OPINION: Norfolk's precious character doesn't need further wrecking

As the sun sets on another year, a torrent of overblown housing applications continue to threaten the county’s character

As the sun sets on another year, a torrent of overblown housing applications continue to threaten the county’s character - Credit: Archant

An air of sullen resignation crouches over too many parts of Norfolk just as an overdue chance for building genuine goodwill and togetherness draws nigh with bells on.

I’ve lost count of how many overblown housing applications are being touted as” must-have” presents by those who readily bend a knee at the brantub of opportunism and greed.

Our MPs, local councillors officers and, planners along with hand-rubbing developers are acting like a government-appointed Santa with a flock of obedient subordinate Clauses ordered to turn a special place into a boring photostat of Anywhere Else.

It seems our once-attractive market towns and larger villages have been picked off in turn for character-crushing expansion schemes since overspill adventures at Thetford and King’s Lynn set a dubious trail-blazing example in the 1960s.

I have watched Dereham and Fakenham, Watton and Wymondham, Aylsham and Swaffham, Holt and North Walsham. Hethersett and Rackheath, Mattishall and Mundesley, Caister and Costessey .Swanton Morley and Shipdham plus several other sprawling parishes bullied into putting on far too much weight and so blotting out precious local heritage and community cohesion.

Sadly, such “inevitable progress” wrapped up in pledges of more jobs, exciting revamps and economic revivals and accompanied on a good day by the builders’ all-year carol, the catchy “Have Your Say,” - has prompted little resistance to this long-running sorry saga of too much unwanted and unwarranted development increasing pressures and problems on locations hitherto showing measured pride in coping with well-planned and well-built new housing.

Local councillors, apparently eager to gripe and growl among themselves, rarely muster a collective front to challenge proposed far-reaching changes laced with blatantly obvious destructive elements for the people and places they are supposed to represent.

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The customary excuse runs along lines of : “This is going ahead whether we like it or not. Our influence is limited, especially, when it comes to planning matters and so it has to be best to make the most of what some might see as a bad job.. You can’t please everyone.”

Currently, Attleborough, well used to headline-grabbing council chamber agitation during the past couple of years, has to confront massive implications of plans for 4,000 new homes to just about double the population. Residents, of course, were invited to a series of information sessions. I wonder how many accepted and asked difficult questions… and how many helpful and honest answers they received.

In a recent interview with the EDP, Attleborough Mayor Phil Leslie hardly trimmed the “latest developments” platform with a rousing rallying call on behalf of a community bound to feel a bit under siege in recent times. He said they were looking forward to further consultation with Homes England and Breckland Council, the planning authority.

“We are trying our best to work for a sustainable future for the town. As a town council, we aren’t the planning authority and we don’t get to determine the building of houses.” Sounds a lot like the same old “don’t blame us” mantra echoing across a beleaguered county for much of the past half-century.

When will the modern version of a Norfolk Home Guard come marching over the horizon to demonstrate proper defiance and passion needed to take on marauding forces with influential friends in high places who could yet don hard hats and take lucrative second jobs on building sites. “There’s gold in them thar bricks!.”

Meanwhile, Norfolk County Council continues to set a shoddy example and ignore all advice based on clear evidence about their transport schemes falling way short of protecting the environment. And there’s growing concern over emerging plans for ventures trimmed up in green baubles to curry favour with the authorities.

Honingham Thorpe, a new 4,000 home “garden village” is a potential new settlement west of Norwich. It would also include a school and country park if given the go-ahead .There are strong rumours of more proposals with similar “green” credentials likely to emerge while the development free-for-all and inflated housing market continue.

I found it encouraging and timely as the Norfolk branch of the Campaign To Protect Rural England openly criticised the Honingham Thorpe “garden village” idea after close scrutiny, a process absent in so many planning cases despite al those calls to “have your say.” Pertinent points raised are headed by an unequivocal call for house building on brownfield sites rather than fields.

The CPRE recently published a report showing how nationally the use of greenfield land to build homes on had soared by almost 150pc between 2006 and 2017.That kind of revelation must send another big shudder of apprehension across Norfolk’s remaining pastures.

Skip's Aside: 

“How sad would be November if we had no knowledge of the spring?.”

I stumbled across that thought-provoking line while taking refuge from spiteful winds and sharp showers buffeting leaves into king-sized brown and gold confetti over an afternoon walk.

It can be heavy going towards end of the 11th month with its curious mixture of memories, marching, poppies falling, fireworks climbing, lights twinkling, shops enticing, children champing at the waiting bit and a countryside donning its best haunting gear.

Peer through the fog across a landscape you took for granted yesterday. Trees turn into monsters, raising crooked arms in either threat or supplication. You appreciate bleakness all the more when it’s time to leave it.

You glimpse what’s left of an old barn skulking behind a mountain of sugar-beet waiting for a lift to the factory. You imagine the throb of an ancient threshing machine and realise that tumbledown remnant once stood as a proud cathedral of labour. There’s no-one left now to worship.

Sorting wheat from chaff has joined a mundane list of farming rituals shorn of ceremony and community teamwork. Men and women of the fields are few and far between. “Living close to the land” is beginning to sound like the title of a melancholy chapter in an agricultural history book.

Perhaps late November and early December bring an extra regret at the way Norfolk’s rural treasures have been plundered, first by mechanisation and now by too much ugly development. Happily, there’s always the chance of bumping into an old friend or making a new one carrying a more optimistic outlook through end-of-year shadows.

As a regular passenger on the Trans-Norfolk Highway - well, the best bit between Cromer and Hunstanton - I relish special offers at this time of a vastly different kind of year. Items you may have taken for granted on previous outings now prompt deeper feelings about living in a special spot like this.

Geese arrow over moody marshes as breezes stiffen. Rusty leaves leap up and whirl around village war memorials decked out in new crimson. Turned-up collars are back in fashion on the coastal catwalk. The old game of “spot the local” is much easier to play.

We all need to make full use of of still-available time and space in Norfolk, cherishing natural glories and places where the rat-race can be shoved aside and replaced by freedom to concentrate on the big issues in a quiet and stimulating setting.

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