Some 470 residents in sleepy South Stoke banded together to raise just over £1million to buy back The Packhorse Inn in 2016 in a determined bid to stop the Grade-II listed tavern from being converted into flats.
Now, five years on from the community-owned pub reopening its doors, the village just outside of Bath is facing the prospect of a major housing development in the heart of the countryside.
In addition to the 171 homes already being constructed on the South Stoke Plateau – a Cotswolds Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty – The Hignett Family Trust has submitted plans to build 300 more houses as part of the controversial Sulis Down project.
The sprawling green fields, which served as a vital escape for many during the Covid-19 lockdowns, have been at risk of development for more than 20 years but locals have consistently vowed not to back down.
Leading the rebellion is the South of Bath Alliance (SOBA), whose chairman Colin Webb told MailOnline that those in the village will certainly take inspiration from saving the pub which ‘has become the heart of the village’.
The Somerset village that came together to save its 15th century pub from a developer is now fighting to block plans to build 300 more houses on a stunning plateau. Pictured: Campaigners who are battling to save the plateau
Above is the proposed development. There are already 171 homes being constructed in Phase 1. Developers have submitted plans to build 300 more houses (Phase 3 and 4).
If this is approved, they will try to build around 50 more (Phase 2). The Packhorse Inn which was saved by locals in 2016 is just round the corner (bottom right of map)
The sprawling green fields, which served as a vital escape for many during the Covid-19 lockdowns, have been at risk of development for more than 20 years but locals have consistently vowed not to back down
The red areas are the parts of the plateau which are under threat as the Hignett Family Trust look to sell on more land
171 homes are already being constructed on the plateau just outside of Bath in the heart of the countryside
There were plans to turn the pub into a private residence but locals raised money to buy back their watering hole using the 2011 Localism Act to turn it into a community asset.
How South Stoke came together to save its 15th century pub from a developer
The South Stoke community well and truly came together when 470 residents clubbed together to raise more than £1million to buy their 15th century pub The Packhorse Inn back.
Developers bought the Grade-II listed tavern in 2016 from a pair of businessman who intended to renovate the pub into flats.
The buyer had plans to turn the property into a private residence which sparked anger among residents who bought back the watering hole using the 2011 Localism Act to turn the pub into a community asset.
The first community offer to buy the pub was declined by the seller but due to the law being evoked by the council the property had to be sold within a year.
The act gave the community time to raise funds to put in a bid to the previous owner who told the community if they could raise £500,000 he would sell it to them.
Between them they raised £1,025,000 who paid as little as £50 each to own The Packhorse Inn.
Now, they face a battle to save the sprawling green fields around the corner.
With all eyes now on the plateau, Mr Webb said: ‘I think the number of objections that have gone in signify the extent to the community, not just around this area but in Bath generally, are so against it all.
‘Everybody’s really distressed about it, because it’s very much a landscape that’s valued for walking and it’s an important agricultural provider. It’s just part of the character of this part of the world. Bath is a bit like Venice or somewhere which has to be massively protected.’
Bath & North East Somerset (BANES) Council confirmed that there has been 1,173 objections and 18 support comments to the application to build 300 extra houses as part of Phase 3 and 4 of the development.
The Hignett Family Trust sold part of their land to Countryside Properties in April 2021 for £19.8million so that 171 homes could be built in Phase 1. The application was reluctantly approved in 2018 after planning chiefs criticised the ‘piecemeal’ approach and lack of a comprehensive master plan.
The cheapest home available is a two-bed property on the market for £355,000.
Phase 2 – which would only be applied for if the developers get the green light for Phase 3 and 4 – would also bring around 50 new houses around Sulis Manor which is currently a residential language school for children. The plateau is made up of Sulis Manor and seven fields.
Fiona Gourley, councillor for Bathavon South, said that the Local Plan allowed for a total of 300 dwellings, which means only a further 129 homes should be built – something locals had agreed to.
‘For the developers to try to push for another 300 units now is just greedy and would set a precedent that undermines the democratic engagement between the Council and residents,’ she explained.
Ms Gourley added that local residents have been opposing development on the land for decades and ‘understand clearly if the plateau is built over, it will be lost forever’.
