communities like Foxhill and Twerton, families are crammed into unsuitable flats due to the lack of social housing.

The developer proposes to build 90 social/affordable rent dwellings and some shared ownership homes on these two fields. So there's scope for council planners to ensure some real provision for lower-income tenants.

A street in Odd Down. The Odd Down councillors have added their voice to the campaign, even though most children on the estates here will never be able to afford to live in Bath.

How reliable are those objections?

Many of the objections suggested by the South of Bath Alliance are manifestly one-sided. That's partly because the group does little to signpost people to the council's responses to the relevant issues.

  • A recurring objection states that the plan should be scrapped as it doesn't offer to build amenities like shops for the future residents of this housing. However, this land was earmarked for development precisely because there would be infrastructure at Odd Down to support the newcomers. Several schools, a GP surgery, the Sainsbury’s supermarket and the Odd Down Park and Ride are a short distance from the site.

  • Another mantra is the claim that there would be insufficient school places to accommodate all the kids moving into these new homes. But the Planning Statement reveals that the developer anticipates being asked to pay for extended school provisions in the locality. In fact, one consultation response requires the developer to stump up over £1 million for the cause.

  • Protestors remark many times over that only 300 homes were envisaged in the council's Placemaking Plan for the whole of Sulis Down. Yet a look at the same document informs us: "The figure of 300 dwellings is not a cap on development if all the placemaking principles can be met.”

  • Another well-worn objection that's likely to stir up some fear, is the claim that if this scheme gets approved developers might return and gobble up other parcels of green land in the area. In reality, the odds that a Planning Inspector would approve the release of Green Belt land down the hill towards the valley are like the odds that the Bath Abbey might be converted into council flats.

Impact on highways

A further objection is that the new housing estate would increase the heavy traffic on roads in Odd Down. This is a very valid criticism.

But then, thousands of Bath residents live beside roads that see a lot of traffic at peak times. One example is the Lower Bristol Road where at least two approved housing schemes are already in the pipeline. Then there is the Newbridge Road, the London Road, the busy A36 through Widcombe... the list goes on. When traffic congestion is something that many people across Bath live with, to what extent would the extra traffic at Odd Down be a reason to refuse new homes?

Traffic tailbacks on the A4 London Road in Bath

Those green credentials

The campaigners remind us that Sulis Down is a part of Bath's surrounding green landscape that gives the city its World Heritage Status. It also lies within an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB).

The council's take on it is that the scheme could be justified by its contribution to housing needs, although the beauty of the landscape must still be treated with great sensitivity e.g. with native tree planting used to screen the proposed housing.

One difficulty is that many green areas possess natural beauty without having been awarded AONB status. For the residents who dwell there, those areas are every bit as special. Yet they are vulnerable to being lost to future builds, while wealthier communities in AONB settings insist that their own ‘back yard’ must stay free of housing by virtue of those initials. This can easily turn into a form of eco-elitism that discriminates against the poor.

The most callous objection of all

And now an explanation of the title of this page. To me, the most galling objection by the South of Bath Alliance is the repeatedly made argument that the council has met its housing targets for 2022 and therefore this housing scheme isn't needed.

What about the 5,500+ people on the Homesearch register who need affordable places to live now? What about the thousands of young people raised in Bath being forced out of the city because of the housing situation now? What about the residents cooped up in unsuitable conditions because of a lack of social housing now?

And there’s the rub. The campaign against these proposed homes has some valid points to make, but it consists of one person after another repeating the same one-sided arguments. A dubious set of narratives are used to deflect attention away from the affordable housing component of the deal, ignoring the needs of the young and the poor.

A few objectors have asserted that no affordable housing would be forthcoming anyway - so don't bother trying - even as planners consider the proposal and explore what could be secured for people in lower-income brackets. The whole campaign has an unsavoury feel.

As for me, on balance I'm in favour of the application but I appreciate that others are not. I have no idea whether it will be approved or refused. In the meantime, people can send the case officer their comments for or against the plans here.

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