Vice-chair of Highley Parish Council Cllr Peter Vinall; DPCC Tracey Onslow; Chair of Highley Parish Council Cllr Dave Tremellen
Tracey Onslow, the Deputy Police and Crime Commissioner for West Mercia, visited Highley this week to see the recently upgraded CCTV system in the village.
The scheme has been running for several years but the grant enabled the parish council to extend the reach of the camera system and enable Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR).
The DPCC was impressed by the system, and recommended the parish council apply for further funding to expand the reach of the ANPR which has already been used in to provide supporting evidence in a recent case.
Councillor Dave Tremellen said that the upgrade had already proven its worth to the local community and police.
He added: “It has helped to improve the partnership between the police and the community.
“The local police cover an area of around 200 square miles, and this will help them to do their jobs.”
Police and Crime Commissioner John Campion said: “I recognise that CCTV is an extremely valuable resource. Not only can the presence of a camera make people feel more secure, but by having fit-for-purpose equipment it will ensure better quality of images which will assist the police.
“I am pleased to be able to support Highley, which has suffered with anti-social behaviour and rural crime. I’m committed to making sure that people are safe and feel safe, so I hope these new cameras will provide reassurance to the community.”
Well, as far as Covid is concerned, the county council was still taking it seriously enough to announce that the last Full Council was once again held at Theatre Severn. Not the best venue because movement is restricted and the audio isn’t the best during debates. I wasn’t best pleased at having to miss that meeting – but health issues took priority – because there was a debate and vote on the crazy, short-sighted decision to close Stourbridge Road highways depot, the base for winter highways maintenance in the east of the county, a closure that would leave just the three depots in the west of the county. That was a decision made by someone who couldn’t read a map!
I was by now hoping to have at last come to terms with the new way of working, which isn’t working whatever anyone says because it is not a case of “the same, just different”, it is totally foreign to someone like me who has spent seven years (pre-lockdown) working face-to-face with officers. Those working relationships work because they smooth the working of the council, but new councillors will know officers only as a name under a face on a monitor screen.
I don’t know about you but outcomes are unquestionably better if either party feels comfortable enough to raise a laugh to relieve the tensions generated by both having to work with limited resources and finding a way to work with those limited resources, especially over a remote connection. But no more.
We could have tried to pretend that things are still how they were, were it not for what seems to be a deliberate policy of separating-off the staff functions from what I always thought were the critical functions that kept a representative democracy functioning, one of which was the answering of awkward questions from elected representatives acting on behalf of their constituents. And not just any old answer, either, but one which explained the logic of how the answer got there, using words we all understood the meaning of, not words that had been spun so many times anyone could make them mean anything.
Then out of the blue on the 16th September I’m presented with a headline in the Shropshire Star telling me that Shropshire Council is no longer looking to close Shirehall and move its “civic centre” into the Pride Hill shopping centre. I’m left sitting staring at the screen in disbelief. I have challenged and questioned the sense of that move since the very beginning and met closely argued opposition from the outset, so I’m sitting there reading what’s being said VERY carefully. What’s going on? We don’t know because the Executive is refusing to say what plans they have, if any, for the future. (Mind you, that reluctance to engage only stretches as far as councillors, they’re always ready to talk to the media, in fact it’s the Shropshire Star and Oswestry Advertizer who keep me up to date with happenings at Shirehall, although twas ever thus. Says it all!)
With a few reservations over the commercial proposals in the £380,000 consultant’s report presented to us councillors by ex-Leader of the Council Peter Nutting and ex-Chief Executive Clive Wright, there was/is a lot of sense in retaining the Shirehall well into the future. It might not be a beautiful building (although it has its charms), but to those of us who were around in the 60’s functionality was at the core of a lot of civic architecture and the Shirehall was built for the purpose of civil government.
Internally it needs hardly any remodelling and what it does need can be easily realised because once you take the internal walls down you have a blank canvas, spaces that can be redesignated to suit any need. Structurally it is sound, only infrastructure like air conditioning and double-glazing would require major work, and then only in terms of time, not fitting it. Likewise a fire sprinkler system can be retro-fitted, as it will have to be in most older civic buildings anyway.
And the beauty of it all is that, because of the building’s layout all the work can be done on a rolling schedule with minimum hassle.
But that subsequent decision to close and sell off and demolish Shirehall was made under pressure from service directors and councillors with egos they felt they had to live up to who had different ideas about the working environment they wanted to match their aspirations as empire builders.
Distinctly uneasy with the decision to go back on those earlier plans and not a little confused, given the original enthusiasm to go with the consultant’s report, I asked the service director (Mark Barrow) driving the plans for closure in favour of the move to Pride Hill, for the data on which the decision to condemn and demolish Shirehall had been based. I was sent the £380,000-worth of specialist consultant-generated data on which the original decision to RETAIN, remodel and repurpose Shirehall had been based!
You couldn’t make it up.
These people are paid six figure salaries. Triples all round.
Well, to say “so much has happened” since my last report would be something of an understatement. In fact a hell of a lot has happened, it just hasn’t been completed.
The B4555 has been more or less done (with permanent patches – which seems to be the norm now) with the exception of the High Street. Now that’s something you WILL have seen happen because your life will have been thrown into so much chaos by the road closures and diversions. That the High Street would be “put back in the schedule” has always been a fear of mine, so when I was told that the delays on the main job (due to the incredibly hot weather delaying the curing of tarmac) meant that time was lost and the High Street ceased to be an “emergency project” and, in order to get it financed, it had to become a “capital project”, my heart sank because it meant the High Street was now just one amongst others competing for limited resources within a restricted capital budget.
I’m hoping that its relatively high profile (thanks to the media) will give it some protection from the competing, neighbouring areas who felt so put out by seeing Highley’s earlier pleas (all of which fell on deaf ears) finally being heard and, thanks to a Kier highways engineer, acted on. It had been a hard two-year slog against highways officers who were more concerned with insulating themselves from criticism than actually listening and reacting to the genuine concerns of local people.
Adding insult to injury, we, meanwhile, were reading about expensive schemes to make Shrewsbury more attractive to visitors, the rationale being that by doing that somehow the rest of the county would benefit. The reality, of course, is a bit different to that claim. Once again South Shropshire misses out to North Shropshire and again the Wenlock Edge becomes a psychological as well as geographic barrier.
