#85: A reminder to myself of how far we’ve come without actually covering any distance. Not so much an obituary for wishful thinking as a last word on the art of artful lying and how much easier it is just to go along with it – as if you had a choice.

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.

Exaggeration?

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”.

What does that mean in practice?

Take a walk up to Vicarage Lane.