Hundreds marched to protest plans by controversial housebuilder Persimmon Homes to build 3,500 properties on countryside that inspired Thomas Hardy.
Planning chiefs have earmarked a vast area of unspoilt landscape surrounding Dorchester for a massive housing development.
West Dorset District Council is under pressure to build over 15,000 new homes by 2036 in one of the worst areas of Britain for affordable housing.
They have selected green fields north of Dorchester where the writer regularly walked and eloquently described in his 1886 novel the Mayor of Casterbridge.
The plans have been met with dismay by locals and over 300 of them marched through the town waving placards in defiance of the plans.
Hundreds have marched to protest plans by controversial housebuilder Persimmon Homes to build 3,500 properties on countryside that inspired Thomas Hardy
Planning chiefs have earmarked a vast area of unspoilt landscape surrounding the Victorian writer’s beloved Dorchester for the massive housing development
Thomas Hardy (left) and Downton Abbey creator Lord Fellowes who has added his voice to campaigners trying to stop a development in the area that inspired on of his novels
The proposed site is a stone’s throw from Hardy’s birthplace and the Dorset village where he went to school.
Persimmon Homes and fellow housebuilding giant Grainger have jointly submitted plans for the land under the name of the North Dorchester Consortium.
Persimmon is currently faces a battle to keep its lucrative Help to Buy contract amid criticism of executive pay and accusations of shoddy workmanship.
Kate Hebditch, from campaign group STAND, the Save The Area North of Dorchester from development, said: ‘All of us are here for different reasons.
‘It might be that we want to follow in Thomas Hardy’s footsteps and see how closely his descriptions of Casterbridge still match our town.
‘It might be that we know that this is a rich area for wildlife, and that animals and plants need all the help that they can get to survive right now.
Plans on display at Charminster village hall that could ‘wipe out’ the countryside that inspired author Thomas Hardy by building 3,500 new homes
Wolfeton House has a gatehouse thought to date back to the 1350’s is just 200 yards from the proposed development
‘But all of us are here because we love this stretch of countryside and because we want to see it stay as countryside.’
Protesters say the earmarked site is the only green space surrounding Dorchester – Casterbridge – that has not been developed.
In the Mayor of Casterbridge, Hardy wrote of the immediate mix of ‘land and down’ and described the town as ‘like a chessboard on a green tablecloth’.
Downton Abbey creator Lord Fellowes, who is president of the Hardy Society and lives at Stafford House, near Dorchester, has previously spoken out against the plans.
Under-fire building firm boasted £1bn profits
Persimmon, the housebuilder which is at risk of seeing its lucrative Help to Buy contract removed, saw pre-tax profits surpass £1billion last year.
Pre-tax profits rose 13 per cent to £1.091billion in 2018, on a four per cent rise in revenues to £3.74billion, it has been reported.
Of these, nearly half, or 7,970, were sold to people using the Help to Buy scheme – some 288 more compared to 2017.
Dave Jenkinson (left) took over from Jeff Fairburn (right) after a pay dispute
The housebuilder is reportedly at risk of being stripped of its right to participate in the Government’s Help to Buy mortgage scheme.
That is allegedly because of issues including the use of Help to Buy to sell leasehold houses with escalating ground rents, the quality of Persimmon homes and treatment of customers, and its leadership in the wake of the backlash over pay.
The FTSE 100 company also recently confirmed that interim chief executive Dave Jenkinson will stay on in the role after previous boss Jeff Fairburn was forced out last year following an outcry over his £75million bonus.
He said: ‘If our countryside gets through this generation unscathed it will be something of a miracle.
‘We do have to be a modern county but I don’t feel the burden of extra development is being shared equally in Dorset.
‘I can’t claim that every inch of Hardy country and its history is under threat whenever development is proposed.
‘But there are very few other world renowned novelists where you still have the house they were born in, the house they wrote their books in and the villages and countryside they based their characters and scenes on.’
Alistair Chisholm, the town crier for Dorchester and member of the Hardy Society, said Hardy would ‘spin in his grave’ if there wasn’t a fierce fight to protect his beloved countryside.
Mr Chisholm said: ‘In a lot of Hardy’s work, especially the Mayor of Casterbridge, he wrote of the fact the town had no suburbs and the immediate link between the town and the down.
‘If we lose this land Dorchester will go the same way as towns like Basingstoke and Crawley. It will become a bland enlarged settlement and lose something that is extraordinarily precious.
‘The area in question is quite enormous. Many, many acres. We will be losing a connection with the countryside which is an inherent part of the story of Dorchester and Thomas Hardy.
‘We can’t destroy it just because it is convenient and under pressure at this moment in time.
‘We will fight it as fiercely as we can. I think Thomas Hardy would spin in his grave if there was no resistance to these proposals and we quietly allowed the government to wipe out that very important element.’
The proposal has previously been slammed by the West Dorset group of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) who claim it would ‘destroy’ the countryside.
A spokesperson said: ‘The historic county town of Dorchester, renowned for its Roman origins and literary connection with Thomas Hardy, is under threat from a huge development that will see the population of the historic town increase by 35 per cent.
‘This development will destroy valuable countryside, resulting in Dorchester becoming yet another road encircled, featureless urban mass with further traffic congestion and pressure on already stretched communications, schools and healthcare.
The developers plans show the area north of Dorchester that 3,500 homes are listed as a ‘preferred option’ to the county council’s local plan
‘We urge planners to look at other housing alternatives, such as the large number of empty shops and other brownfield sites.’
Mayor for Dorchester, David Taylor, speaking at the march, added: ‘We really do not want this here. If they do this they will destroy the countryside and wreck our county town.’
The average price of property in west Dorset now stands at £318,000, well beyond the means of most people born and brought up in the area.
A spokesman for West Dorset District Council said of the 3,500 new homes, 35 per cent of the would be affordable housing and local people waiting to get on the housing ladder will be given priority.
They added: ‘Development of Dorchester is a necessity for the future growth and prosperity of the town.
‘The proposal for this new urban extension would help improve the balance between housing and jobs in the area.
‘It would be built beyond the water meadows so a green gap would be maintained between the town and new development.’
The historic Grade I listed Elizabethan manor, Wolfeton House, that inspired Thomas Hardy is under threat from plans to build 120 houses in a neighbouring field