Picking up on that argument – and I suppose calling Shirehall’s bluff on its claims – that what is of benefit to one part of Shropshire ultimately benefits the rest of the county, I’ve long argued that “Shrewsbury isn’t Shropshire”.
Picking up on that argument, for years I’ve tried to promote Highley as a place with much to offer, especially when it comes to tourism, but also because we are ideally placed to pick up on a scheme that was widespread back in the seventies and eighties and which capitalised on rurality rather than point up that rurality as a disadvantage… ‘CoSIRA’… ‘Council for Small Industries in Rural Areas’. As it said on the tin, CoSIRA promoted small rural industries (not always “craft” industries either); the craft workshops at Jackfield were probably the prime examples of what it meant to invest in an area and promote it for what it could be, rather than for what it fell short of as an “industrial” area. That’s a thought we need to incorporate into our future plans rather than allow the remnants of Shirehall to dictate what they think we really need as a perceived second-rate option to North Shropshire and its multi-million pound business parks.
I still wonder how many parishioners took on board what I said back in April 2017, when I reviewed the government’s Housing White Paper, predicting a major change in the relationship between planners and councillors and the people they represent.
And if, even further back in 2013, the residents directly affected by the Taylor Wimpey development of 58 houses off Jubilee Drive were the first local residents to experience the full impact of the National Planning Policy Framework (and few people were aware that Taylor Wimpey’s appeal – in reality a case of their merely putting a rejected application back on the table – was the test case for Shropshire Council’s 5 year supply of housing land, the shortfall triggering the NPPF’s “presumption in favour”), successive ‘refinements’ in local and national planning policy have brought us to where we are now, with a Shropshire Council-nominated ‘preferred site’ blighting all the alternative sites identified during the so-called “consultation” process between Highley Parish Council and a Shropshire Council planning officer, the latter insisting that his judgement over-ruled the local knowledge, knowledge that he had ostensibly sought in meeting with us! It became clear at the subsequent public meeting that because our opinions differed with his they were discounted. A village-wide petition of almost 600 signatures – asking that infrastructure considerations be given equal status to the need for affordable housing in order to make the development more sustainable – was reduced to the status of a single objection.
Although the land chosen as the preferred site had been earmarked for development since the Bridgnorth District Council (BDC) days, successive applications had been blocked by Shropshire Council’s senior planning officer (Ian Kilby, who left the Authority earlier this month, August 2021) applying the relatively obscure Article IV Direction on the land to prevent its being built on.
Separately, a number of applications had been submitted for the development of a small estate of nine bungalows on the smaller neighbouring plot to the south, but those applications were opposed by Shropshire Council through the normal channels, opposition which vanished when the potential of the smaller plot to open the way for a development of 100+ houses on the larger plot to the north was recognised. Something magical happened then. Those successive applications for nine bungalows, on land always considered to be of environmental “value” and worth protecting, overnight became a single “exception site” and an application for 20 “affordable” homes nodded through.
My own strongly argued case for caution, given the earlier planning officer’s reports on all those earlier applications carrying a cautionary note regarding the appropriateness of the site access directly onto what is considered to be one of the most dangerous bends in the village, was acknowledged with a planning condition!
At the planning committee meeting called to consider the TC Homes application, my argument regarding the need to protect children at the access to the site was accepted and a condition was placed on the development requiring an ‘appropriate’ crossing point to be installed at the site access, no houses to be occupied until such time as that ‘appropriate’ crossing point was in place and approved. Despite this, Planning Manager Ian Kilby gave TC Homes the go-ahead to build anyway!
Successive formal requests for the basis of Ian Kilby’s decision have been deliberately ignored. My last request for that information was made in person and a personal assurance given by Ian Kilby that the information would be forthcoming.
We await the outcome when the houses are ready for occupying!
For well over ten years that site had actually been protected by the Council’s Local Planning Policies. At a stroke of Ian Kilby’s pen, all that changed.
Local residents on Bridgnorth Road found themselves with the TC Homes development overlooking their gardens and were the first to discover what that power-shift to the housing developers meant in practice; planners, no longer constrained to protect local communities and their environment, were now tasked with pushing through local developments regardless of their impact on resident’s lives or the environment.
I had residents phoning me up and expressing disbelief when I explained that there really was nothing I could do about it. To make the point I advised them to look into undertaking a judicial review of Shropshire Council planning department’s actions. I further advised them to employ only a lawyer who was both familiar with planning procedures AND with dealing with Shropshire Council planning department. It was only when their solicitor came back admitting defeat that they accepted what I’d been telling them all along about the shift in the power balance. Lives were, literally, being destroyed.
I had reason to drive up to Vicarage Lane earlier in the week and the sight of those 20 affordable homes dominating what had once been an open view was, indeed, shocking, and I don’t use that word lightly, I was shocked. The housing association houses at the far end of Vicarage Lane have gardens that are now directly overlooked by houses just a few feet from their boundary.
That’s a taste of things to come. Not that I haven’t forewarned everybody, I went to some length to explain the implications of the terms attaching to the new planning policies when I described in some detail what the Right Homes, Right Place (RHRP) survey really meant for local people and, especially, for parish councils.
This government’s planning and housing policies have already brought about a dramatic loosening of planning laws to create a housebuilding boom that will, as I explained in some detail in that earlier report, damage local democracy and destroy swathes of countryside by granting property developers a freer hand to build over green fields – that’s any green field, anywhere, as evidence the 1,000-house Taylor Wimpey (“windfall”) development at Tasley in Bridgnorth!
Oh, and let’s not forget the similar development on the other side of the river at Stanmore, when swathes of genuine Green Belt will fall to the chainsaw.
And 500+ houses on the site of the cattle market off the Wenlock Road in Bridgnorth.
As explained in that earlier report on RHRP the introduction of “zoning” is a radical shift in the way decisions are made on new developments by zoning land either for growth, where developers will be allowed to build homes and related infrastructure without individual planning consents, or “protection” where development will be restricted, although getting such a restriction in place will be as hard as pushing through an objection under the NPPF and, as we all know, the ‘presumption’ at the heart of the NPPF insists that the balance of proof lies with the objector to make a case against a development, not with the developer to make a case for and, given that the NPPF is weighted in favour of the development, the benefit of any doubt will be given to the developer.
