RESIDENTS in the Loxley Valley are on the alert.
After rebuffing attempts to win community support for a housing estate in the valley bottom, they are monitoring the Government’s controversial draft planning strategy with apprehension.
Across the country, fears have been expressed that the proposed framework will tip the balance in favour of housing developers, encouraging them to build in the countryside instead of ‘brownfield’ locations.
The Loxley Valley has the protection of being in Sheffield’s green belt - but this is loosened to a degree because the site at the heart of community concern was once the Hepworth Refractory, and is now a ramshackle collection of derelict industrial buildings.
Developers can argue, and have argued, that a well-designed housing estate is a much more attractive proposition than an eyesore in beautiful surroundings.
And another pressure is also beginning to emerge. As part of the Government’s suggested policy changes, Sheffield is being told it must ensure that land is available for hundreds more homes to meet population forecasts.
At present, planning permission has been granted for more than 10,000 homes that have not yet been built. But over a half are apartments - and housebuilders maintain that there is no longer the big demand , and such schemes are no longer viable .
Inevitably, they want attractive locations where development costs are lower .
But much of the land in the east of Sheffield is contaminated by the industry it once accommodated. Much of the land to the west is in the strictly controlled Peak District National Park.
Sheffield has a strong record of defending its green belt, and there is no doubt that the council will resist attempts to build on such land unless the traditional criterion of exceptional circumstances can be demonstrated.
But it is likely to find housing developers looking increasingly at ‘greenfield sites’ without that protection in areas such as Mosborough, Beighton, Woodhouse, Deepcar and Wadsley.
In some cases, this would not necessarily be out of the question. Council policy is to ensure homes are built in sustainable locations - in places where residents have easy access to public transport, doctors, schools and other amenities.
Sustainable is the key word all-round.
The Government is emphasising a presumption in favour of sustainable development as part of a strategy that aims to cut through planning red tape to encourage house building for the sake of people wanting homes and for the sake of the economy.
Already there has been vociferous criticism in other parts of the country that the balance is being tipped too far in favour of developers. Some fear green belts will come under threat, even though the National Planning Policy Framework seeks to maintain their protection.
Yet nervousness that developers are being given a green light to try their hand has reached the north of Sheffield where Bovis Homes bought the old refractory site at Storrs Bridge a few years ago.
The company found formidable and well-organised opponents, who had already spelled out the basis for development.
The local community had published the Loxley Valley Design Statement in 2003 “to show how it could take place without damaging the precious local environment”.
In a statement, the Loxley Valley Protection Society and the Loxley Valley Design Group add: “Since then we have worked hard to support the principles that were voiced by local people. There are examples of outstandingly good design and planning that have enhanced this beautiful area – for example, the sensitive redevelopment of the old corn mill at Malin Bridge, and the new Bradfield village hall.
“Sadly, we have also had to battle with developers who have no respect for the area and seem interested only in maximising their profits.
“Bovis Homes say they want to build a new township of approximately 500 houses on the old Hepworth site. This would dwarf surrounding villages, swamp the area with even more traffic, overload local services and significantly increase Sheffield’s carbon footprint.
“For years, they have refused to submit these plans to proper scrutiny through the planning system, leaving a derelict eyesore to blight the valley.
“Now we know why. If the Government’s plans go through, local communities will be denied a voice and developers will be able to wreck the countryside in pursuit of profit. The situation is extremely worrying and the damage would be irreversible.”
Bovis say they still own the land at Storrs Bridge, but have no immediate plans to move forward with new proposals.
Meanwhile, the council is studying the new draft framework and will make its views known to the Government. Head of development services Les Sturch said the authority was pleased with much of the content, such as the emphasis on sustainable development and the promise to involve local people in decision making.
At the same time, there were issues that needed clarity “to make sure there is the right balance between sustainable development and economic growth”.
Without that definition, there was a risk of planning decisions being overwhelmed by legal challenges, said Mr Sturch.
While alarm bells are sounding in other parts of the country, where expanses of green fields could tempt developers, the situation in Sheffield appears much more low key at the moment. But residents in some of the most beautiful parts of the city are on their guard.