#49. The planning game: how planning departments weight the odds in their favour…


Just over 2 years ago I wrote in the (Highley) Forum:

Having watched the way local land agents are challenging Shropshire’s 5-year housing land supply figures, I’m increasingly convinced that if we stick with the current unwritten policy of opposition to everything we lose out on any leverage any proposed increase in population might offer to support the argument for better access roads, or at the very least roads that aren’t falling apart.”

That reflected what we county councillors had learnt in briefings and those parish councillors who attended a number of “neighbourhood planning” briefing sessions – organised by Shropshire Association of Local Councils and held either at Shirehall or the Lord Hill Hotel – had been advised to do in the face of increasingly tight legislation that made objecting to planning decisions difficult-to-impossible. Basically, it was made clear to us that the world of planning had changed and we’d better get used to it!

Well, we have tried to be reasonable and we have listened to what the planners have been saying to us, but instead of respecting those efforts to help match what the community needed with the county’s plans for the future – on the basis of our local knowledge – we have been ignored and our concerns ignored as irrelevant.

Nothing has highlighted that attitude like the response to our insistence that the current “round of consultation” on Shropshire Council’s “preferred option” is yet another example of Shropshire Council’s planning department “telling and selling”. They’ve told us what they intend to do and send their people out to sell the idea to us.

Overwhelming reactions at the two public meetings (the last one called by and paid for by me) – both packed to capacity – demonstrated that Highley is simply not in the market for even more of Shropshire Council’s bovine ordure *, otherwise known as…. Well, I’d better not or I’ll find myself the subject of yet another formal complaint.

I’ve spent most of my life in hard industries surrounded by hard people who give short shrift to the smelly stuff, so when you’ve spent so long saying it how it is (including time in the Forces where every third word in a verbal “technical” report of what’s wrong with a multi-million-pound aircraft is an expletive), you’re disinclined to defer to the faint sensibilities of a ‘civilian’ audience!

The attitude adopted by Shropshire Council’s Planning Department is an affront to the idea of what’s meant by “democracy”. What’s happening is arguably a direct consequence of the Cabinet system of governance and its tendency to filter down through the ranks.

For those who still fondly cling the idea that the “old” committee system of local government prevails, the reality is what’s officially called the ‘Strong Leader model’, where all powers that used to fall to the Executive are now discharged solely by the Executive Leader (whether personally or through delegation), and not by the Executive as a ‘body’.

In the same way that the ‘Strong Leader with Cabinet’ is a system of political elitism, planning is a system steeped in bureaucratic elitism wrapped in a force-field of technical-speak. Anyone who has read through the documentation that accompanies the preferred sites consultation will have gathered that, it’s why I’ve stressed the importance of everyone completing that “consultation” – not to bin it just because some of the questions asked are beyond a lay person’s understanding, an understanding that allows for an informed judgement on what are quite complex issues.

If someone does not understand a question the response needs to be: “I do not understand the question”.

The whole approach excludes meaningful involvement, whether by design or genuine lack of empathy on the part of the planners (I suspect a combination of the two), at least insofar as such involvement allows meaningful consultation. The Gunning Principles guide how the Executive should engage with those it claims to be working on behalf of…

Consultation must take place when the proposal is still at a formative stage: Decision-makers cannot consult on a decision that has already been made.

I have made the point to the planners that the way the preferred sites have been handled favours the one that makes life easiest for them because it gives them 122 dwellings at a stroke of the pen. They vehemently deny this, insisting that the “consultation” is a genuine attempt on their part to reach agreement having considered the views of all. That is patently not the case.

They have presented their preferred site in a way that blights the alternatives. They deny this. I pointed to my being approached by a planning agent working on behalf of the owner of one of the alternative sites – a site that would actually cure a lot of traffic problems in Highley, not make them worse – asking if, in my opinion, it was still worth working on those plans now that Shropshire Council had publicly announced its preferred site. In all honesty I didn’t know what to say, other than to weigh his options and place his bet – it is that much of an odds-on gamble!

And since that approach I have received a letter from another agent saying: “We have identified a site within Highley and have a landowner that is happy with offering a piece of land for affordable houses. We would like to speak to you about the site and bring it forward positively with the Council and a housing association. Please let me know your thoughts and maybe we could meet up and talk about it in further detail.”

I can’t be sure, but I suspect that site to be the smaller of the two neighbouring the telephone exchange, where there has been an earlier, rejected, application for nine bungalows. It is part of the Shropshire Council preferred site.

So, taking account of the impact of housing development assumed by the planners themselves, each new dwelling generates 5-6 vehicle movements a day.

Going back to that quote at the head of this report, the watch-word is “infrastructure”. Not another brick laid until “they” wake up to the crippling effect that their indifference is having on a community of 3,600 (and as that was at the 2011 census, it’s 3,600-plus people now).

Dave Tremellen

Independent Member for Highley Ward of Shropshire Council.

03 February 2019.

* Bullshit. The obscure term “bovine ordure” was coined for use in the actual report because one particular parish councillor is sensitive to working-class vernacular and inclined to make formal complaints about my “language”.