And let’s not forget that all this is on top of the still-ongoing impact of the government’s tightening of the Right To Buy (RTB) legislation in the last White Paper which gave Housing Association (HA) tenants the right to buy their properties at a large discount for which the housing association will have to be compensated. Local Authorities have been forced to sell off high value social housing to compensate HA’s for having to sell their houses at a loss. The consequent loss of LA social housing stock radically affects a LA’s ability to fund the building of social housing at a rate that would make up that loss, creating an unsustainable situation.
And then along comes this latest wheeze. Amongst all the bells and whistles is the clearly stated aim to “simplify environmental assessments for developments”.
We all know what “simplify” means. Like the NPPF the outcome will be an oversimplification that renders all situations arguable by couching them in terms that can be defined only in general terms and, as anyone used to dealing with case law will tell you, what swings a case one way or the other is detail; arguing on the basis of a principle is fine as long as you can back it up with a reference to whatever makes that principle apply to your specific case.
Or, as I’m constantly pointing out: You can point a finger as much as you like, but if you haven’t got something to actually put your finger on, you’re wasting everyone’s time!
It’s said there will be stronger rules on design – but countryside campaigners warned the changes would lead to the suburbanisation of the countryside and rural sprawl, that is certainly the impression given by the TC Homes development.
I spent several years as a senior moderator on what was reputed to be the best (certainly the biggest in terms of membership and technical expertise on the design and building of energy efficient houses) online construction forum on the internet – anywhere – and what grieved those of us who were handing out the advice was the poor standard not only of workmanship in the UK but the pathetic standards in design, usually in terms of the low expectations that architects and planners had in their expectations for the finished products they were ultimately responsible for. They demanded nothing more than the standard of build the builder told them they could expect. Genuine self-builders (who got stuck in, as against those who merely signed the cheques), on the other hand, specified what they wanted and personally engaged with their builders in order to get it.
But we’re talking here about developers – not hands-on builders – working to meet government targets within a set of standards designed to ensure numbers of houses are built to an established minimum standard to minimise the time taken to build-out land acquired with the specific aim of meeting targets, not standards, and certainly not in terms of meeting “a known local need”, especially when that “need” is met with “affordable” houses most local people cannot afford anyway and which tend to go to people who fancy a home in a rural area from which they commute to work!
Announcing a planning bill that is expected to be the most radical since the 1948 Town and Country Planning Act, the government promised “simpler, faster procedures for producing local development plans, approving major schemes, assessing environmental impacts and negotiating affordable housing and infrastructure contributions”.
By the time this report appears the work on the B4555 (Bridgnorth/Highley road) will hopefully have been completed and, if indications at the time of writing this are anything to go by, it will have been worth the major hassle the unpredictable road closures have caused. I’m offering a not-so-silent prayer that for a few years at least our tyres may now see out their normal service life!
But what a ridiculous fight it’s been with Shropshire Council highways going out of their way to be obstructive in the most patronising way imaginable. They have consistently denied there was a problem – when they’ve bothered to respond at all – insisting on their absolute right to deny that what WE were experiencing on a daily basis was not, in their “professional opinion”, an issue worth investigating let alone doing something about.
I was subsequently taken to task by the current highways portfolio holder, Deputy Council Leader Steve Charmley (who is expecting the rest of us to find several tens of millions of pounds to pay for the North West Relief Road that feeds into his council patch of Oswestry), although the experience was a bit like being savaged by a dead sheep. In his response he deliberately managed to completely miss the point. Pretty pathetic way of going about things. The whole point of my campaign being that Shropshire Council highways had arrogantly ignored local representations and then lied, dismissing the detailed submissions of myself and local parish clerks out of hand.
But the highways stuff is relatively small beer when you consider all the other changes that are now in place at what used to be referred to as “Shirehall”, a place that now exists in name only, where the business of responding to community representatives hardly figures. It is no longer a “shire hall” in the sense of its being a civic centre where the people elected by the people of Shropshire do the business of running the county on behalf of that electorate, the process otherwise known (or used to be known, although it’s now a foreign concept) as democratic governance. The council is now managed by its directors of service according to how they see fit, the consequences of which we’ve seen in the way the council highways department is run, according to how THEY think it should be run to give us what they think we really need, forget what we WANT and which we pay for!
Years ago (a lot of years ago!) I was in Carvers, the Wolverhampton-based builders merchants, ordering a special connector for a bidet that a customer insisted they wanted in an en suite, and found myself in argument with the guy serving me who had no idea what I was talking about, despite my showing him a picture of the item. He insisted no such part existed and wouldn’t even check his inventory. He was insisting I just didn’t fit the bidet. So I asked him how much he was paying me for this visit.
“Well, nothing, you’re paying us!”
‘Right, that’s established the basis of this COMMERCIAL relationship. Care to reconsider?’
At which point a female colleague of his who had overheard the exchange stepped in and within a couple of minutes returned with the part.
That’s all I’m expecting from Shropshire Council – at the very least acknowledgement of the basis of a relatively simple commercial relationship – on behalf of the people who pay their wages, the very minimum you lot have every right to expect for your money.
Following on from Shropshire Council CEO Andy Begley’s last regular email to all staff, in which he rallies his troops by repeating what has become Shropshire Council’s most fundamental approach to governance (the main tenet of which Brian Williams quotes in his email below: ”A new partnership between councillors and officers”), the overall reaction from elected Members across the political divides has been one of disbelief that our CEO actually believes what he’s saying because, given our own experiences in the real world, it is difficult to see where he’s coming from.
The significance of Brian Williams’ email (circulated to all Members) is in his normally being one of (if not THE) staunchest supporter of whatever comes out of the ruling group’s collective mouth, any voiced criticism of a Cabinet decision usually put down by Brian Williams in the most patronising way, so to see this coming from his pen is indeed singularly significant. And if that were not earth shattering enough, he signs it as the Vice-Chair of the council.
I welcome the Chief Executive’s statement yesterday of ”A new partnership between councillors and officers”. In keeping with that ambition I trust that the Chief Exec will remind all officers, of whatever seniority, that there is a Council protocol which states that all e-mails (whether from members or the public) should be acknowledged within two working days and responded to within five working days, even if the e-mail at that time is simply to acknowledge that a full response is taking longer to prepare.
In the same spirit of cooperation it would be helpful if members making telephone calls to officers, if those are not immediately answered, could receive a call back within 24 hours, always assuming that the officer is not ill or on leave.
Vice Chairman of the Council.
Chairman of the Audit Committee.
