Over recent months, there has been a lot of discussion, one way and another, about planning issues in Sherborne.
I think that most people in the town will agree that the new version of the West Dorset Local Plan (unlike its predecessor) represents a reasonable way forward for the town – but there is clearly considerable opposition to the proposal for a new Tesco alongside the A30, and I am bound to say that I think that both the look of it in this particular site and the effect that it would have on the town centre make the argument for opposing this particular proposal very strong.
But there is an underlying issue which has come to the fore as a result of both of these particular episodes – namely, the status of Sherborne and towns like it.
I don’t think there is anyone in England who could deny that Sherborne is a very special place. It is one of a class of towns and cities (Bath and York would be other examples) which have a particular architectural and historical significance.
At present, we have special designations, of course, for Sites of Special Scientific Interest and for Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. But we don’t have special designations for special towns.
Within towns and cities there are conservation areas, and these fulfil a useful function. There are also, of course, listed buildings of various grades – and the whole system of listing has, for all its imperfections, provided important safeguards for our heritage. Towns like Sherborne, in particular, contain large numbers of listed buildings – and this certainly ensures that its important architectural inheritance is not destroyed in the way that might well have happened to it in the middle of the last century and did indeed happen to parts of the centre of Cambridge (another of the towns and cities that clearly has a very special character). But there is a difference between protecting what exists from demolition and ensuring that what comes along is sufficiently in sympathy with what already exists to make certain that, where there is an identifiable character – where, in other words, the whole amounts to more than the sum of its parts – that whole character is preserved.
This argues, I think, for a very special town like Sherborne to have some kind of designation that marks it out.
Of course, one can immediately see all sorts of practical difficulties in identifying the small number of towns and cities that fall into this category across England – and, as the representative of West Dorset, which is particularly blessed with very special towns, I am acutely conscious of the degree of controversy that would be aroused when it came to deciding on any such designations. I certainly don’t think that this is something which can be achieved easily or quickly. But I do think that it is time to begin considering the issue.