#91: Memory Lane, complete with potholes.

Occasionally I have a furtle through old reports, especially those from the days when we were expected to contribute to what we used to think of as “the democratic process”, which, to judge by the current crop of new councillors, is a foreign concept, certainly totally alien to our current Administration which seems to be well up on theories but sadly lacking in both imagination and application; weak when it comes to considering the possibilities of unintended consequences.

Previous efforts are usually dismissed as being, well, “previous” and not therefore worth the expense of reviewing for potential benefit in the sense that if they were subsequently shown to be likely to fail they were scrupulously pored over for the reasons for failure and the thinking behind them subjected to what, in scientific terms would be classed as a peer review, torn to shreds with the truly bad bits binned and any promising bits enhanced and the whole lot presented for scrutiny.

And that’s what happened back in the day of the planning system’s review I’m citing here, except that Peter Nutting declared at his first full council meeting that he had no intention of reducing the planning committees. No discussion, despite his having, with that statement, closed down the planning review T&F group still running at the time. No debate, Peter knew best and would tolerate no argument, which sort of set the tone for the next few years, or would have done had the small matter of budget savings not intervened resulting in a reduction to the current two committees!

Makes for an interesting intellectual climate.

Anyway, I found this report in amongst others and it brought back happy memories of the earlier escapades of the North Shropshire lot, who some of us referred to as “the Oswestry Mafia”. Ah, happy days of councillors taking grants to, allegedly, support a tourist business (in this case a B&B), the grant coming from the subsequently cocked-up loan (to TNS) originally constituted as a “legacy grant” to avoid EU regulations over the use of public money to support a private enterprise in a way that would be (let’s say) considered “questionable” if an indirect way of repaying the “grant/loan” was not in place. It sounds complex but is in fact quite a simple concept, well, unless you happen to be Shropshire Council or Oswestry Town Council.

See: https://wordpress.com/post/dtremellen.com/1063

But anyway.

Let’s take the trip back to 2016…

The first meeting of the most recent Task & Finish (‘T&F’) Groups to review Shropshire Council’s planning system in order to rationalise it – in the process reducing cost – met on Monday 17th October 2016. The most significant change will be a reduction in the number of planning committees IF the group listens to the evidence for such a move.

Whilst it was acknowledged in earlier ‘reviews’ that such a reduction cannot realistically be done without increasing the number of applications decided under delegated powers (where the final decision on a planning application is decided by a planning officer rather than a committee), given that taking a planning application to committee is eight times more expensive than having it decided by a planning officer in terms of cost alone, such a move would realise considerable savings.

Although that 17th October meeting was the first in this current T&F Group, it wasn’t the first to consider these issues. Two earlier T&F Groups have met, in 2013 and 2015.

The second review (July 2015) decided that as the adoption of Shropshire’s long-term planning policy document, the Site Allocations and Management of Development (SAMDev), had not then been concluded, the system could be reviewed more effectively six months after the signing-off of SAMDev, which happened in December 2015.

But why bother anyway?

Is a wheel being re-invented here? Comprehensive reports were produced on completion of the review in 2013 and nothing has changed in the interim – except to get worse, certainly as far as pressure on planning staff goes. Not only are there fewer of them since the round of voluntary redundancies a couple of years ago the ones who are left, and the new ones who have since joined, find themselves being challenged by those ex-colleagues who took voluntary redundancy and went to work for the developers now challenging Shropshire Council on all fronts! (A situation likely to get worse, given the government’s determination to weaken controls on Green Belt in their push to meet housing developer’s demands for land that doesn’t come with the problems of brown-field sites – more work, less profit.

There are two main issues being addressed by this current review:

  • Reducing the number of planning committees from the current three down to two – or even one;
  • and whether to increase the percentage of delegated decisions to make that reduction practicable.

The two are closely linked, so it’s not a matter of ‘either/or’ but ‘how’ to both.

Increasing the number of delegated decisions would reduce the workload of committees in absolute terms – travelling time and cost of coach hire to sites; time at committee, including lunch – and reduce the amount of officer time and back-office resources needed to support committee activity, hence the 8:1 ratio of cost mentioned above.

There are a number of considerations that bear on each other.

Those considerations were, er, “considered” three years ago. Still, the thinking seems to be that if something’s worth doing it’s worth doing again.

The 2013 T&F group visited neighbouring Herefordshire to look at how their SINGLE planning committee of 19 elected Members worked – very well, actually, very well indeed. The Chairman and Vice Chairman of the Herefordshire Planning Committee told the Shropshire delegation that: “…the move to a single Committee had resulted in the public perception that decision making on planning matters was clear and consistent throughout the county.

Outside Birmingham, Shropshire is the largest Local Planning Authority (LPA) in the West Midlands. It is also one of the most rural counties in England, which poses logistical problems if:

  • the decision is to allow an application to be considered under delegated powers then the case officer needs to visit the site and,
  • an application has been passed for consideration by committee, getting elected members together for site visits and subsequently back to Shirehall for the actual committee meeting,.

It’s alright getting planning officers and elected Members together in one place at the right time, but of equal importance when considering the question of public perception of openness and transparency, local communities directly affected by a planning application will want to witness the committee’s deliberations and hear the planning and/or legal officer’s rulings on planning law and Shropshire Council’s local planning policies.

