I still wonder how many constituents 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.
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 over the refusal of the Jubilee Drive development in Highley was the test case for Shropshire Council’s 5 year housing land supply, the shortfall – by 0.05% – triggering the NPPF’s “presumption in favour”, a distinction I’d rather we didn’t have.
And no, “it” hasn’t gone away!
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 insisting that his judgement over-ruled local knowledge, knowledge that he had ostensibly sought in meetings with us! It became clear at the subsequent public meeting that because our opinions differed with his they were discounted, as witness 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. That petition was reduced to the status of a single objection with 600 signatures.
Although the land chosen as the preferred site had been earmarked for development since the old Bridgnorth District Council (BDC) days, successive applications had been blocked by Shropshire Council’s senior planning officer (Ian Kilby, who left the Authority in August 2021).
Separately, a number of applications had been submitted for the development of a small estate of nine bungalows on what is now the TC Homes development, now complete to second fix, but those applications were opposed by Shropshire Council, 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.
Given earlier planning officer’s reports carrying a cautionary note regarding the appropriateness of the site access directly onto what is considered to be one of the most dangerous bends on a busy main road, at the planning committee meeting called to consider the TC Homes application, I argued the need to protect children at the access to the site and a condition was placed on the permission 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 subsequently gave TC Homes the go-ahead to build anyway.
No one, apart from the now-departed Mr Kilby, and whoever the relevant manager is at TC Homes, and the Shropshire Council highways planning officer who consistently refuses to answer questions regarding the development, knows what was agreed to swerve around that planning condition.
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. When he made that promise he knew damn well that he wouldn’t be around to fulfil it.
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 and Vicarage Lane found themselves with the TC Homes development overlooking their gardens and were the first to discover what that government-enabled 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, critically, the environment.
From the outset I had anguished 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 early on to look into undertaking a judicial review of Shropshire Council planning department’s actions, being sure to employ a lawyer who was both familiar with planning procedures AND CRITICALLY with dealing with Shropshire Council planning department. It was only when their solicitor came back admitting defeat that residents accepted what I’d been telling them all along about the shift in the power balance. Quality of lives were being destroyed, tens of thousands of pounds lost on the value of their properties.
A couple of weeks ago I had reason to drive up to Vicarage Lane and those 20 affordable homes dominated what had once been an open view across the Severn Valley, a view Ian Kilby had once thought important enough to protect. It was, literally, shocking, and I don’t use that word lightly, I was shocked. The housing association houses at the far end of the cul-de-sac that is Vicarage Lane have gardens that are now directly overlooked by houses just a few feet from their boundary. Oh, and a view of brick walls.
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 fanfared 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.
Oh, and in case I forget, have I mentioned the 500+ houses on the site of the cattle market off the Wenlock Road in Bridgnorth, the cattle market being re-developed on the opposite side of the road.
As explained in that earlier report on Right Homes Right Place 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’ve 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, ‘ebuild’ – 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.
And on a purely parochial note…
Activity at “Shirehall” continues to be restricted to limited meetings that are, to all intents and purposes, ‘invitation only’; the days when meetings were going on, somewhere, almost continuously, are now long gone.
The justification for this closing down of the human side of council activity is no longer Covid but the financial savings that the Administration are realising through staff working from home. Concerns about decisions being made in what is, to all intents and purposes, closed session, are dismissed by making the RECORDINGS of such meetings available on the council website.
It is NOT the same. Personal contact, the ability to gauge the “implications” of an unconscious tic when answering what should be a relatively harmless question, raising the question: “What was that about?” Those little unconscious moments often said more than several minutes of carefully structured presentation.
Ah, the good old days.
Looking back over my old diaries, in the days leading up to the Covid lockdowns I was at Shirehall at least twice, usually three times a week, occasions when I fitted in meetings with individual officers to follow up on something local to Highley or personal to a Highley constituent. There were often meetings of various committees going on which you could drop into and eavesdrop on proceedings and, because of the “open forum” nature of such meetings, if there was anything arising that piqued interest, it was not only allowed but expected that “visiting” councillors sitting-in on the meeting contributed (at the invitation of the committee chair, of course, which was usually forthcoming) to the proceedings from the public ‘gallery’. That’s open democracy. We’ve seen the last of that!
The “Covid opportunities” (don’t you just love that phrase?) identified by service directors are still being rolled out and the questionable advantage of grasping those opportunities pushed by some officers and directors alike with an enthusiasm so keen that I often wonder what they’re on.
“Your comments have been noted.”
I’m never going to forget that response.
I’ve mentioned elsewhere that when I first raised my concerns that local communities seemed to be sidelined in all the policy decisions emanating from Shropshire Council’s “Executive”, the response I got from our newly appointed Chief Executive was: “Your comments have been noted.” Which said it all. Indeed, so much said in so few words.
Basically, the new top layer of administration is accountable to no one but itself and, critically, answerable only to those fellow members of what I’ve come to call the ‘Director’s Forum’, the body of professionals who meet regularly to formulate the policies that, as I said above, determine the direction in which the county is now running.
But, and it’s a big one…
For the sake of my own sanity, I am now gradually coming to terms with the new way of working, one characteristic of which was brought home to me on the afternoon of the 25th October.
One item on the agenda of the Place Overview (Scrutiny) Committee, enforcement, was of particular interest to me and in the old days I’d have just gone along and sat in, but not this time because of the way that meeting rooms are laid out in deference to Covid – you can’t just go along and eavesdrop because seating is laid out to observe Covid restrictions (desks equally spaced and all facing forwards, as against the old system of committee members sitting around a large table and facing each other) and you need to have made your intention to attend clear to the committee officer from the outset. Trouble was, the item I was interested in didn’t take on any significance until the morning of the meeting and I couldn’t reach the committee officer until she got back to me at 13.15, too late for the hour’s drive to get to the meeting at its start time of 14.00!
But thanks anyway to the committee officer who passed on my concerns to the committee chair, Joyce Barrow, who did offer to read out anything I wanted to say. Trouble is, as explained above, dependent on what was said I wasn’t sure WHAT I wanted to say because it was SO dependent on those subtle little tics.
Like I said, it’s not the same.