The battle lines are being drawn against a proposal for a new ‘railway village’ in the heart of the Norfolk countryside.

People from North Elmham, Billingford, Bintree, and other villages between Dereham and Fakenham, are expected to join a grassroots campaign against the possibility of 5,000 new homes being built on agricultural land in their area. 

The land has been put forward by its owners as a potential site for development, to be included within Breckland Council's forthcoming local plan - a document detailing how the district should grow over the next two decades.

It is not the first time such a project has been suggested.

Back in 2018, campaigners who called themselves 'CANT' (Campaign Against the New Town) successfully argued against an earlier, more advanced version of the idea, which would have seen 10,000 new homes built on the same site.

That effort culminated in a bus being hired to transport dozens of people from across the affected villages down to the council’s headquarters in Dereham. 

They packed out the chamber and had a large banner with the group’s logo on it. 

William Nunn, council leader at the time, said it was the most people he had ever seen attend a meeting in his 24 years on the authority.  

Councillors voted to reject the scheme almost unanimously at that meeting. 

But CANT is now being resurrected, as residents across Breckland are soon to be asked whether a new “garden town” should be built somewhere within the district - with the trimmed-back 5,000-home proposal believed to be one of the main contenders for that project.

Eastern Daily Press: The area which has been put forward for a potential 5,000 homes between North Elmham, Billingford and BintreeThe area which has been put forward for a potential 5,000 homes between North Elmham, Billingford and Bintree (Image: Google)

The question will come up as part of the council’s consultation on its new local plan.

The Conservative-run authority was asking last year for landowners to come forward with sites which could potentially be built on over the next two decades.

The 5,000-home submission, which is not a formal planning application, came forward as part of that process. 

If a planning application is submitted, approved and the housing is built, the resulting settlement would likely have a larger population than existing towns like Watton (population 8,417), Fakenham (8,285) and Cromer (7,949).

The submission documents which put the 1,278-acre site forwards called it the “Norfolk Railway Village”, suggesting that the new development could take advantage of the Mid Norfolk Railway, a heritage line which stops at North Elmham. 

It connects to the national rail network at Wymondham, which could in theory mean the 5,000 new homes could be connected to the rest of the country, if services were extended up the line. 

Jennie Borgnis, chair of North Elmham Parish Council, said her authority would “definitely” be campaigning against the project - and had been in contact with neighbouring villages about combining forces.

Eastern Daily Press: Jennie Borgnis, chair of North Elmham Parish CouncilJennie Borgnis, chair of North Elmham Parish Council (Image: Jessica Frank-Keyes)

She added that she was opposed to the proposal for several reasons. 

“It’s nowhere near a trunk road for a start, which any sort of big development realistically would have to be, and create all sorts of traffic chaos in Dereham specifically, but generally too. 

“The Wensum Valley is a highly-protected part of the county and the number of houses would be bound to have an effect on the water-course.

“If the developers are genuinely thinking that the railway is the thing that’s going to swing it for them, they have got to convince everybody that there is going to be a railway company that will be prepared to run it.

“The fear is that they will rely on the railway aspect of it, and then quietly drop it when they realise it’s a non-starter.”

CANT will be distributing leaflets, emails and social media posts to encourage people to participate in the consultation. 

And Ms Borgnis said the possibility of a fresh protest like the kind seen in 2018 would “almost certainly” have to happen, if the new scheme became advanced enough to reach the council’s planning committee.

She said however that she was not opposed to the principle of more housing being built elsewhere and that the existence of Britain’s housing shortage was “unarguable”. 

“We need more houses of the right type, and they need to be in the right place,” which said was primarily in towns, near to existing services and employment areas. 

The Norfolk branch of the Campaign to Protect Rural England said they were opposed to a new settlement being built anywhere in Breckland. 

A Norfolk CPRE spokesman said “Given the need to maintain agricultural land, and to keep the special and valued qualities of Norfolk's countryside and landscapes, there is no need for a new settlement in Breckland.

Eastern Daily Press: The Norfolk branch of the Campaign to Protect Rural England said there was no need for a new settlement to be built in BrecklandThe Norfolk branch of the Campaign to Protect Rural England said there was no need for a new settlement to be built in Breckland (Image: Denise Bradley)

“Housing targets should be met by ensuring that existing allocated and often permitted sites are built out before adding any more.

“When that is done, along with the many small 'windfall' sites within settlement boundaries preferably using brownfield locations, and much needed rural exception sites to provide affordable social housing, any additional sites should be found through small-scale, planned organic growth of existing settlements.

“These should particularly be in towns where jobs, public transport and infrastructure already exist to ensure that new housing developments are not wholly car dependent.”

Breckland’s eight-week consultation on the local plan is due to take place at some point in the first few months of this year.