As of today, Wednesday 30 June, there has been no official response from Andy Begley to Brian Williams’ email, which is hardly surprising given his response to my email (of a few weeks back) asking him to start including elected Members in his thinking about the restructuring of council governance, when his reply consisted of: “Your comments have been noted”. Hmmm.
He consistently repeats his belief that Shropshire Council is a “member led organisation” despite knowing damn well that it is anything but and, moreover, anything but because of the change in culture that he and his fellow service directors are quietly slipping in whilst insisting that nothing is changing, just ‘improving’.
What Andy Begley insists is happening simply isn’t happening, at least not in the way he insists, and hasn’t been happening that way since well before Covid came along with its “Covid opportunities”, every one of which has been eagerly grasped as justification for cuts in council in-house services, the impact of which has been felt by every town and parish council clerk in the county, let alone every elected Member and the people whose interests they’re elected to represent.
The irony in all that is happening – the removal of effective avenues of representation – is that this would have happened years ago had Keith Barrow remained as Council Leader and carried his vision for ‘ip&e’ (the council-owned trading company) through to fruition, and yet – when they eventually came out of the woodwork – it was the ‘privatisation’ aspect of ‘ip&e’ that had so concerned his critics.
He was also putting Shirehall on the market and “moving council closer to local communities by moving its operations out to the market towns”, but as was pointed out in a 2016 police report following his standing down as Leader (and resignation as a councillor following my Code of Conduct Complaint against him), the effect of his policies was not only to move council operations away from Shirehall but, crucially, scrutiny, which is exactly what’s happening with Andy Begley’s promulgation of his and his fellow service director’s policy of making the council more of a business and council employees more accountable to service directors instead of the people who actually pay their salaries – the taxpayers of Shropshire. Recent events involving my exchanges with highways highlight this trend!
Planning is following the same trend, although in planning’s case it’s no longer so much a ‘trend’ because it’s reached the point of cementing evolved practices into place, thanks in large part to changes in government policy that have swung the emphasis away from protecting communities from excessive development towards persuading them to accept over-development which they didn’t know they needed. When that still didn’t meet government targets for house building then “persuasion” swiftly changed to compulsion, the clear indication of which we saw in the recent circular selling us the idea of ‘Right Home, Right Place’ (RHRP), the central theme of which was hidden amongst the ‘need’ for more ‘affordable’ housing.
It’s worth looking closely at the spiel put out by the RHRP teams. It’s one of the cleverest con tricks I have ever seen in my decades of involvement with Local Authority Planning departments, not as a developer but as someone trying to earn an honest living in a specialised area of the construction industry – the joinery involved in Conservation and Listed Buildings – whilst navigating a way through national policies that seemed to change annually, a process rendered almost impenetrable by the inconsistent interpretation of national policy by individual planning officers. It’s why I retired three years earlier than I’d intended; at the time my actual words were: “I really don’t need this shit”.
But at least the killer stroke is out there with this RHRP scheme; loud and proud there’s nothing hidden because what would earlier have been a hidden agenda is now blatantly front and centre. “We will screw you so you might as well at least pretend you’re enjoying it.”
There is the threat…
‘A small number of parishes believe that by not taking part – and encouraging residents not to take part either – they will protect their area from housing development. However, that isn’t the case. If the survey reveals a clear housing need, and a parish doesn’t wish to get involved, they may be in a position where the housing is built anyway, but without their input.’
Then the come on…
‘The most successful housing schemes across Shropshire are those in which the parish council takes an active interest and involvement, and understands that by taking part, they will have a far greater influence over the type of housing created and how it fits into their community.’
Those of us who enthusiastically took part in the “consultation” process for the preferred site adjoining TC Homes’ current 20 affordable home development, only to see our “local opinion” completely ignored, know how criminally misleading the whole “consultation” process is. Up to that point, I was a keen advocate of closer involvement in the planning process, it’s why having that enthusiasm kicked out of me by an arrogant little planner came as so much of a shock!
And this simply adds insult to injury…
‘Shropshire Council’s Affordable Housing Team will provide guidance and support throughout this process, and once a Registered Provider has been selected and confirmed, representatives from the chosen Registered Provider will join the steering group and the group explores potential sites and selects the most suitable location. The RP then take on all the risk – so there’s no financial risk to the parish council.’
‘The chosen Registered Provider will then secure the land and handle the negotiations, while the steering group consider what they’d like their affordable homes to look like, and who may be living in them based on local need – subject to the advice of the Council’s Planning Department.’
And the coup de grace? It’s what the recent housing survey was all about. It was not and never intended to be a partnership thing with mutual benefits, a coming together of minds.
What you’re about to read isn’t new, it’s what’s been happening for years, and here in Highley is what happened with the ‘preferred site’ on which TC Homes is building. Despite all the environmental protections in place on the site, all of which were dismissed with the stroke of a pen from the man who had, ironically, put them there in the first place, that plot of land became a Standard Exception Site on which to build 20 “affordable” houses despite Highley Parish Council’s objections, based on local knowledge and supported by reservations over the safety of the site access expressed in earlier planning officer reports going back well over ten years. What follows applies to the TC Homes development, every word!
‘The second option for parishes is a Standard Exception Site Scheme. In this instance, a Registered Provider will find and acquire a plot of land based on evidence of need. While the parish council may have some input into the planning application, they wouldn’t have any further say once development begins.
‘The Registered Provider will handle everything from site selection to planning permission to build. Registered Providers usually have a standard model for the type, size and aesthetics of their properties, so it’s likely that this model would be applied to any new affordable homes built within a parish.
‘The benefits of choosing a Standard Exception Site Scheme over a Community-Led Scheme are that the parish council won’t have to do any work, and Standard Schemes tend to be completed more quickly than Community-Led Schemes because while they meet the needs identified in a parish’s Housing Survey, they don’t need to take into consideration the Parish Council’s preferences around site location and building design.’
Now consider the implications of the recent RHRP housing survey again. If a watchword is needed it’s probably: “Proceed with extreme caution tempered with cynicism”. Mind you, that’s always applied to dealings with a planning department anyway.
As I said throughout the “consultation” process on the current TC Homes development, whilst those 20 affordable homes might well be the “Right Homes”, they are in the “Wrong Place”.
Steve Charmley warning councillors against taking action in a way that doesn’t acknowledge “that things are different now”. They’re certainly different from the (ordinary) elected Member’s position; harder to get things done and virtually impossible to penetrate when things go wrong. In fact you could be forgiven for thinking that someone had set things up to make it even harder to blame those ultimately responsible for the mess that elected Members have to contend with. Recently elected councillors won’t have a clue what I’m talking about.
