Wyndham action group

Wyndham Action Group

A History

 

Yeovil Country Park is Yeovil’s greatest treasure, stretching as it does from the top of Lyde Road around the edge of the town centre - including Wyndham Hill, Summerhouse Hill, Pen Hill, and Ninesprings before going on out to Lysander Road and Dorchester Road. Yeovil Country Park has been described as the town’s ‘Green Bypass’ but it is easy to forget that it almost didn’t exist. It took a 13 year battle by Wyndham Action Group (WAG), and others, to oppose a series of development projects before South Somerset District Council (SSDC) eventually established the Country Park.

How it all began
WAG began after a group of angry Yeovil residents held a wet and windy meeting on Wyndham Hill in May 1993. The council had said that a new Sainsbury’s store would be built on Old Town Station car park, but it soon became evident from the plans that the store was intended to be on the lower western flank of Wyndham Hill, known as Wyndham Fields. It was proposed that the Old Town Station car park would remain to serve the new store. It was further proposed that a service road would be built with two roundabouts, one at Penn Mill and one near Newton Road. This would have destroyed the much-loved walk along the old railway line along the south of the hill and would have required a retaining wall, up to 80 feet high, to keep the remaining hill in place. The road would also have had a link taking traffic out onto the junction around Wyndham Street, which was notoriously congested at that time. A local artist created an artist’s impression of what the proposed development would look like (see Gallery).

Allegedly, footfall from the new store would be beneficial to local businesses but WAG argued that evidence nationwide suggested that big superstores forced small local shops to close. The Chamber of Trade and the Independent Retailers Association supported the plan but objections were received from several shops in the area. Other groups opposing the development included the Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE), Transport 2000, South Coast Against Road-building (SCAR), Friends of the Earth, Earth First, and the Ramblers.

Strangely, at the same time as supporting a planned supermarket on Wyndham Hill, the council were actively opposing plans to build a Safeway (now Morrisons) store on Lysander Road. Safeway was already taking its case to Judicial Review, which they eventually won.

The initial WAG meeting led to around 50 people challenging the plan at a meeting of Somerset County Council (SCC). While a few councillors supported the objections, the majority were against and were supported by Paddy Ashdown MP, who said that Yeovil would die unless Sainsbury were allowed to build on that site.

WAG held a hugely successful meeting at the Methodist Church Hall around this time; it was standing room only. One speaker talked about how new roads create more traffic, not less. A representative from CPRE gave a presentation, with a huge map of the area and the before and after artwork laid over it on tracing paper. Meanwhile, WAG supporters attended numerous meetings of Town, District and County Councils.

By June 1993, WAG was setting up stalls in St John’s churchyard, started a petition, took names of people that wanted to support WAG, and collected donations towards WAG’s funds. The donations were used to create posters, leaflets, badges and stickers.

Supporters were asked to provide evidence of their experiences of walking on Wyndham Hill, with a huge response. Traffic surveys on Sherborne Road were undertaken and a geological survey was organised. A wildlife survey was conducted by WAG that showed there were endangered plants along the course of the old railway track; there were also signs of moths, bats and badgers that were supposed to be protected. A survey of shop keepers in the vicinity also suggested that local shopkeepers saw little benefit; they were more concerned about the impact of high rents and rates. WAG arranged sponsored walks around Ninesprings and Wyndham Hill to emphasise that the areas were intrinsically linked.

In August, the developer set up a marquee in the Old Town Station car park, opposite to what is now Wilkinsons but was then an empty shop after Tesco moved to its current location. WAG was allowed a stall to set out their objections.

In the early days, many WAG supporters took part in stunts like chaining bicycles to the doors of the council offices at Brympton Way. Direct action stunts helped to keep the campaign in the papers but, while the publicity was welcome, not all WAG’s supporters were happy that WAG was blamed for incidents of vandalism. It seemed that some councillors saw all of us as one homogenous group and accusations were made against WAG that the group felt were unjustified. Consequently, the local media often seemed biased against all protestors.

WAG agreed to distance itself from those groups who favoured direct action and adopted a formal constitution to determine how to conduct its activities. This constitution clarified the group’s objectives to protect “the escarpment to the south of Yeovil town centre” and to establish a conservation area to preserve it for future generations. The constitution also laid out how its committee would operate, how it would be elected, how it would manage its finances, and how it would maintain communications with its supporters. In the days before the Data Protection Act, WAG also felt that the constitution should also protect the privacy of its supporters since the group had faced attempts to force it to disclose their names. Although it was never stated in the constitution, WAG began to focus on lobbying activities and legal challenges to the developers rather than direct action.

