The sparsely populated Westcountry uplands have always pervaded an air of mystery, but now the Quantock Hills are providing country lovers with the biggest puzzle since an eccentric local aristocrat imagined he may have created life in a hill-top laboratory 200 years ago.
Squire Andrew Crosse faced widespread ridicule and anger for making the claim – which is exactly what’s happening to Somerset County Council now that it has, for reasons few people seem to understand, mooted the idea of selling land it owns in the hills.
Quantock-lovers are so against the proposed sale of 2,000 council-owned acres that hundreds of letters of objection have been written, there’s been a protest march (with another planned), and some 5,000 of them have signed a petition against the plan.
What mystifies the council’s critics is that the land in question is protected by so much environmental red tape it could never be developed in any way, shape or form, so has very little monetary value.
And at their last meeting to discuss the sale, Somerset councillors announced even more special legal agreements could be put in place to protect the acres it owns in Great Wood, Customs Common and Thorncombe Hill.
“I am mystified, absolutely,” commented vice-chairman of the Friends of Quantock, Jane Warmington. “Even the adjacent landowners don’t want to buy what is really just a huge public park.
“I understand why everyone’s concerned – because it is change and people don’t like change – and I don’t think the council publicised its plans well,” said Mrs Warmington who added that, as a local landowner’s wife, she was in a difficult position and probably not able to voice some of the stronger opinions felt by her membership.
She was the only spokesman available, but Friends of Quantock’s website states: “We feel that the public interest in these assets is better served by public ownership and that moving them to private ownership after 100 years is a retrograde step.
“We also have concerns as to how satisfactory the safeguards can be in the long term, should the land fall into hands that were not so sympathetic to the public interest.”
Far more outspoken was Bishops Lydeard parish councillor Mike Rigby, who told the Western Morning News: “The land is worth very little – but councillors let the cat out of bag when they said don’t care if it doesn’t raise money. They want a smaller council. The reason for the sale is purely ideological.
“So we risk damaging this fragile landscape that’s so well loved. Much of the council- owned land is a Site of Special Scientific Interest and it’s all in the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Apart from the forestry area, most of it is open heathland and I cannot see the benefit of owning it for anyone.
“The council won’t tell us what the valuation is – they say they’ve had in-house advice, but they haven’t instructed anyone to do a formal valuation. Surely a valuation like this is something you’d undertake with an independent chartered surveyor?
“If you look back at planning history, things like AONBs have been sacrosanct – but the planning acts are being ripped up and it seems we’re starting again,” Mr Rigby went on. “Given that the council is saying its overriding goal is economic development, who knows? Anything could be on the cards for this land.”
While restating that the land is subject to comprehensive protective measures, Somerset cabinet member Coun David Huxtable said: “We are reviewing all our land and property to see where we can make savings and generate income. These are tight financial times and we are looking to invest to save where we can.”
But when pushed for an answer as to why the council was selling land that seems to have so little financial worth, a spokesman told the WMN: “One of the important considerations when looking to sell or transfer assets is the removal of the council’s liabilities, maintenance and repairs, which can be considerable.
“However, the bottom line is that market forces will dictate whether there is a significant value or not. It’s a matter of watch this space, and if the land is not sold, it will remain within council control.”
After checking with several environment-based organisations such as the Somerset Wildlife Trust, we drew a blank yesterday when it came to finding any likely purchasers for the land – with one exception.
A spokesman for the Forestry Commission, which has a 999-year lease on SCC-owned land at Great Wood, commented: “We have been very open with Somerset County Council about the fact that we are keen to buy the freehold of Great Wood that we currently lease from them.
“Owning it outright would allow us to protect and hopefully improve the public benefits of the woodland that is already a popular place for recreation.”
Even that statement is creating an air of mystery in Quantock country where, it is generally believed, the Forestry Commission pays just £200 a year to lease a forest that’s safe in its hands for the best part of 1,000 years.
“It’s all a mystery,” said Mr Rigby. “What I do know is that there will be a protest march outside County Hall on Wednesday when the council meets to discuss the sale.”