Accountability (direct, anyway) for cock-ups doesn’t come into it because the possibility of failure obviously wasn’t considered when the Master Plan was drawn up (although finessed would be a better way of putting it because the process started back in 2013), although that doesn’t stop service directors (and portfolio holders) from levelling a charge of heresy against anyone who dares question their actions, or in the case of highways inactions, which in the case of what I started is what this is all about.
At a recent online Member’s briefing on highways for newly elected councillors (and those of us who wanted to see if the message had changed in the interim) we were given the rationale for the current way of working. The commissioning structure was explained and the reasons given for it.
Basically, we elected members had to be nicer/kinder because there was now only a handful of directly-employed Shropshire Council officers administering the two main ‘contractors’, Kier (hands on) and WPS (planning).
In other words, “commissioning” writ large. The day of the spreadsheet made fully flesh and blood had finally arrived. The days of the mortals, it was made clear, are numbered.
And because these were “experts” in the arcane world of work planning, commissioning was sacrosanct, once committed to paper it became Holy Writ.
I’m not making too much of my widely-publicised actions over the state of our highways around Highley when I say that had I been a more sensitive soul then much of what was said about the importance of adhering to the new reporting orthodoxy should have made my ears burn, except that the only thing burning was an increasing sense of outrage that so much was being dictated to us by people who operate from a different set of principles to us; they according to the accepted wisdom of detached professionals; us according to the intimately-known consequences of such a detached view!
But they didn’t want to know. Had an answer to everything. When things started to get embarrassingly close to forcing them to face up to OUR reality, then whoever was “having a go” at the time was closed down by Tanya Miles (Director of Adult Services, presumably put in charge of the proceedings because she was well qualified to assess highways issues and how they impact on the local communities that elected Members know so well) who was chairing the meeting. Had there been a genuine wish to understand the issues that had so incensed not only some of us elected Members, but so many town and parish clerks at the online meeting held the day before, then it would have been agreed to pick up on at least some of the main points and called them into scrutiny. As it was, existing and emerging concerns were summarily dismissed in order to keep things moving on, which has always been the problem that prompted all of my actions. But hey.
And, of course, £130,000 having already been spent on that erstwhile highways consultant (whose expertise we ordinary souls obviously didn’t appreciate, but then how could we, being only ordinary mortals who spend all our time listening to what our constituents tell us), they were hardly likely to say anything that called that expense into question.
Charmley is just doing his job. In fact, the modus operandi of all portfolio holders is the same, having developed that familiar patronising way of delivering a response that says absolutely nothing. The word “anodyne” was coined for local authority use.
The officers presenting the council’s case obviously hadn’t bothered to check whether the facts as they saw them aligned with the everyday reality of “ordinary” people who are dependent on their cars to get to work, hospital, college, and who are fed up with bills of several hundred pounds to fix cars seriously damaged by sub-standard roads, a particularly annoying – indeed frightening – experience when you’re driving home after a hard day’s work only to end up stationary on a dangerous bend on a lonely country road in the dark.
There is a lot of ‘background’ to the current newspaper reports, going back not weeks or months but years.
It is significant that not once has ANYONE (certainly none of those expressing an opinion at that briefing) stepped into the current highways controversy my actions have stirred up and spoken with me or the clerk to my parish council to find out whether there is a case for them to answer, but then the assumption on their part is that there ISN’T a case to answer, an assumption recently ripped apart by what I can imagine is one very frustrated traffic engineer in the employ of Kier who, probably thoroughly fed up that Kier has been getting the flak for the shortcomings of Shropshire Council highways officers and, having to keep schtum, got up from her desk and driven out to Highley to see for herself.
This was the outcome…
Sent: 26 May 2021 09:20
To: Dave Tremellen <Dave.Tremellen@shropshire.gov.uk>
Subject: New Road, Highley
Good Morning Cllr Tremellen
I just wanted to make you aware that there will be an emergency closure on New Rd, Highley this morning. After driving the road yesterday I believe that the potholes need to be treated as an emergency so we are going to make them safe this morning.
Emergency services and buses will be allowed through due to the short notice of this. As we are making temporary repairs to make safe we will try and get this done as quickly as possible so as not to cause too much disruption.
I have attached a diversion route for your information. This will be the same diversion for the Multevo closure in July.
Apologies for any inconvenience caused I just don’t think that these can be left as they are for much longer after seeing the full extent.
Now THAT is a response from someone not afraid to exercise their professional scepticism and question assumptions to ensure that professional hubris doesn’t get in the way of doing the job they’re paid to do – maintain highways and fix them when they go wrong, which is what the rest of us ordinary mortals judge them on.
A LITTLE HISTORY…
At the February 2014 meeting of Full Council I asked…
QUESTION 7: MR DAVE TREMELLEN will ask the following question: Will the Portfolio Holder for Highways admit that they have lost the battle with potholes in South East Shropshire? In the event that they still cling to the delusion that they are in fact still in control of roads in my part of the county, would they point to the evidence to support that claim.
MRS CLAIRE WILD, the Portfolio Holder for Highways and Transport, will reply: Shropshire Council has not lost the battle with potholes in South East Shropshire.
Claire Wild wasn’t lying and hindsight can be cruel sometimes, but the passage of time has made my case for me. Claire would have been better keeping quiet. Very quiet!
First elected in 2013 I have asked questions of portfolio holders for highways and since 2013 been given the stock answers that tell us nothing, except that someone has spent time thinking up new excuses for why the situation can’t be that bad. Oh, and anyway, other areas have the same, if not worse, situations, as if that makes it all OK.
So what kicked it all off big time?
There is a perfect stretch of road a few hundred yards just outside my patch, heading south on the B4555, it was completely rebuilt several years ago, the job having been done to what was standard spec back then – in other words, properly: new foundations, drainage off neighbouring fields dealt with, a superb job, a ‘proper job’, it was just beyond ‘New Road’, that section of the B4555 that is the southern exit to Highley referred to in the newspaper reports. (Back then we had Mouchel – with whom I was in direct telephone contact – as consultants and the main council contractor was Ringway, subsequently replaced by WPS and Kier respectively.)
