CONCRETE OR FEATHERS?

25 Mar

It’s been a bad week. The Tory Chancellor has decided to take money away from pensioners ( I’m a pensioner) and give lots of money to millionaires.( I’m not a millioniare!)  Then my wife, Chris, and I found out that Wimpey’s want to build yet another housing estate on the quiet fields opposite our house. No doubt they will get their way as the Government, in its wisdom, has relaxed the planning laws that used to protect our countryside from insensitive over- development. Then we got the devastating news that the court case against an out- of- town superstore complex on another green field site, has been lost. So our small, friendly high street with its selection of independent retailers is to be put in serious jeopardy by the “alien” invader whose only interest is in making money rather than protecting local communities.

I moved to Skelton in Cleveland just over 5 years ago after living in the urban conurbation of Tyneside for 35 years. It was a big change. I exchanged the vast array of amenities and facilities of the city for the quieter more intimate life of living in the semi-countryside. Some would say I was now living in “the sticks.” I moved there when I got married and when I finally retired from the job that was tying me to Tyneside. Although it is only a few miles from industrial Teesside, Skelton is very close to the coast, the Cleveland Hills and the North York Moors. It is just up the road from the charming, old-fashioned Victorian resort of Saltburn- by- the- Sea. So we don’t have a huge array of shops, we cannot choose from a wide selection of films, plays and entertainments, we cannot watch premier League football, but we do have peace, calm and fresh air and we do have lots of lovely countryside on our doorstep. The village itself is friendly and down to earth. Everyone says “hello” and passes the time of day. In the village centre we often bump into each other at meeting places such as the little branch library, the Post office, the Coop or the pub. It’s not a particularly picturesque village. We don’t have a babbling stream or charming clusters of thatched cottages. But it a pleasant, friendly place and worth wanting to preserve. The High Street is situated on a hillside and inbetween the buildings , one gets distant views of the sea. We have a village green, the remains of a medieval whipping post, an old church ( along with a newer Victorian one), an old Board school, now converted into a house, and a selection of dwellings from the last 3 centuries. Skelton also has a castle but the original structure has made way for an 18th/19th century grand house set in extensive grounds. Up until the time of Henry VIII this was the baronial home of the powerful De Brus family whose relatives north of the border, spawned the famous freedom- gaining Scottish King: Robert the Bruce.

Unfortunately the present owner of Skelton castle seems largely to be an “absentee landlord” and has little connection with the local community. This is where our problem probably lies. The land owned by the castle estate is slowly being sold off to developers. Housing estates are now spreading down the hill like a stain. Green grass is turning into concrete. Wild flowers, insects and birds are being replaced by bricks and mortar and the inevitable cars. Ironically, the latest estate is called Castle View but most of the newcomers will just have a view of houses and double garages. One of our neighbours, lives in an older property called Woodland View. But the wood is nowhere in sight and the name of the house seems like a sick joke.

I know this post is now starting to sound like a classic piece of NIMBYISM. New houses and shops are fine so long as they don’t spoil my view and upset my status quo. I also know that change is inevitable. However, the questions have to be asked — How much development can one area take before it is ruined for everyone? The developers just want to make their money. Do they really care about destroying the peace, wiping out the wildlife or ruining the quality of life of the people who actually have to live in the place where they are building. Does our absentee Lord of the Manor really care about the people living in the village around his frequently empty castle? Changes and “developments” have to be sensitive and in keeping with the scale and nature of the area where they are taking place. I doubt if the Head of Wimpeys or the councillors on the Planning Committee would like to have a housing estate or an out-of-town shopping development stuck on to green field sites opposite them.

Which brings me to the pheasants. In our area we are lucky enough to still have a lot of birdlife. Even just in our garden we have a pair of blue tits taking up home in the nest-box, a pair of Turtle-doves cooing in the apple tree, and blackbirds, thrushes and sparrows regularly washing in the bird bath. The nearby fields often have pheasants and grouse wandering across them. Unfortunately many of them get mown down my motorists and end up as  colourful but sad feathery corpses for cars to negotiate around. The new Asda superstore, petrol station and giant car-park is to be built on one of these fields. Asda is part of the American Wallmart “family”. It makes it sound all cosy and friendly doesn’t it? Who wouldn’t want a friendly family moving in next to them? Unfortunately the image will not match up to the reality. The tenant farmer who has been growing crops on that field has now been ordered not to sow any more. So it’s goodbye swathes of swaying wheat and hello polluting petrol pumps. The hedges will be uprooted, so its goodbye birds, berries and wildflowers and hello cars, noise and litter. A huge shed will rise on this green field site completely dwarfing all the buildings in the surrounding area. It will be goodbye pheasants, hello concrete. That retail shed will start to suck the trade and life out of our village. Independent retailers’ livelihoods will be threatened. Our village community life will be seriously at risk as people opt for the cheaper, big store alternative away from the High Street. This has happened and is still happening up and down the country. I hear Holmfirth, the Pennine town made famous by “TheLast of the Summer Wine ” TV series, is being menaced by a giant Tescos development. So is Hay-on-Wye in the south. My friend Vic from Brighton, is still depressed and devastated by the building of a large new football stadium and all its accompanying buildings and roads in an area of the South Downs designated as being of “Outstanding beauty” and ” Special Scientific interest.” I thought we had won the argument for protecting our  High Streets and countryside against car-orientated out- of- town develpments. But it seems I have been naive. Despite the intervention of Mary Portas, the government’s High Street “Czar”, it seems that our town and village centres are still under severe threat. Despite all the work of  Peter Scott and David Attenbrough, it seems our wildlife and beauty spots are still regarded by many as expendable. The argument for preserving the centres of our valuable communities is far from won. So is the one about protecting our precious countryside and wildlife. Apparently, our current Tory- dominated Coalition government wants to ensure that planning regulations no longer hold back economic growth irrespective of the cost to fragile environments.

In a sick PR stunt, our local council of Redcar and Cleveland, involved innocent local primary children in the naming of the lane that will lead to the green-field superstore development. The naive children decided to christen it “Pheasant Fields Lane”. It makes sense — as the field that the road runs alongside often has pheasants running and flying around in it. However, if the Councillors and developers get their way, there will be no more pheasants because there will be no more field. They will just be seeing a larger number of squashed birds on the road as the traffic vastly increases. As a writer to our local newspaper noted, maybe they should call it “Dead Pheasants Road” instead. In a contest between feathers and concrete there is only one winner. Unfortunately, the same has to be said about a contest between a small village High Street and a giant retailer. The landowner, the developers and the outside retailer will all make a heap of money but the people and wild-life of our area will be the ones who will pay a heavy price.

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