It has certainly come as something of a shock to the rest of the village as well. We have been written about in the Sunday papers, discussed on the television and seen our narrow village street (singular) further congested with vans sprouting all manner of strange antennae and satellite dishes. We have been hailed as champions in the struggle against bad planning on the one hand and NIMBY’s on the other. As one elderly resident who stopped me in the lane enquired, ‘what exactly is a NIMBY, and will I be expected to pay an annual subscription’? And why has Great Ryburgh suddenly found itself in this position? Well, on the 8th September North Norfolk District Council provisionally approved the development of an eight acre lorry park on a green field site in the village. In one of the first cases of its type the Officers flagged the new National Planning Policy Framework as a key material consideration and, in the face of over one thousand local objectors, the plan was passed.
The shock of the subsequent media coverage pales when compared to the shock with which the village received the news that the lorry park has been approved. You see, for the villagers the plan was a non-starter from the very beginning. They, and I, really didn’t think the developer stood a chance. To understand exactly why we felt this way you must first understand a bit more about our little Norfolk village. It isn’t quite like the other villages around here. It’s not that we all have webbed feet and the surrounding villagers don’t – or any other particularly physical Norfolk trait. It is just that, in the middle of our village, stands a factory that covers over sixteen acres.
The Crisp Malting factory has been in our village for over a century and is the largest independent malster in the country. Here they produce the malted barley that is used in everything from speciality beers to breakfast products using, in many cases, traditional techniques that date back well into the nineteenth century. Exactly why the malting was established here in Great Ryburgh is one of those mysteries of the past; much to speculate upon but little in the way of fact. In all likelihood it was simply because this is the heart of good barley growing country and, like the crops it uses, the factory grew too. At the end of the Second World War the factory covered a little over five acres, all located next to the now closed railway line. However, since the 1970s the factory has expanded fast, with new sheds, warehouses and silos added almost every couple of years, until it now covers a site that is almost as large as the surrounding village.
Perhaps surprisingly, this really hasn’t caused too much in the way of past conflict. The development that has taken place has all been within the existing boundaries of the site and few people have objected to the factory’s expansion. Indeed, it has even had advantages, with Great Ryburgh being one of the few villages in the area to benefit from mains gas. In general terms the factory and the village have rubbed along pretty well. Until now, that is.
Almost exactly two years ago Crisp Maltings submitted a planning application to develop an area of meadows and pasture in the village into a lorry park, wash-bay and fuel storage facility. To begin with the village really wasn’t that worried. We objected, the parish council objected and village meetings were held. However, it was really all a little half hearted. To be honest we didn’t really think the development had a chance of being approved and were confident that the District Council planners would throw it out. After all, the company already had a lorry park and all the other facilities located on a brown-field site less than three miles away. The new site was partially located on land designated as environmentally sensitive, was in the middle of the Wensum valley and threatened both an SSSI and a European designated Special Area of Conservation. The new development would see the factory actually grow by almost 50% - and actually become larger than the village itself. Which planners in their right mind would approve such a development? You may then imagine our surprise when, in January 2011, North Norfolk District Council approved the development.
The villager’s immediate response was one of shock and outrage. How could this have happened? Who let it happen? Did the Parish Council do enough? The answer, of course, was that we had not reckoned upon the power of big business to influence the local planning debate. Although Crisp Maltings are not a very large local employer they have a considerable turnover that is largely based upon agriculture. In a county like Norfolk, agricultural interests, despite playing a smaller and smaller part in the local economy, still punch well above their weight. However, once the dust had settled the feeling of bewilderment in the village turned to one of anger and determination to halt the development. This, as far as we were all concerned, was a development too far.
It may have been a naïve reaction on the part of the local community but Great Ryburgh has a long history of refusing to accept defeat. A few years ago the village lost its pub, school, shop and post office all within the space of a few months. Things looked very bleak indeed. However, the village pulled together and fought back. We formed a community interest company, bought a property and re-open both the village shop and post office. We encouraged and supported a local chef to renovate and re-open the village pub. We strongly supported the conversion of the empty school into a children’s nursery. Indeed, we were so good at reinvigorating the local community that the regional media christened Great Ryburgh as ‘the village that refused to die’. In short, we are as stubborn as hell and fight hard for what we believe in. And fight we did.
To be absolutely honest, it really wasn’t as hard a fight as it should have been. The developer had been so sure of the application being passed, based upon a long history of no opposition from the village, that many of the supporting documents were sadly inadequate. Within the space of a few months new and extended environmental reports had to be commissioned, new plans supplied and doubt had been cast upon the legality of the whole initial decision. Pressured by a petition of over 1000 local objectors, and over 100 individual complaints, North Norfolk District Council were forced to return the whole matter to their development committee for redetermination.
To say that the village was overjoyed at this decision would be an overstatement. We knew that the District Council were still, for whatever reasons, keen to see the application passed. We also knew that we still had a fight on our hands. However, it was a fight that we now thought we could undertake on a reasonably fair basis. We knew the schemes weaknesses and planned to exploit them to the full. However, we were in for one more, very big, surprise.
When the Officers report was published seven days prior to the meeting of the North Norfolk Development Committee we were alarmed to note that the draft NPPF was being given prominence as a key material consideration. Indeed, in the ten page report over 10% of the space was devoted to ‘ministerial advice’; advice that appeared to cast our opposition aside and leave a clear run for the developer. At the meeting, held in Cromer on September 8th, the officer’s verbal report to the Development Committee further stressed the importance of the NPPF in reaching a decision and stated that, quite simply, the strength of local opposition was not a material consideration. Unsurprisingly the village lost. The lorry park, that will see over eight acres of our village concreted over, was passed almost without question.
So where then does this now leave the village? Well, a few things have changed over the last two years and, perhaps more importantly, in the last few weeks. We now have a village full of planning experts, and the NPPF is the subject of discussion at the school bus stop in the morning and the post office queue in the afternoon. A copy can now be found in the bar of the village pub, nestled between the out of date copies of Farmers Weekly and Country Life. Indeed, questions surrounding the NPPF can be heard almost everywhere.
And they are good questions too. If the NPPF is really about housing, employment and economic growth why did it allow this development, which is about none of these things, to be passed in the face of such massive local opposition? It is a question that echoes the debate that has been raging for the last week in the national media. I suppose the simple answer, and one that we have seen firsthand, is that this new policy isn’t anything to do with local people and vague concepts of localism. It won’t protect us, our village or our community. All it will do is enable those with power, either nationally or locally, to push through the developments they want. The local voice, it would appear, will be allowed to say YES to development – but never NO. For the village perhaps one of the greatest ironies was a discovery made late in the campaign. David Thompson, the Chief Executive of Crisp Maltings (and non-Executive Director of Persimmon Homes PLC) was appointed by the Cabinet Office to the ‘Big Society Task Force on Deregulation’. We now suspect that if he entered the annual gardening competition he’d win that as well. As for our view of the NPPF, well Greg Clark and his speech writers tell us that this won’t lead to the concreting over of the countryside. Well Greg, why don’t you came to Norfolk and we will show you almost nine acres of green fields and meadow that will be.
As for the village and the future of the lorry park, what happens next remains to be seen. We really don’t give up without a fight. The village is most certainly wiser. It is certainly more cynical as well. The attitude of ‘rubbing along’ with the Malting factory died and was buried at some point in the last two years. It has been replaced with an attitude of betrayal and antipathy. The label of NIMBY has also been taken quite hard by many in the village. We already HAVE a 16 acre factory in our backyard. We simply didn’t want it on the patio as well.