As the government planning inquiry into a controversial Belper development enters its second week at Ripley Town Hall, a group of determined campaigners know it will be their last stand in a battle which has taken years of their lives.
Whatever the ruling on Amber Valley Borough Council’s decisions surrounding the greenfield site at Bullsmoor, and whatever direction the dispute might then take, for residents there will be nothing left to do.
Bargate management consultant Helen Jackson, 54, a member of the Protect Belper group involved in the inquiry, said: “It’s exhausting. The first three days have done my head in, but just getting to this point has occupied all of our spare time. Protect Belper and other groups have put in thousands of hours just to understand the arguments.
“That said, there is something ultimately rewarding about it. Whatever happens, we can say we tried our best. If we hadn’t fought, I would always have looked at the site and wondered what if we could have done more to save it.”
The inquiry is examining the council’s approval of industrial development by Peveril Securities and Vaillant group on the site, but also its earlier decision to reject a proposal by the same applicants to build housing instead.
The principal objection many residents have raised is the impact on the landscape, which is legally associated with the Derwent Valley Mills UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Helen said: “It was an interest in the heritage which drew me into Protect Belper originally—the group has existed informally since 2010, and formally since 2014—but there is more to it than that.
“I’ve spent most of my life working in manufacturing, and I’m frustrated to see how many brownfield sites are left undeveloped, even where developers have planning permission. There are plenty in DE56, not moving. They always come back wanting the greenbelt. Belper is too small to have big, derelict industrial sites left undeveloped.
“This is not a ‘nimby’ issue. We’re not saying don’t build in Belper, it’s about that site. In a way, we have already won the argument as Bullsmoor is not included in the new Local Plan. If that goes through as expected this year, there will be no chance of getting new planning permissions on it.”
Helen has been using her expertise at the inquiry to focus on the employment claims made by Peveril and Vaillant, who say the project will create more than 650 new jobs.
Other members of the group have been tasked with areas such as heritage, footpaths, transport and flooding.
Helen said: “We’ve tackled stuff which Historic England and the council won’t. We’re not so constrained in terms of what we can ask as we’re not an official body. We’re there representing the people.
“We’ve had people come to support us from the gallery, and lots of appreciation on Facebook, so I feel like we’re representing a significant section of the community.”
“It has been a bit of an eye-opener. The inquiry has given us access to more detailed evidence from the council and the developer, and we’ve been able to question expert witnesses. In a way, it’s quite exciting and I’ve learned all sorts of things about the National Planning Framework which I would never have thought I’d want to.”
After Thursday, the findings will be submitted to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Sajid Javid to take a decision.
Even then, if development is permitted there may be routes towards a legal challenge by Historic England.
Helen said: “You have to feel positive. We’ve put in as much work as we can, and I think we’re making strong arguments, but you never know which way it will go.”
Find Protect Belper on Facebook at https://goo.gl/Wjj9sy.