WAG was buoyed in November 1993 when Yeovil Town Council voted overwhelmingly to oppose the scheme, but they were overruled by SSDC and SCC. WAG then attended council meetings in such numbers that many people had to remain outside. WAG also held a public meeting in Monmouth Hall that was equally crowded. Because of the publicity our campaign was attracting, the meeting got TV coverage that showed Paddy Ashdown facing some very difficult questions.
Despite differing approaches, the various groups involved in the protest had a lot of common ground and around forty supporters went on a coach trip to London. This group visited Liberal Democrat HQ and burnt a copy of their manifesto. They also visited the Sainsbury HQ and showed the petition, which now included around 4,500 names. The group later delivered the petition to the Houses of Parliament; Paddy Ashdown was not there but Denis Skinner MP obligingly accepted the petition on his behalf and gave it to him during the next Prime Minister’s Question Time.

Thanks to WAG’s “telephone tree” and regular newsletters, it had widespread public support and got national newspaper coverage. However, at the start of 1994, SSDC approved Sainsbury’s application. WAG took on a Judicial Review and legal challenges about the use of footpaths and these continued for many months. WAG organised picnics on the hill, skittle matches, quiz nights, jumble sales, organised petitions and public meetings. Letters were written to the press, to councillors, to government ministers, and anyone else the group thought might listen.
Despite SSDC objections, Safeway won their appeal and the development went ahead. WAG’s appeal against the Sainsbury application was turned down, but WAG continued with its application for Town Green status for Wyndham Hill.

In 1995, WAG continued its objections to the SCC Structure Plan which included a road around Wyndham Hill as part of A30 “improvements” (Stage IV Relief Road). However, WAG also supported SSDC in opposing plans by Orange to build a telecommunications mast on the top of Summerhouse Hill that would have been fifty feet tall.

WAG organised a photographic exhibition at Compton House; another picnic and kite flying on the hill, and a stall at the Environmental Fair. With the help a Transport 2000 representative, we also proposed a “light rail” tram system to carry people from our two railway stations, along what is now the Railway Walk, towards Westlands and the SSDC offices at Brympton Way.

Sainsbury withdrew their application, allegedly because of financial problems. However, another developer called the Peaston Group came forward with another plan to build a supermarket on the hill. This plan was approved by SSDC, but WAG continued the Town Green application and their various objections.

The Citizens Jury
In 1996, SSDC was one of seven Local Authorities to convene a Citizens Jury to review planning applications. Fourteen jurors were selected to reflect the local population and they were asked how they would improve the area around the Eastern end of Yeovil town centre. The Citizens Jury took place over five days, Two WAG committee members gave evidence and WAG entered formal objections to the Local Plan. The Citizens Jury made several recommendations, one of which was to abandon the Stage IV Relief Road. Another recommendation was to build a leisure complex in the area and WAG campaigned for the inclusion of a gym and bowling alley instead of just sedentary facilities such as a cinema and restaurants.

SSDC debated buying Wyndham Hill from the Newton Estate but nothing much changed on the ground. Earth First and other environmental protest groups occupied trees on Wyndham Hill and dug tunnels to evade eviction. The Peaston application faded away, but the Council were inviting applications from other developers. WAG’s Town Green application was still “being processed” and discussions continued about a light rail system.

The protestors were eventually removed from the hill and SSDC decided to back a leisure complex. There were four potential developers; two included the bottom of Wyndham Hill in their plans so WAG again opposed their proposals. A company called Greenbrook became the preferred developer. WAG had not originally objected to their plan as it did not impact the hill, but they did include a road development and the group objected to that.

In 1998, WAG attended the Examination in Public (EIP) into the SCC Structure Plan. The EIP recommended removal of Policy 57 regarding the road around Wyndham. WAG held an egg-rolling competition on Wyndham Hill and applied for the area to be classified as a Millennium Green.

The following year WAG held a public meeting to gain support for its Millennium Green application and got support from a surveyor. Sadly, the application was rejected. SSDC began negotiations to buy the land from Newton Estate and WAG tried to set up a Charitable Trust to preserve the area.

Turning the tide
As we entered the new century, the Relief Road was formally deleted from the Local Plan and discussions started about creating the Country Park. The following year, WAG’s attempt to set up a Trust was turned down by the Charities Commission and SSDC continued to negotiate to buy the land. WAG held discussions with council representatives about keeping the character of the hill as part of the Country Park.

In 2002, the Country Park was set up but the Relief Road was under discussion again. As there was no statutory protection for the Country Park, WAG remained vigilant. The group continued to monitor the Country Park project and update its supporters. In 2003, WAG worked with SSDC to plant new lime trees on the summit of Wyndham, paid for by the group. Unfortunately, these trees were destroyed by vandals. Another set of lime trees were planted in 2004 but, despite increased protection, these were also damaged by vandals. It was agreed that the Country Park was now well enough established and there was no longer an immediate threat to the hill. It seemed that WAG had achieved the objectives in its constitution, so began the process of disbanding the group.

 

Many thanks to Dave Osborne for the above.

 

gallery

 


Courtesy of Dave Osborne

A poster published by the Wyndham Action Group featuring before and after visions of what might happen to Wyndham Hill had the Sainsbury's development been built.