About two years ago a wooded section through the lowest part of New Road started to break up. Deeply wooded, at the bottom of a valley, visibility isn’t the best during daylight and at night it is positively lethal, especially if you are on two wheels. Reports of the surface defects did result in what can only be called surface repairs if you’re in a particularly charitable mood, typically consisting of a shovelful of tarmac in isolated potholes tamped down with a boot that lasted a couple of days, if that, the loose tarmac being kicked up by passing traffic and making the road surface deadly.
That was a situation that had been ongoing for at least two years and which had got progressively worse, to the extent that local drivers had started to divert away from the B4555 onto the unclassified Netherton Lane, thence onto the unclassified and single-track Borle Mill Lane, re-emerging at the junction with the B4555 where the earlier “proper job” had been done several years ago, creating a situation the dangers of which (narrow single-track lane) were pointed out to our highways department only to be completely ignored. And I mean completely ignored.
And then, adding insult to the injury of ignored pleas from an entire local community, our parish clerk got this, the notification that Shropshire Council highways intended to SURFACE DRESS that immaculate stretch of carriageway…
I attended a virtual meeting recently to discuss the Council’s capital works programme for 2021/22/23 and beyond, Highley High Street was again mentioned as a scheme for 2021/22 financial year. I don’t know what the extents of a future scheme will be or when the works are programmed to commence but the location is on the agenda.
With regards to surface dressing it is my understanding that the sections of the B4555 are to be surface dressed this season. Surface dressing is an industry recognised method of extending the life of a road surface, preventing formation of carriageway defects, preventing water ingress and improving surface texture (skidding resistance).
The work undertaken earlier in the year was in preparation for this work.
To which I replied (and notice at this point I was still protecting the officers by redacting their contact details)…
Sorry ******, but if this surface dressing is in fact part of a “planned” programme of work then it seriously calls into question the sanity of whoever planned it. I challenge whoever is behind this work to meet with us, visit the various stretches of New Road (B4555) and insist that what’s planned makes any kind of sense.
I don’t apologise for any perceived slight in that challenge because no one can stand anywhere along that potholed track through the wood and insist that they deserve to be called a highways engineer. As none of you guys seem prepared to listen to either Ella or myself, I am seriously tempted to post each of your email addresses across social media and let you lot handle the flak.
Unless, that is, whoever has the balls to meet us on site and attempt to justify what’s planned makes the time to actually visit the site(s) and demonstrate just how wrong several hundred people are to challenge this ridiculous scheme.
Member for Highley Division of Shropshire Council
About eight years ago, I started a local Facebook page specifically to keep all highways issues in one place, and it was to that FB page that I posted this:
We’re waiting for a response from “the professionals”. If we haven’t heard back with an answer that MAKES ANY KIND OF SENSE I’ll post the email addresses of all the officers involved in this exchange and leave it to you guys as to what you say. [Note: Capitalised emphasis mine.]
… I gave “our” highways engineers the choice, they could either talk to me as the elected representative of the 3,600+ residents of Highley or they could talk to those 3,600+ residents directly on an individual basis, after all I was having to fend off criticism of THEIR failure to “get the roads fixed” so why should I have to carry the can?
Failing to get so much as an acknowledgement to my challenge (effectively two fingers from the professionals), I put the direct business email addresses of the relevant highways officers on that local Facebook page…
These are the direct email addresses for all those highways officials responsible for the state of our roads.
I’ve included those who are still responsible for the management of works AND those who were/are responsible for the highways policy and the remote way that the works programme is administrated.
Write to them individually, do not copy them into one email because they will leave it to others to answer for them, and be prepared to be ignored in which case it becomes a test of how persistent each side can be.
You will also find yourself answered by a PA-generated stock answer, but persist until you get a human-generated response that addresses the specific issue.
I’ll post in another thread about the jobs we’ve had pulled and the assurances I and Ella Preston the parish clerk have received about the work having only been ‘postponed’ which, in the case of the 20 mph safety zone around the school (scheduled to be done in September 2017), was pulled in favour of work at Shifnal’s Idsall School, which I was assured “would be done sometime in 2018″.
Similar responses were had when the comprehensive work (fully designed, costed and programmed) on the road from the Severn Centre junction down to Birdcage Walk was arbitrarily cancelled.
It’s up to you lot now!
Well, Highley residents came across in no uncertain terms, unfazed by the stock responses that gave rise to the direct action in the first place.
But I will make this very important point. My action was not only prompted by the general pothole/collapsing road situation across Shropshire, it was also prompted by the unbelievable pomposity of highways engineers who, even when they did agree to meet us, didn’t turn up and didn’t have the courtesy to apologise for their absence and suggest a place, date, and time for an alternative meeting. On every such occasion we have tried to accommodate them, especially when the suggestion for that original meeting has come from them (and we still have the emails).
And, of course, locally “we” wanted to know HOW those highways officers could STILL justify spending so much on surface dressing that perfectly good stretch of road (probably the best half-mile stretch of carriageway in South Shropshire) when they had to drive over a collapsing stretch of road to get to it! But the manual of national standards they work to said it was time to surface dress and so surface dressing it was and to hell with what was actually desperately NEEDED.
Highley is a vibrant community of 3,600+ people, with a High Street deeply incised with “potholes” that can be measured in feet. Again, in 2017 (the 20 mph school safety zone was pulled at the same time in favour of a scheme at Idsall School, Shifnal) a full programme of works was scheduled to completely resurface the centre of the village (we were even given a choice of surface colours) and put waiting time limits on the three lay-bys in response to requests by local traders, restrictions that were agreed several months ago but have yet to be authorised by Shropshire Council’s legal department.
I was hoping Shropshire would retain Steve Davenport as portfolio holder for highways because whatever faults he may have had, as a motorcyclist he recognised a dangerous road surface when he saw it. I have to admit to serious concerns when I heard that Lezlie Picton and Steve Charmley had been elected by the more timorous of their peers, especially with the latter being handed the highways portfolio, because their response to a dangerous road surface was more likely to be just to avoid addressing the problem rather than getting it fixed, a fear that has been amply justified by the Shropshire Star article that heads this blog.
As for Lezlie Picton’s ‘commitment’ to ‘review’, well, words come cheap “assurances” come even cheaper. Now that she has made herself part of the highways department her words will be judged alongside theirs.
