Conservationists and historians are digging in for a last-ditch defence of a sliver of “sacrosanct” ancient Kentish meadow and woods, protected in law but set to be the location for a large housing and leisure development.
The fight for the Farthingloe valley, a long, narrow green strip that extends to the western outskirts of Dover, has been especially bitter. The valley is within the Kent Downs area of outstanding natural beauty and makes up much of the rural hinterland behind the 300ft Shakespeare Cliff, the most westerly of the chalk cliffs at Dover. The cliff is owned by Dover district council and the National Trust owns a portion of land. The valley may have provided some inspiration for a scene in King Lear, which gave rise to the cliff’s name, coined in the 18th century.
In a high court hearing last month, the Kent branch of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) failed to secure a judicial review of a council decision to approve a high-density, upmarket housing and leisure scheme in the valley.
Submitted by UK-based property developer China Gateway International, the scheme features more than 600 homes, a leisure centre and hotel, and poses the greatest single housing threat yet to an area of outstanding natural beauty. One of 46 AONBs in England and Wales, Farthingloe is rich in wildlife, including the Adonis blue and small blue butterflies. The early spider orchid is also found there.
The valley is rich in folklore. It was here, according to legend, that Sir Gawain, one of King Arthur’s knights, fell in love with and married the Lady of Farthingloe, a mysterious figure possibly linked to the De Ffarninglo family, which had owned much of the valley since Saxon times. Gawain was said to have been killed fighting for Arthur at nearby Barham Downs, when his severed head was taken by monks to a monastery in Dover and later, according to medieval texts, to the church within Dover castle.
At the high court, the Kent branch of the CPRE argued that the local authority had failed to take into account harm that would be caused to the valley because of an offer by the developer to contribute £5m towards the estimated £70m renovation of an unconnected site, a listed Victorian fort, Drop Redoubt, at Western Heights. That site is more than a mile from the valley.
The campaign argued that an offer to fund that renovation should have had no bearing on the granting of consent for the scheme in the valley and was unlawful, describing the offer as a “sham”. It intends to appeal against the court’s decision. Opponents of the development fear that building in the Farthingloe valley will trigger similar schemes at sensitive sites elsewhere around Dover, leading to the loss of natural coherence and continuity in the green hinterland.
Dover’s Tory MP, Charlie Elphicke, is outspoken in his support for the Farthingloe development. “The developments we need and have wanted for so long are under threat,” he told a local newspaper, “not from our community or anyone democratically elected, [but] from self-appointed campaign groups like the CPRE … The CPRE should stop being arrogant and high-handed and spend more time listening to the people of Dover.”
But Kent CPRE sees the Farthingloe battle as one of national significance. “It’s an indictment of our planning system that an organisation like ours is the only one fighting to protect landscapes that should be sacrosanct,” Hilary Newport, Kent CPRE’s director, told the Observer. “We will not give up on the outstanding countryside which is such a fundamental part of our country.
“The unredacted document shows this was a case in the national interest and should not have been left to a local planning committee to determine. There is a real need for more housing, and no one wants to embalm the countryside, but surely this should not be in our most precious, protected landscapes. We feel a sense of utter betrayal that the designation of AONB was ignored in these decisions. What hope is there for the wider countryside if even here there is no protection?”
Lorraine Sencicle, a local historian, said: “The Farthingloe valley is an important part of British history. It is almost pristine, and connected directly with the great church and monastery of St Martin’s in the town centre.
“You listen to the stupid arguments justifying the development like, ‘Oh well, we need some big executive houses, then big executive people are going to live in them and spend their money in the town,’ and you think, ‘Wake up!’”
Data provided to the Observer reveals the extent of the unprecedented threat to AONBs. Five of the designated areas, from the north Pennines to Surrey, Kent, Wiltshire and the Cotswolds, face partial encroachment by road building. Housing schemes are proposed in the Slad valley in Gloucestershire, a landscape celebrated by Laurie Lee in Cider with Rosie.
Forty “high-end” houses are due to be built within the Cotswolds AONB at Woodmancote, near Tewkesbury, and hundreds of homes could be sited within the High Weald AONB, which extends across Surrey, Sussex and Kent. The North Wessex Downs AONB, straddling north Hampshire, Wiltshire and west Berkshire, is facing pressure to accommodate up to 1,400 new homes.
The Chilterns faces the largest single threat of any AONB, with seven miles of the HS2 high-sped rail line set to cross it and 18 hectares of woodland and 41km of hedgerows to be uprooted. Last summer, the government’s HS2 select committee rejected plans for a proposed tunnel which would have spared large-scale destruction within the Chilterns on the grounds that the £400m cost of the tunnel could not be justified.
Pressure to keep up with ever-rising targets for new housing is set to become the largest challenge for AONBs. “The high court decision over the Dover scheme could set a dangerous precedent for AONBs across the country,” said Emma Marrington, the CPRE’s senior rural policy campaigner.
“Excessive and unsustainable housing targets are being used to justify development in protected areas when we should be focusing on redeveloping brownfield land for the homes we need. Our beautiful and treasured landscapes are meant to receive the highest levels of protection under national planning policy. We need to make sure that this level of protection is enforced.”