Sunday, 13 January 2008

Avebury development proposal - failing to uphold world heritage site status?

This is going to be a runner that deserves attention. People need to live in houses, but heritage sites need protecting. There are plenty of other places to live, but only one Avebury. Expect heated exchanges...

From the Telegraph

Conservationists and locals all agree that that the dilapidated Bonds Garage, and the fleet of second hand vans that surrounds it, are an eyesore that does no credit to the picturesque village of Avebury.
But the proposal to knock down the 1930s garage and house and to replace them with five new houses has set the Wiltshire village (population 486) on a collision course with the most influential conservation bodies in the land and even the world.
The reason is that Avebury contains one of the largest megalithic monuments in Europe and the garage is sited within 200 yards of the outer rim of the stone circle thought to be 4,500 years old.
Houses have existed within Avebury's stone circle - far larger than the one at Stonehenge - since the Dark Ages, making it one of Europe's most remarkable prehistoric sites.

A number of cottages were knocked down in the 1930s by the Dundee marmalade magnate and archaeologist, Alexander Keiller, who also dug up and re-erected many of the stones.

More cottages were removed by the National Trust, current owner of the monument.

It was Keiller who paid for Bonds Garage to be removed from the circle of stones in the 1930s and relocated to its present site north of the village, where it is now backed by a mobile home park.

It remains, however, within the Avebury World Heritage site and that is what has drawn objections to the proposed new homes from English Heritage, the National Trust, the Avebury Society, the county council's world heritage site officer and Icomos-UK, the body which advises the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) on the creation of world heritage sites.

Kate Fielden of the Wiltshire Archaeological Society, which is also objecting to the proposal, said: "What is there at present is an eyesore but the only way the planning system allows the mistakes of the past to be rectified is when another planning application comes along. What is proposed now is too big and will spoil the approach to Avebury - which can only be spoilt once.

"These houses will be there for hundreds of years and could provoke similar development in an internationally protected site. They will stand out like a sore thumb. The planners should be seeking to put something better there rather than something equally obtrusive."

Avebury parish council and residents of the mobile home park behind the garage, however, are wholly in favour of the proposed new homes.

Jennifer Baldry, chairman of the parish council, who has lived in the village all her life, said: "This site has been a problem site for some time. It is run down and scruffy and five smart houses would look far better than what's there at present.

"We are fed up with being told we cannot change. We have lost our village school. We are on the list for the closure of our post office and we are afraid of what will happen if we don't allow the village to move on.

"It might affect the odd view but so do other places. I take the view that we do need some new people because the village is going to pot. Keiller used dynamite to move the trees growing in the stone circle. Now you are not allowed to touch anything."

The parish council voted unanimously in favour of the plan - after two members and the parish clerk, who had an interest in the development because they lived in the mobile home park, had left the room.

The proposal now goes before Kennet district council on Thursday with an officer's recommendation for approval. Conservationists warn there is still a possibility of it being "called in" for public inquiry or the council being taken to judicial review for failing to uphold the statutory protection of the world heritage site.

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