Protest against the destruction of Skerningham

Extinction Rebellion Red Rebel Brigade protesting in the Market Square, Darlington

On Thursday 17th February, all four members of the Mandua Briga Seed Group who live in Darlington attended the protest in the Market Square against Darlington Borough Council’s Local Plan, the adoption of which was being voted on that evening at a full Council meeting in the Dolphin Centre. Alongside around 50 protestors who had gathered, we were surprised to see five of Extinction Rebellion’s Red Rebel Brigade there as well. These protestors look amazing on photographs but they can only really be appreciated when they are seen in person, using slow, precise, synchronised movements to express profound sorrow at the loss of the natural world. They had an incredible impact and were immensely powerful.

The protest was aimed at the Council’s allocation of 487 hectares of agricultural land and woodland for 4,500 houses to be built by 2036 – what has been called ‘Skerningham Garden Village’:

The planned Skerningham development – Springfield Park, the square of land adjoining the A1150, has since been taken out of the plan and is now protected as of February 2022

The countryside at Skerningham is such a beautiful and important habitat for wildlife and local green space to enhance people’s quality of life and improve their mental health that it has been called the ‘Jewel in the Crown of Darlington’ by Darlington Council itself, who now plan to allow 4,500 houses to be built there as well as relocate Darlington Golf Club, which would destroy Skerningham Community Woodland.

The land around Barmpton was sacred to the Brigantes, the Iron Age people who lived in this area. We know this because an ancient iron sword in a bronze scabbard:

was found around 1880 by some masons engaged in repairing a bridge at Barmton (sic), near Sadberge, in the county of Durham. It was thought of so little account that it lay on a heap for some days.

Rev. William Greenwell, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of London, November 21st 1895

According to the British Museum website:

The British Museum Register also notes a reference in the ‘Stockton and Darlington Times’, 3 August 1905, to the effect that the sword was found in Mr William Waldy’s gravel pit at Barmpton near Darlington. In a letter to Greenwell dated 4 December 1895, W. Lancaster Taylor, Rector of Sadberge, recorded ‘it seems this sword was dug up at Barmpton, a place near here, by masons who were repairing a bridge’. John Smith, landlord of the Three Tuns at Sadberge, heard about it and probably ‘secured it for some liquor’ about 15 years ago, according to his daughter who also said that Dr Hooppell had bought it from Smith for £1 about 10 years ago. Taylor thought that the most appropriate home for the sword would be the vestry at Sadberge Church, but fortunately Greenwell contacted Hercules Read, who secured it for the British Museum.

© The Trustees of the British Museum

The sand quarry where the sword was found is just to the north west of Barmpton Hall and can be located on this map produced by the Darlington Ramblers Association, illustrating their Barmpton and Skerne Valley walk. The quarry has now been planted with hawthorn trees. It is just to the left of the beautiful ‘Sandy Beech’, the friendliest tree I have ever encountered – despite some scumbags trying to burn her down so she is, astonishingly, completely hollow!

The sword is now on long-term loan to the Tullie House Museum & Art Gallery in Carlisle and can be found in The Roman Frontier: stories beyond Hadrian’s Wall gallery there.

We went into the Dolphin Centre to observe the meeting from the balcony. Initially, we thought that the voting through of the Local Plan would be a ‘done deal’ and we just wanted to be there to witness and stand up as representative of those who do not agree with it. We were surprised at the passion of some of the Councillors speaking against the plan and even thought, for a short while, that there may be a small chance the plan might not get voted through. The vote was much closer than expected: 24-20 , but sadly the Local Plan was voted through.

The number of houses the Council plans on being built in the Borough of Darlington as a whole by 2036 is a minimum of 9,840 – but could be as many as 14,836 (Local Plan paragraph 6.2.2, page 38). The Government’s standard method of calculating an area’s housing needs (called the National Planning Policy Framework) gives a far lower figure of 3,240 as being required. The Council’s proposal for 9,840 new houses by 2036 as a minimum is 6,600 more than national planning guidance – and to put this into some sort of context, that’s more houses than the population of Saltburn. When this was raised in the meeting by members of the public the response given to these questions was simply a statement read out and then repeated word for word – that “people had an opportunity to discuss and challenge the housing requirement with a planning inspector at a hearing in May last year.” It was at this point that a scene from The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy sprang to mind:

“But Mr Dent, the plans have been available in the local planning office for the last nine months.”

“Oh yes, well as soon as I heard I went straight round to see them, yesterday afternoon. You hadn’t exactly gone out of your way to call attention to them, had you? I mean, like actually telling anybody or anything.”

“But the plans were on display …”

“On display? I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them.”

“That’s the display department.”

“With a flashlight.”

“Ah, well the lights had probably gone.”

“So had the stairs.”

“But look, you found the notice didn’t you?”

“Yes,” said Arthur, “yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard’.”

The Council could scrap the entire Skerningham development and still have a plan for over two thousand more houses than the Government’s national planning guidance recommends.

There is an ongoing petition against the Skerningham development here, and there will be a Spring Equinox guided walk through Skerningham organised by the Skerningham Woodland Action Group and led by David Clark (who was featured in the video above) to protest against the plans on Sunday 20th March 2022, meeting at 11am at the end of Glebe Road, which some of us from the Mandua Briga Seed Group are planning on attending. Hopefully see you there!

Over 100 people attended the previous protest walk through Skerningham on Sunday 29th August 2021

by Liz

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