‘Those who stand up for their own backyard are reminding us that we live in a small country’.
Recent comments on Diggle News and other media outlets have directly accused those opposed to the relocation of Saddleworth school to Diggle of being ‘NIMBYs’ and this has also been implicit in the Council’s weary or irritated responses to arguments against this proposal. The term has clearly been used to suggest a parochial, narrow-minded, even selfish attitude which puts local concerns above the interests of Saddleworth’s children.
As both a parent of children who will attend Saddleworth school and a resident of Diggle I would like to try and explain what lies behind local opposition to the building of the school on the proposed site and why this might encourage readers to reconsider what NIMBYism means.
The proposed development is in ‘my back yard’ in the sense that, if it were built, the school would not spoil the view from my own house but it would disfigure the landscape close to where I live. The impact of this development on the character of the Diggle valley would be devastating: the open farm-land which now borders the village to the south-east between Huddersfield Road and the Huddersfield Narrow Canal would be transformed by the erection of a two and three-storey structure on a green-field site right next to the road. The sports facilities for the school will be built on pasture-land in the green-belt, eroding the important green border between built-up areas (in open contravention of both national and local planning guidance and plans). Currently there is an unbroken view from the centre of the village across fields to the Huddersfield Narrow Canal, and from thence to the ridge-line hamlets and walled pasture-land stretching up to the dramatic edge of the moors at Running Hill. This pastoral setting would be utterly transformed by the levelling of the land necessary for sports fields, the accompanying erection of flood-lighting and fencing and the likely use of artificial surfaces such as asphalt, astro-turf and concrete. The plans include a large, two-storey sports block, to be built on the green-belt (again, against national planning guidance) which will dominate the landscape to the east of Huddersfield Road and will be visible from vantage points all around the Diggle Valley. These developments will have a significant negative impact on the character of the landscape and the setting of the village, they could also affect rare and threatened upland bird species associated with the South Pennine Moors Special Protection Area.
Because I’m fortunate enough to have this distinctive and beautiful landscape in my ‘back yard’ I’m very concerned about the prospect of its desecration, but so should everyone in Oldham. Saddleworth’s importance to the borough should not be overlooked: not only does it provide a uniquely dramatic landscape, a historically important built environment and habitats of international importance, it’s also, for these and other reasons, a vital amenity for the people of Oldham as a ‘green lung’ and recreational space. It could be thought of as an extensive ‘back yard’ for Oldham, which is why the Council claims to place such a high value on its contribution to the borough’s green infrastructure. If the school is built on the proposed site a significant part of the diverse landscape which makes up Saddleworth’s character will be disfigured. The vital promises repeatedly made by Oldham Metropolitan Borough Council to favour development on brown-field sites and not to develop the green-belt will have been broken, setting a dangerous precedent which could well see ill-judged and inappropriate development all over Saddleworth and the erosion of the green envelopes separating built-up areas.
The reason, we are told, why these objections must be disregarded is because Saddleworth needs a new school to meet the ‘aspirations’ of the district’s children. As a parent of children who will attend the proposed school I, of course, want them to be educated in a building which is ‘fit for purpose’ but I also want them to grow up able to appreciate an environment that is beautiful, inspiring and unique. I want them to have a ‘first-class education’ but not at the expense of the landscape and community they are growing up in. I don’t want them to be educated in decrepit buildings or to travel across Oldham to find a school place (the only alternatives, we are told, if the school is not build in Diggle) but nor do I want the distinctiveness and character of the place in which they live to be gradually eroded until its coherence and identity is lost.
What makes this situation worse is that there is a perfectly viable alternative to the site at Diggle, put forward by a local architect, to build the new school on the existing site at Uppermill. This proposal has been dismissed by the Council on the grounds, it is said, of ‘cost’ and ‘practicality’. The Council’s view appears to be based on an assessment of the site undertaken by consultants Halliday Meecham in 2008. According to OMBC’s FAQ document released to address concerns about the school (the only means of gaining any information about this survey) Halliday Meacham ‘recommended not reusing the existing site due to the constrained nature of the existing access road and the likely operational disruption to the School during the construction works’. Both of these issues have been addressed in the new plan for the school at Uppermill and workable solutions proposed. In addition, as this survey was undertaken as part of plans being brought forward under the Building Schools for the Future programme, in which the school in Diggle would have been built to the rear of the site of the former Shaw’s pallet works, neither the current Diggle nor the new Uppermill proposals are comparable to the plans assessed within Halliday Meecham’s brief. No rigorous cost comparison or feasibility study has been published by the Council to substantiate its claims that the Uppermill site is unsuitable. What is clear, and has been acknowledged by the Council, is that it will secure what it hopes will be significant additional revenue for a land swap in which the Uppermill site will be acquired by the current owners of the proposed Diggle site for a development of ‘aspirational homes’. In this scenario it is not only my back yard but those of Uppermill residents, who will be faced with a housing development on a scale unprecedented in recent years, which will be threatened. If the Council is convinced, as it claims, that the case for building the school at Diggle is compelling and the alternative the fantasy of NIMBYs, why does it not make public the survey work on which it bases such claims, or publish a proper cost comparison so that its claims can be scrutinised by residents, parents and pupils of the school?
In the meantime, those of us who care deeply about our locality and wish to protect and preserve it are dismissed as NIMBYs but the defence of the ‘back yard’ is a vital task if future generations are to enjoy the benefits of the landscape we now see around us. As Griff Rhys Jones has said: ‘Those who stand up for their own backyard are reminding us that we live in a small country. If you do not look after your own backyard, who do you expect to do it for you? This backyard belongs to us all’.
Nick Cox, Saddleworth Resident
The views and comments expressed in letters to the editor and in comments on posts do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of the editor. Letters may be edited.