A MUCH-anticipated planning inquiry to decide the future of the Coate area is starting at the Steam railway museum today.

The developer has appealed against Swindon Council’s refusal of permission for 890 houses and a business estate on land to the east of the country park.

The inquiry is estimated to last six days, during which barristers for Swindon Council and the developers will make their cases in front of independent inspector Eddie Grace.

He will weigh the council’s decision against national, regional and local planning policy, and decide if the proposal should be approved.

Campaigners have spent the past few weeks handing out 5,000 postcards bearing messages of objection addressed to the planning inspectorate.

Jean Saunders, 65, of Longcot, hopes to speak at the inquiry as secretary of the Jefferies Land Conser-vation Trust, which has suggested alternative plans to protect the site as an educational nature reserve.

“We’re going to be bringing to the table a whole host of other concerns we raised,” she said. “Obviously there’s this issue of precedent – if planning permission is granted for this, it will just set a precedent for infill between the development and Coate Water itself.

“We’re going to be arguing strongly a case for protecting Richard Jefferies’ literary landscape.

“The third matter is protecting certain spaces that are within the area.

“There’s a nature reserve that’s right smack bang in the middle, Day House Copse – an extremely valuable habitat.”

The outcome is expected to be greatly affected by changes and proposed changes to planning guidelines and the weight Mr Grace gives to them. These include the local planning policy, the emerging Swindon Core Strategy, the Localism Bill, and the draft National Planning Policy Framework.

Dr Chris Barry, the former chairman of Chiseldon Parish Council’s planning committee, who will be speaking on behalf of the council, said: “I think we have a good case. The decision rests with the inspector and it’s a matter of how he interprets the two of these opposing cases.”

A Swindon Council spokesman said: “We are working hard to put forward the best possible case, and have hired consultants and a barrister to help us do this. The total cost will be around £70,000.”

The most recent set of plans for housing is smaller than the earlier application and the developer has claimed that impact on wildlife and the environment would be kept to a minimum.

It has offered a number of concessions, in particular a suggestion that it hand over control of the land between the planned development and the country park to a community-run trust.

Anyone interested in registering to speak at the appeal should turn up at 10am today.