Campaigners are fighting to stop 300 more houses being built on the South Stoke plateau. Pictured: One of the western fields now threatened
A typical sunset on the eastern South Stoke plateau. Campaigners have long battled to stop the land being developed
The hedge in the distance would be covered by houses. Campaigners say there are better places the development could be built on
The fields beyond the trees are under threat. Locals in South Stoke have hit out at ‘greedy’ landowners
There has been 1,173 objections and 18 support comments to the application to build 300 extra houses. Pictured: A Cotswold dry stone wall in disrepair on the western plateau
The western fields with one of over 70 trees threatened with removal. The application is yet to be approved or rejected
A tree lined walk to the east – the field on the left is now threatened for development but locals are not backing down
Campaigners have flagged several concerns with the development, including additional traffic to an already congested area of Bath, the loss of habitats and the impact on local infrastructure. They have also queried why a total of more than 500 dwellings are needed when Bath – a UNESCO World Heritage Site – is exceeding its housing targets.
In the latest Government Housing Delivery Test, which was published in January 2022, 184% of required new housing had been delivered in Bath – almost double the target set in the Local Plan.
Ms Gourley, who has lived in South Stoke for nearly 30 years, explained: ‘The proposed development will not help solve Bath’s housing crisis – the cost of most of the proposed homes would be out of reach of most local people, whereas there are large brownfield sites awaiting development elsewhere in the city with better transport links and sited closer to employment.
She added: ‘The absence of social infrastructure on the estate (e.g. schools, shops, surgeries, community spaces etc) will put pressure on the surrounding areas which are already under-resourced.’
Locals have also voiced concerns about the construction of allotments which was one of the conditions for the new 171 homes.
While they recognise the provision of allotments is a good thing, developers are trying to put them on a field east of the new homes – which is beyond the allocated area for development and within the Green Belt.
Mr Webb highlighted that some residents who currently have stunning views over the plateau may decide it is best to ‘move on’ if the development goes ahead, while he also suggested that prospective buyers in the area are being put off by the project.
‘I know there are some properties that have been on the market that have been sticking, because people have found out about the possible development occurring,’ he said.
Mr Webb believes it is paramount that people ‘recognise for future generations that this [land] is something of value that we must all do everything in our power to protect.
He added: ‘I mean, if we all accepted that we have to put up with car fumes and traffic fumes and jams and so on and so forth, then it would be a rather sad way of dealing with it and responding to it.’
Locals in South Stoke clubbed together to buy back their 15th century pub The Packhorse Inn. It reopened five years ago
Historic photos of The Packhorse in South Stoke, Somerset which has reopen after locals raised a million pounds to save it
Punters enjoyed a pint at the Packhorse Inn when it reopened its doors in 2018 after being bought back by locals in the area
Jenny John, who has lived in South Stoke since 1990 and was part of the battle to save the Packhorse Inn, believes the development is ‘built on greed and not need’.
She told: ‘Everyone knows we need new homes but this is the wrong type of houses in wrong sort of place.’
Ms John, who was on the South Stoke Parish council for 10 years and is now part of SOBA, added that the Hignett Family Trust has ‘wanted to cover it in houses and concrete’ since she first arrived.
She added: ‘I feel it’s completely unnecessary. It’s in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty which is where you are not supposed to make developments unless it is in exceptional circumstances.’
Ned Garnett, also a long-term South Stoke resident, likened the development to a ‘David and Goliath’ battle.
He told: ‘The frustration at the moment is it’s now over a year since application went in.
‘They submitted 2.300 pages in April last year. Since then, a further 2000 amendments have been made over the last year. That speaks volumes. An application that requires 2,000 amendments is seriously flawed.’
Mr Garnett believes that the South Stoke locals can take hope from their victory to save the Packhorse Inn. He said: ‘It’s been a huge asset to village. It’s made such a difference, it’s a real community success story.
‘I think there’s two things to look at. One is that local people can make a difference. And the other is that it’s a long game. It doesn’t happen quickly.
‘The fight to save the Packhorse went on for four years. Frankly the campaign to save the plateau is 20 years long.’
BANES council said that a ‘target decision date is due to be updated later this year’.
The Hignett Family Trust declined to comment.