It was under Steve Davenport’s (knowledgeable) aegis that we eventually got this follow up to that earlier “emergency” email from the Kier engineer…
Good afternoon Cllr Tremellen
I would like to make you aware of a road closure that will be taking place on the B4555. This closure is to undertake highway repairs using a Multievo machine. Multievo gives longer lasting results than regular patching.
In the meantime we will undertake temporary repairs to the defects in order to make them safe.
The closure dates will be as follows:
B4555 New Road – 12/07 – 14/07
B4555 Ingram Lane to Eardington – 15/07 – 23/07
I will forward the diversion maps to you when I have received them I just wanted to take this opportunity to give you notice of the dates.
Charmley had to say something when he was phoned by the Shropshire Star journalist, just a pity that what he said reflected pretty much what had caused the problems in the first place, ignorance of the on-site situation compounded by complete indifference to a situation that had been caused by his administration’s decision three years ago to cut £20 million out of the highways budget and continue to spend money on projects (a lot of them coincidentally favouring Charmley’s own sphere of influence in and around Oswestry (Shurely a coincidence, Ed), financed with money that could be more productively spent elsewhere in the county.
Charmley and his Oswestry mates not only insist nothing has changed since that £20 million kick in the teeth, but that such budgetary cuts have actually improved efficiency.
All of which takes me back to the days of Chris Edwards. Who he? The last of the good guys with a profound understanding of how to make the relationship between elected Members and the Executive work. I wrote at some length about Chris (where, for reasons of confidentiality necessary at the time, he was referred to as ‘Jim Smith’) and the shameful way he was treated in the blog article entitled ‘#68: Now you see him, now you don’t. Lifting at least a corner of the Shirehall carpet.’
Back in the day there was real mutual understanding of the respective roles of those who, regardless of whether elected or salaried, saw their function as being “servants” of the Shropshire taxpayer and their respective roles as being genuinely ‘plan led’, the plan having been mutually agreed as the best that could be achieved under increasingly constrained resources. As it is now, what semblance of a plan exists is predetermined by director-led policies that are inward-looking and iron-clad defensive.
Come back Keith, all is forgiven, or might as well be.
Safety zone around Highley Community Primary School, fully designed and costed but removed from the works programme in 2017 in favour of work at Idsall School, Shifnal. No sign of it ever being resurrected…
I’ve got a lot of respect for David Minnery as an effective presenter and interpreter of the council’s finances, which is why I find this so depressing.
A highly qualified accountant who worked collectively with those parts of the administration that are built on spreadsheets. You don’t need to take too powerful a magnifying glass to read between the lines of David Minnery’s email to see that he squared his conscience with his professional duties – that’s how he saw his role, as one of duty to the Shropshire Council brief he was handed rather than any political considerations.
His loss to the administration will be keenly felt by those who appreciated what he did and the civilised way in which he did it.
He now chairs the Independent group, bringing to the role all the knowledge of his years in local government. And it’s not easy acting as the representative of a group of individuals who (by defintion) are jealous of their freedom to act without the type of political interference that drove David to resign the Conservative Whip, you know, the Whip that doesn’t actually exist in practice, well, according to the Conservative Party group.
I wanted you to hear directly from me that I have this morning tendered my resignation from the Conservative Party and, accordingly, from the Conservative Group. As a consequence I have also resigned from the Fire Authority with immediate effect.
It has not been an easy decision; I joined the Party in 1978 and have fought, and mostly won, many elections for them over the years and I have always been proud to represent them in Local Government.
Sadly the Party today is not the Party I joined; I have always believed in ‘doing the right thing’ and in keeping true to my principles but it is perfectly clear to everyone (except, possibly, themselves) that the Party today no longer shares that ethos, and this is true from the highest to lowest levels. It both demonstrates and tolerates behaviour that in the past would have resulted in automatic expulsion or resignation and I am no longer prepared to be associated with it.
In case this is my last opportunity to do so I would like to wish everyone who is contesting the election the very best of luck. I bear no ill will towards any of you, this decision is entirely due to a personal battle with my conscience and I know there will be many who won’t recognise the descriptions I have used to describe their Party and may take exception to my words. No offense is intended, and I apologise if any has been caused. As I always have attempted to do – I say it as I see it.
It has been an honour to have been a part of this Authority and to have been entrusted with some responsibilities over the years. I have enjoyed working closely with our Officers and with fellow Members of all persuasions and I have appreciated the contributions made by all sides to our debates and discussions.
To those of you who are not contesting the election I wish you a long and happy release from the trials and tribulations of Local Government in these very difficult times; may you live long and prosper!
At the last Council Meeting of the previous administration we had the opportunity to say farewell to Members not standing, for whatever reason this has not been afforded to us in this administration. I hope you will indulge me or of course you can just delete me!
To my friend and comrade in arms on many occasions Ann Hartley, what the hell did you do to be deselected!!! Shame on you NSCA!! You have represented this Council with dignity and grace throughout your tenure as Chairman. You were Cabinet Member for Children’s services and held the respect of Officers and Headteachers alike for your knowledge and commitment to the future generation of Shropshire. The only other thing I can add apart from good luck and good health is watch the space after the back room deals and the election results, who will be Chairman I wonder?
Lee Chapman, It was a pleasure to work with you and I wish you well in your future endeavours.
Michael Wood, you walk away from this Authority with your integrity intact. You never shied away from being a critical friend of the Administration…or just plain critical. We shared many a moment of despair at the lack of direction and decision by the Administration.
Jane Mackensie. Your time as Mayor of Shrewsbury was fantastic I was in awe. The tragedy of your daughter’s death understandably threw you into a place only those who know that pit of despair will understand. Some of the projects and charities you started I hope you are able to continue with and if I can ever be of help or support please let me know.
Hannah Frazer. We do not know each other very well but I have always respected your views and would always listen very carefully when you spoke in Council or at any meetings. The Council will be a lesser place without your contributions.
Madge Shineton. I first met Madge when I was Chair of the interim planning committee and we covered all 5 Districts and Boroughs with differences and nuances of local plans. It was I thought a straight forward decision until Madge stood up to speak and she ran a coach and horses through the officers recommendation! My admiration for her has never waivered since then. She has been an absolute rock of dependency and advice. Thank you Madge!
Pauline Dee. We have known each other for all the years I have been involved in Local Government, our paths mainly crossed in planning and you always had the concerns of your residents at the forefront of any contributions you made, but also you reflected those views on applications outside of your division. In the days of the LJCs you were always in the thick of it on the myriad of topics covered and your commitment to the residents of Wem should not go unrecognised.
