Planning reform test case village fears for future
Campaigners who have spent years fighting for the survival of their rural village fear they could be the first victims of the government's controversial planning reforms.
Great Ryburgh in Norfolk is an ordinary-looking rural village a few miles from north Norfolk's "gold coast".
But it is a place with a strong sense of community where the Big Society was operating long before David Cameron coined the phrase.
Two years ago, faced with the closure of most of its amenities, locals got together and reopened the village shop as a community venture, earning it the nickname "the village that refused to die".
But the latest battle facing the villagers is one of a very different kind and one which many fear could have ramifications for villages the length and breadth of the country - the fight to protect the greenbelt.
The fight is over an eight-acre piece of meadow and grassland in the Wensum Valley which a local plant wants to turn into a lorry park and fuelling depot.
Locals argued it was madness to allow such a development at a beauty spot popular with bird spotters, tourists and locals which forms part of the Wensum Valley. Parts of the valley have been designated as both a European Special Area of Conservation and a Site of Special Scientific Interest.
But last month the plan was given the go-ahead despite strong local opposition, with campaigners convinced local planners came down on the side of the plant because more weight was given to the much-debated national draft planning reforms than their 1,000-name petition.
The decision is thought to be the first reported case of the government reforms being used to influence a council's planning decision.
The draft reforms are detailed in the National Planning Policy Framework.
The framework aims to give local people a greater say in what gets built in their neighbourhood, but also obliges councils to make decisions which favour economic growth.
"I think we have to look at localism as the right to say 'Yes' to a development, but never to say 'No'," said campaigner Matt Champion.
"This whole area of meadow and grassland will become concrete.
"This isn't about helping local industry, this is not a new lorry park, not a new wash bay and not new fuel storage.
"The company currently have all those facilities located less than four miles away on a brownfield site - a site that used to be an old landfill.
"This isn't going to provide jobs, this isn't it's not going to help them develop the company and won't help housing."
The lorry park application was put in by the Crisp Maltings Group, a plant which malts barley for the food and brewing industries which already occupies 16 acres on the edge of the village. It has had some kind of presence in the village for two hundred years.
The company does not think its development contradicts the aims of the government policy.
While no new jobs will be created, the company says the expansion will safeguard the existing 24 jobs and increase demand for locally-grown barley.
It also points to a reduction in lorry journeys and state-of-the-art flood and contamination protections to ensure there is no risk of fuel from the lorries ending up in the river Wensum.
Just how much weight the councillors who approved the extension gave the new policy is difficult to gauge.
North Norfolk District Council would not talk about how the decision was made, but in a letter to the local paper said the policy was one of many considerations.
One councillor who voted against the proposal told the BBC she thought the new policy had influenced the decision, and campaigners are in little doubt.
"We can never be sure it was just that, but it was the new factor," said Mr Champion.
"We don't really think, as this is still in consultation, that it was right and proper to give it that weight."
The apparent tension between localism and economic growth worries those who have been fighting the reforms at a national level.
The development in Great Ryburgh is just the kind of unprotected green field location which campaigners such as the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) think is most threatened by the planning reforms.
"The concern is that the National Planning Policy Framework is incredibly skewed in favour of development at every turn," argues Shaun Spiers of the (CPRE).
"It's not at all what we expected when the government came in committed to localism.
"A presumption in favour of sustainable development really means a presumption in favour of development.
"The main purpose of planning policy, which is to serve the public interest, has been changed in this framework, to make its main purpose to serve economic development over other ends."
Planning minister Greg Clark told File on 4 that he could not comment directly on the situation faced by Great Ryburgh, and insisted the policy was still open for consultation.
As a minister he may have a role if the village campaigners appeal against the decision.
But despite the pro-growth message in the reforms, Mr Clark insists the countryside at large will be safeguarded.
"The planning system has always been there to make sure that we have the right development in the right places and its absolutely essential that shouldn't be at the expense of the countryside," he says.
"The countryside is very precious and we want to make sure it continues to be - we want to protect and conserve it."