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"Deeply Damaging"

How English Heritage described the development of The Elms in 2012.

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"Important Open Space"

How South Oxfordshire District Coucil classify The Elms

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English Heritage's View - Ignored!

In October 2012 English Heritage undertook a site vist to Elms Field and subsequently produced a damning report regarding any potential development of it.  However, despite being sent directly to Thame Town Clerk within 5 days of a site visit, this document has never been shown to Thame Town Councillors!

Why Has This Been Ignored?

This document was produced a matter of days after a consultation at The Elms attended by 2 representatives of English Heritage, Jamie Preston the then Conservation Officer to South Oxfordshire District Council (SODC) and representatives from the Nash Partnership who are planning consultants employed directly by Rectory Homes Ltd with the goal of helping to gain approval for development.

This letter was received by Thame Town Clerk (Ms Helen Stewart) but has never been shown to the Town Councillors because the town clerk ruled that the document was 'late' and therefore invalid.  We ask whether a document such as this can ever be 'late' especially as it was a received just 5 days after the site visit.  We believe this document was incorrectly withheld from the Town Council.

Key Points From The Report

The complete letter is further down this page and available for download here but at a glance, here are the key takeway points from the letter:

  1. Elms Field is 'a deliberately planned informal parkland'.
  2. Elms Field is 'considered to make an important contribution to the setting of the Elms' house which is Grade II listed.
  3. The Elms house architecture 'can only properly be understood [when sited in this] context'.
  4. Elms Field 'makes a valuable contribution to the significance of the conservation area' of Thame.
  5. Elms Field is 'not merely of local importance' due to it being one of a few surviving examples of its construction.
  6. English Heritage agree with the 2006 Conservation Appraisal assessment which described how vital the parkland is to the Elms house and the rest of the park.
  7. Engligh Heritage 'consider that the proposed development would be deeply damaging to the signifcance of the park and the setting of the Elms itself'
  8. Any proposed courtyard development 'will not read anything remotely like a stable'
  9. English Heritage 'do not consider the development necessary to sustain the Elms or the Parkland'
  10. Any development of the land will harm the heritage asset and its setting.

"In conlusion the proposals are considered to be deeply damaging to both the setting of the Elms and the conservation area as a whole.  We would strongly advise that alternative sites are pursued in order to meet the town's housing needs.'

- Richard Peats, Historic Buildings and Areas Adviser, English Heritage

Full Transcript

Here is the full transcript of the letter dated 25th October 2012 and available as a PDF here.

 

Dear Ms Stewart

Following a site visit on 18th October it is clear that the assessment document does not adequately understand the significance of the site. Although there are no known documentary sources that explain the origins of the park the way that the site is laid out, with informal planting of specimen trees such as Mulberry and Cedar, and the ha-ha constructed around the house clearly indicate that this is a piece of deliberately planned informal parkland. The laying out of such parks were relatively common in early 19th century on the outskirts of small towns and villages, particularly in the towns and villages around London which have now been absorbed in the suburbs, for example Dollis Hill house in Willesden (now a public park and much municipalised), and Amos Grove, Southgate (covered in housing in the 1930s). The character of the planting suggests that it is likely to be broadly contemporary with the house and constructed relatively soon after the enclosure of Thame parish in 1826. The way that the ha-ha runs around both south and east sides of the house strongly suggests that the house was intended to command views to both south and east and therefore that the boundary dividing the park in two shown in the 1881 OS map was either a later addition or nothing more substantial than a run of park railings. There looks to have been deliberate tree screening around the perimeter of the park, creating an enclosed idealised rural landscape and the 1881 map appears to show a circuitous walk around part of the edge of the park.

The park is therefore considered to make an important contribution to the setting of the Elms (a grade II listed building) as this building was designed to look out over this private park and its design and architecture can only properly be understood in this context. The park also makes a valuable contribution to the significance of the conservation area as it records the way in which the town developed in the early 19th century. The phenomena of the enclosure of land and the creation of modest parks attached to large houses on the periphery of towns and villages in the later 18th and early 19th centuries is a common theme in south-east England but few examples survive as intact as this. It is therefore not merely of local importance. The importance of the Elms and the surrounding land was recognised in 2006 when the land was included within the conservation area. The 2006 Conservation Appraisal assesses the importance of the land as follows:

The extensive grounds of The Elms and the adjoining recreation ground/playing field form a very important green space within the town. The grounds of The Elms, whilst not publicly accessible, make a strong contribution to the conservation area in views from the playing fields behind John Hampden School and from Elms Road. They also form a vital part of the setting of The Elms itself. Together these two green spaces frame the south-eastern side of the conservation area. They also separate Park St. and Nelson St. from the modern housing on Elms Road and Broadwater Avenue and so not only create an important part of the character of this part of the conservation area but also maintain its historic integrity as a one-time fringe of the town. Bringing these two areas into the conservation area will formally acknowledge the role they play and help focus attention on the historic character of the area should development around or on them ever be proposed.

We would concur with this assessment.

We consider that the proposed development would be deeply damaging to the significance of the park and the setting of the Elms itself. This is intended to be a private landscape which the house commands. Important views are not restricted to the two relatively narrow view cones shown on the site analysis but are panoramic, encompassing the whole of the park. While a modern screen of Leylandii block views out from the house to the east these are a modern addition and historically views out in this direction were important. The addition of a terrace of linked villas to the west and south east would therefore be major intrusions on vistas out from the Elms. Although partly screened by the Leylandii the roofs of the proposed courtyard development to the west will be clearly visible and, as it will be far larger than the house, will not read as anything remotely like a stable that is ancillary to the house.

Transforming the parkland into a public park would jeopardise the continued use of the Elms as a single dwelling, its most sustainable use. It is unlikely that a potential owner with the means to buy such a large house who would be willing to accept the lack of privacy entailed by having a back garden looking out over a public park and housing development. To remain viable the house would need to be enclosed by a fence, blocking views out from the main reception rooms and severing the visual link from the park, gravely damaging its setting. Alternative uses, such as division into flats or offices are likely to be highly damaging to the historic fabric.

Furthermore, we do not consider the development necessary to sustain the Elms or the parkland. The property has recently changed hands and the price paid should have reflected the maintenance deficit to both house and landscape. A key principle of enabling development, as set out in our 2008 guidance on the subject, is that it should not harm the heritage asset or its setting, which in our view is not the case here.

In conclusion the proposals are considered to be deeply damaging to both the setting of the Elms and the conservation area as a whole. We would strongly advise that alternative sites are pursued in order to meet the town's housing needs. 

Yours sincerely 

Richard Peats, Historic Buildings and Areas Adviser, South East Region

cc. Jamie Preston, Conservation Officer, SODC

 

Download the PDF of this letter here

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