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Hatfield Heath: Proposals to redevelop a former Second World War prison camp 'cultural vandalism', opponents claim



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The descendants of German and Italian prisoners of war kept at a camp in Hatfield Heath are among those fighting to preserve the site for future generations.

The former Second World War prison base off Mill Lane, which was in operation from 1941-47 and known as Camp 116, is one of the few near complete examples remaining in the country, but it is once again under threat from development.

Plans were thrown out by a Government inspector in December 2019 for 26 new homes, with eight original buildings restored.

An abandonned prison hut (57526293)
An abandonned prison hut (57526293)

The fresh application submitted to Uttlesford District Council (UDC) by Pelham Structures Ltd, on behalf of landowner David Sargeant, seeks to demolish 10 existing structures, convert and restore a further eight into holiday cottages and to build five single storey dwellings and five terrace cottages.

The architectural gem is included on UDC's heritage list, which records properties and structures that are considered noteworthy in historical terms, but which are not listed by Historic England. Campaigners labelled its destruction as "an act of cultural vandalism".

The camp is also famous for a football match which took place between the 'European' team and Hatfield Heath players at the end of the war - the local side being thrashed 11-0.

The mural inside one of the prison camp buildings (57526296)
The mural inside one of the prison camp buildings (57526296)

Resident Niki Champion urged villagers to register their comments with UDC before the Friday (July 8) deadline. A decision is expected by August 22, with the applicant having requested UDC's planning committee determine the scheme rather than a Government inspector - as is their choice after the authority lost its planning powers as a result of poor performance.

Other issues causing concern among Hatfield Heath residents include the narrow access road, no demand for holiday lettings and the strain such a development would put on existing services and infrastructure, including the doctors' surgery. The site also lies within Green Belt.

Said Niki: "Some of the structures still remain intact, there are toilet blocks, the water tower and you can see the shape of the buildings, but in particular there is a mural that was painted by one of the Italian prisoners in the building that was the catering area that still remains.

"We need to get the message out far and wide. There are many reasons we do not want the development, including how it might affect the infrastructure, but also the history, which is of national interest."

The water tower on the site (57511947)
The water tower on the site (57511947)

She cited the History Not Houses! Save POW Camp 116 Facebook group which has over 800 members. "It's not just the local community that object to this. People are interested in history and would like to preserve the camp, even if they do not actually live here as it is one of the last remaining camps of its kind.

"We want people to object. Ideally, it would be lovely one day to think it could be preserved and handed back to the community and restored properly with a museum. Schools used to visit it with its previous owners."

David Parrish, chairman of Hatfield Regis Local History Society, said the last prisoner was released in 1947 and around five German and Italian men stayed in the area, marrying local women. "Quite a few relatives are still around and they have been in touch with us and desperately want to keep it."

The rows of abandoned prison huts (57526286)
The rows of abandoned prison huts (57526286)

He said around 70% of the camp remained intact, including the brick-built officers' quarters which remained in "quite good condition"; 10-11 wooden huts and the canteen. He explained how many of the prisoners were sent out to work on farms in the area. "They did a huge amount of work to get things moving, to produce food and the majority of them didn't want to go back because they didn't really agree with the war.

"Everyone I have spoken to on the relatives' side are objecting to these plans. Personally I would like to see it turned into a museum and the history society will be making a comment, objecting as strongly as possible."

Comments submitted by resident Ami Richards read: "The people living in Hatfield Heath are very proud of their history and that includes the prisoner of war camp and the football match that the prisoners played against the local people and to pull down the camp would be demoralising for the local community.

"I often pass the camp when I go out rambling and I always stop to look at it and imagine what it must have been like to either be a prisoner there or a guard stationed there and I am sure that I am not the only person who does this."

Fellow villager Lewis Mendel said: "Would you build a McDonalds at Pearl Harbour? Would you put a resort on the beaches of Normandy? Would you put a car park over where the Battle of Hastings took place? Would you give up on the Notre-Dame cathedral and build a Wetherspoons? I would like to think not."

A spokesman for Historic England said: "We are aware of the former POW camp in Hatfield Heath and its history. We have undertaken some assessment work of the site in the past. We are looking to work closely with the local planning authority and the applicant in the coming weeks.”

Sam Bampton, land and development director for Pelham Structures, described it as a "complicated site" with a long-running planning history. They were proposing to widen Mill Lane to improve traffic flow and warned unless action was taken to preserve the buildings, "deterioration will continue".

He said: "A number of POW buildings have historic value to the local community so it is proposed to retain as many as is practical. There has been a huge increase in vandalism on the site over the last few years with teenagers breaking in and damaging the huts. Without anything being done it's highly likely that the deterioration will continue. The application is ultimately helping to preserve them.

"But there is a huge cost involved so residential development is purely to fund that, to raise money to pay for the restoration. The water tower will be a two-bedroom house, quite a unique structure, and the huts will become holiday cottages, this helps minimise the outside changes that would be required if they were homes as they do not need gardens.

"We were having discussions with the local history group about one being a museum, but the costs of that make it unviable, but we might allow them to use the holiday cottage which has the mural on it on heritage open days.

"The real shame in recent years is the vandalism which has required the land owner to secure the property."

The buildings that still remain of the former prisoner of war camp (57511929)
The buildings that still remain of the former prisoner of war camp (57511929)
A mural painted by one of the prisoners is still evident today within one of the camp buildings (57511938)
A mural painted by one of the prisoners is still evident today within one of the camp buildings (57511938)
The water tower on the site (57511950)
The water tower on the site (57511950)
traffic has to squeeze through the narrow Mill Lane (57511932)
traffic has to squeeze through the narrow Mill Lane (57511932)
The POW huts (57511944)
The POW huts (57511944)
Inside a former POW camp hut (57511941)
Inside a former POW camp hut (57511941)

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