David Minnery, what another cock up by NSCA! I wish you good luck in the upcoming election, you have always shown a pragmatic approach as opposed to a dogmatic approach, long may that continue.
Roger Hughes, your altercations with some on the NSCA are a little more public, I know you wont mind me saying that. But it illustrates some of the backroom machinations which take place. Good luck and I hope you are successful in the election.
Tina Woodward, again our paths did not cross very often, but yours again was a voice I listened to when you spoke in Council. I wish you well in whatever you do next!
Malcomn Pate. I first came to know Malcolm when a requirement/ expectation of a leader was integrity, and he had that in bucket loads. He led the drive for Unitary Status and was derided in many Districts and Boroughs, but he carried on and drove it through, only to be unceremoniously dumped by a coalition of self interest from past leaders of the Districts and Boroughs. He was held in high regard not just locally but his participation in regional and national politics gave him a profile which stood up well with his counterparts and reflected well back onto Shropshire Council. He was the one we turned to give stability to a very rocky boat when the leader stood down. Calm returned and the election followed…the rest is history and you can draw your own conclusions. I am so pleased that Malcolm has found happiness and a life outside of politics, good health!
Claire Aspinall and Mike Lee…..well done NSCA on your selection process there!
Stuart West. RIP your treatment by the administration after the last election was despicable. Nothing more to say, those of you responsible hang your heads in shame!
To the Leaders of the Opposition… Alan keep on being the Rottweiller I’ve always thought of you as being and continue to cut through the crap whenever you hear it! Roger well done for finally getting a Lib Dem suggestion on the Conservative Manifesto …LED street lighting!
Finally my own swan song, it has been suggested that I am a one horse pony… health…so be it!
This has been in no particular order and if I have missed someone apologies no offence intended, but where offence is meant I hope it is taken.
Democracy has an enemy, it’s called apathy, which is why everyone needs to get behind the campaign to get people registered to vote NOW and to push those who are either too busy or otherwise indisposed to get registering for a postal vote.
It’s not just the (county) unitary council elections this time, our parish council is also up for re-election, on which subject I’d remind fellow councillors that in the 2017 parish elections a few parish voting slips were thrown away because of lack of instructions about where they should go in the return envelopes. That had significance when the two-vote difference between two candidates was close enough for a recount to be called. I did raise the matter with Shropshire Council’s Returning Officer but I was accused of being mischievous, her attitude was that it was a parish council election and who cares about them. In other words, don’t make life difficult for someone who can’t accept that they’ve slipped up, despite clear Electoral Commission guidelines to Returning Officers NOT to take for granted that members of the public would instinctively know that the parish returns could be sent back in the large envelope alongside the sealed county returns envelope, an instruction that should have appeared in the instructions but didn’t. It wasn’t just a few elderly parishioners who were confused, a number of younger voters were also concerned that they’d “thrown away their vote”.
There are a lot of changes coming to the way our community develops. Planning laws are changing to give greater power to the executive to make decisions on our behalf which, roughly translated, means we’ll be told what we really, really need and have it explained to us in simple terms that can be expressed in that classic four-word riposte: “Like it or lump it”. Mummy knows best, although in this case Mummy looks and acts remarkably like a South American dictator.
You’ll have seen the CCTV cameras going up, largely thanks to the sterling persistence of our parish clerk, Ella Preston. It will cover the entire length of the village, from the junction of the main road at the pen factory end of Netherton Lane, to Haggs Corner/Bynd Lane/Netherton and on to cover the entrance to Highley at the top end. The system incorporates Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) and although reactive (not “policed”), it is monitored by security cleared volunteers who can react to a reported situation in a matter of minutes from the control room in the police station at the Severn Centre.
On the 4th of last month I attended the Police & Crime Panel (PCP) meeting where I raised the matter of working more closely with our local SNT to overcome the additional constraints imposed by Covid, to the extent of including them in the list of regular attendees at our online parish council meetings, something that used to happen regularly on a face-to-face basis a few years ago. Hopefully, the promised new recruits will start feeding through into the divisions within the next few months and we can get back to how we used to work.
Of course the Highley Action Group made up for that loss of regular contact and in a lot of ways was mutually beneficial, not least the informal exchange of information that kept both the SNT and the parish council up to date with local trends, but there was still a need for a more formal set-up on a more regular basis and because, given the public platform on which the parish council operates, it demonstrated to the public that there WAS a partnership and that their concerns were being taken seriously. I think the February meeting with PC Steve Mellor was considered a success by all concerned.
I reported to the PCP how successful Steve Mellor’s attendance had been and also commended Inspector Nikki Roberts’ proactive approach to the management of our local SNT, suggesting that on the basis of the success of that first online meeting the Chief Constable might consider promoting that initiative to other SNTs encouraging them to ‘attend’ parish council meetings. In fact Nikki Roberts has written to all SNTs on her patch encouraging them to do just that!
The Licensing Act Sub Committee meeting on the 12th was of a complexity none of we three members had ever encountered before. Such meetings are by their nature an exercise in balancing probabilities, but this one was especially conflicting for me because I’d been dealing with a complex local example of how a “breach of conditions” can result in some pretty outrageous decisions that seemed to fly in the face of reason. In this case we were being ‘strongly advised’ to reject the application because of a ‘predicted’ public nuisance based on what had happened elsewhere, and there was I asking how come enforcement were happy to allow a public nuisance here caused by an admitted breach of planning conditions to continue just because the company had “mitigated” the nuisance, despite that “mitigation” failing on a number of occasions, causing the nuisance to re-occur. So in the Highley case we had an admitted breach of planning conditions allowed to continue, creating a dangerous precedent for a neighbouring development subject to the same planning conditions, whilst here we were being advised to refuse permission because of a public nuisance that had yet to occur. But then in drawing the distinction between justice and the law who said life was fair?
Otherwise it’s all been about what I call “domestic” stuff, not least highways. I took up a few local issues arising out of the way local people had been treated by Kier sub-contractors. A couple of those had involved people from outside Highley, but my reason for following through on them was because the incidents were symptomatic of the failure of both Shropshire’s highways contractors AND Shropshire Council management to actually supervise staff, because their attitude towards the people their work was directly affecting showed a lack of care that carried over into the sub-standard work they were being paid to do by Shropshire tax payers!
Independent County Councillor for Highley Division of Shropshire Council