As work originally got under way, Urban & Civic highlighted the old apple trees as part of the heritage it was embracing as it prepared the site for individual developers to move in.
In September this year, the Advertiser covered how the development had caught the eye of the national Sunday paper, The Observer, with its architecture critic Rowan Moore describing Houlton as raising the bar for new communities.
But this week residents have been in touch with the Advertiser about what they see as a threat to the site’s orchard – an area they had come to treasure for its heritage and wildlife – believing Urban & Civic wants to see houses built there.
When shortlisted for Partnership Working at the Planning Awards 2020, lead landscape architects Bradley Murphy Design highlighted the importance of the first phase of work at the site: ‘We retained existing orchard trees wherever possible and worked with Hillier Nurseries to source and replant salvaged stock from derelict UK orchards’.
Also in 2020, Houlton’s own PR team released an upbeat story headlined, ‘Houlton residents harvest apples for charity tipple’.
This highlighted the role of the orchard: ‘Residents at Rugby’s newest neighbourhood, Houlton, have helped harvest this season’s apple haul to produce a special batch of apple juice and cider, to help raise money for local organisation Hillmorton Support Group.
‘Teaming up with local craft-cider company, Healy’s of Winwick, community members collected fruit from the development’s on-site orchard, which will be turned into bottles of the limited-edition charity tipple’.
It also included a quote from Galina Bardarska, on behalf of Urban & Civic, who said: “As a growing neighbourhood, we pride ourselves on our strong sense of community and it really was brilliant to see friends and family get involved with the apple picking initiative.”
All this was taken by many as a bright future for the old trees and the wildlife they provide a home for – birds, badgers, bats and more.
While acknowledging that some of the trees may be past their best, they said there had been another good crop of apples this year and claimed any dead trees could be replaced.
But Urban & Civic say the future of the orchard has not changed and was set out in its masterplan shown on the Houlton website since 2015.
Regional director Johanne Thomas told the paper their commitment to tree planting had not changed: “In terms of the orchard area within the first phase at Houlton - this formed part of the key phase one planning permission which was approved alongside the outline planning permission in 2014.
"This approved the retention of a strip of the old orchard trees (c.15-20 in number) and the removal of the rest, which were largely assessed as being in poor long-term health.
"To offset this loss, extensive new orchard trees were required to be planted and hundreds of these are already in place across Houlton – far more than the number that will be lost and all apple varieties have been replanted.
"An exercise was carried out to identify if any of the old trees could we replanted around Houlton but they weren’t in good enough health to allow that to happen. We did however rescue a number of orchard trees from Hilliers Nurseries in 2018 and these have been integrated into the green corridors and new orchard areas at Houlton.”
She said the commitment to the strip of old orchard trees was still in place and that at present there was not a planning application in place for housing on the remainder of the area, though some of the area had been used as a compound for work on the Co-op, nursery and allotments and there had been access through the site to serve existing houses on the main road.
And she added that Urban & Civic manitained its environmental ambitions: “This orchard area, along with all developed land at Houlton, is covered by an ecological mitigation strategy, which is a planning requirement and forms part of the planning permission for each key phase.
"This contains ways in which we will preserve, relocate and encourage the wildlife and biodiversity within the community. This has involved bats, badgers, great crested newts and a range of other wildlife to date in key phase one.
"Residents can see some of this habitat creation and hibernacula through the green corridors created in Houlton and in the mature trees around the community. There is also a nature trail for young residents around Houlton informing them of the wildlife living within the green spaces in their community.”
The masterplan sets out the overall targets for green space: “...just over 500 acres, making up 40 per cent of the overall land being developed. To date, these green spaces created have included the retention of a large section of ridge and furrow area on Normandy Hill, the play park and green space adjacent where the community hold events and have their Christmas tree.
"The newly-opened allotments and community garden next to the community centre, and then in terms of numbers – 1,800 new trees, over 8,500m of new hedgerow and 15,000sq m of new woodland planting all having taken place to date.”