On the matter of Public Perception, the suspicion that all is not as kosher as it could be is recognised as a problem with the current set-up anyway, so any future committee system needs to meet the expectation that due process will be open in the generally accepted meaning of the word, not in the sense that some politicians define “open”. The concomitant of that is that representatives of a local community affected by a planning application would be expected to turn up and make their case in person, or at the very least turn up to bear witness.

So, precedents?

It wasn’t just Herefordshire that the 2013 T&F Group visited, they also looked at the geographically much smaller Telford & Wrekin (T&W), which also operates with a single planning committee.

It is interesting that whilst the rate of delegated decisions for the much larger Shropshire with its three committees was around 94%, the rate of delegation for Telford & Wrekin’s single committee was about the same. So how come the delegation rate for Herefordshire’s single committee was 98%?

Granted, that whilst Herefordshire is geographically smaller than Shropshire, it is nevertheless geographically similar and faces similar economic and rurality pressures to Shropshire.

It’s not as if there isn’t a precedent for a single planning committee in Shropshire. In 2009, immediately prior to the conversion from County to Unitary status and the setting up of the area planning committees, something called the ‘Interim Regulatory Committee’ was in place to consider planning applications across the county. Significantly, one of its distinguishing characteristics was observed to be: “Enhanced objectivity when considering locally sensitive applications”. Surely an observation that makes a planning system based on a single planning committee an overriding imperative rather than just another option, especially if, as was observed at the time, that distinguishing characteristic had everything to do with its members being drawn from across the county.

My personal Road To Damascus.

I have argued in the past that local knowledge is needed in deciding planning applications, but (and it’s a hell of a ‘but’) the whole planning process is now so heavily regulated by statute in the form of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) that I have had to concede that planning decisions, regardless of local sentiment, cannot be other than wholly objective, guided by planning officer opinion in order to avoid handing to developers and their agents the grounds for challenge. Under those conditions, local opinion can now only ever serve as context.

It is inevitable that a single planning committee and any increase in the rate of delegation will be seen as: “…reducing the perceived democratic input into planning decisions (local decisions with local knowledge), and harmful to the reputation of the Council with Parish and Town Councils and the general public.” I understand that view because it used to be mine. However…

It is down to Local Members to take a lead here and address through closer cooperation with their town or parish councils, either using their knowledge of the planning system (if they’ve bothered to turn up to planning briefings) and/or acting as conduit between their local community and the case officer to steer applications away from committee by determining whether (or by how much) a particular application is contentious enough to justify its being passed to committee.

One of the reports that came out of the 2013 review made the interesting point that a closer working relationship between the Local Member and planning officers “…allows for local issues to be considered in a non-confrontational arena, which in turn may provide a better outcome or resolution of community concerns.”

The same report (the authorship of which isn’t given on the print-out I’ve got) goes on to say that the Local Member is elected to represent all factions within their community ‘without fear or favour’.

What they are not there to do is to be the voice of the local Parish or Town Council, or Councils. Where there are controversial and/or complex applications which impact on the locality, the Local Member should advise and argue these with the planning decision makers – but perhaps should not be one themselves.

It later asked: Does Localism demand three committees?

“… the answer has to be “no”. If the aim of planning is to arrive at clear consistent decision making, then logically creating a core planning committee with a uniform membership should be able to deliver decisions which, if not viewed as “right” or “wrong” by the local communities, will at least be consistent, with any tendency to interpret policies in one way by one member, will (or should be) balanced by the tendency of another member to view the same policy in a different way.

The strengthened role of the Local Member should be able to resolve many local issues at an early stage in the application, or allow for local input at the stage at which the matter is considered by a single Committee.”

It goes to state:

While there could be an immediate, temporary effect, there is nothing to suggest that a single committee would reduce planning confidence. Shropshire established a superior planning committee to deal with applications which were complex/controversial or where the Area Committee was minded to overturn officer recommendations. Decisions of this committee may have been questioned but this can happen with any planning committee. There is no evidence that the Strategic Planning Committee (see above) reduced public confidence in the overall system.”

The evidence from Herefordshire was that there was no concern from the public, from Parish and Town Councils or from Members, and no pressure from members for a reversion to the previous system of three committees.”

What clinched it for me was this (my emphasis in bold type):

The Herefordshire evidence suggests that a move from three committees to one IS possible, despite initial reservations from Members, and could potentially deliver significant benefits both in the better use of resources, and a better, more effective planning system, with integrity and consistency of decision making, combined with a greatly enhanced role for local members and local input, albeit in a different context.”

So, any object lessons?

I’ve got one that contains all the ingredients in the perfect mix of what can go wrong.

Perception is all, based on a principle that is a given for the trusting (but only just) general public and a vain hope tempered with cynicism for journalists and professional observers. If you listen to local politicians, Local Authority planning departments have something in common with English Law, the principle that: “Not only must Justice be done; it must also be seen to be done.”

The difference is that in English Law, unlike planning law, that principle tends not to be tested to destruction by those same local politicians!

Cynicism can set in fast. The mere appearance of bias is sufficient to overturn the general public’s faith in a planning decision, despite the insistence of local politicians that their declaration of a pecuniary interest (whether or not an individual has an interest in an item under consideration from which they might profit) deflects accusations of corruption. Ah, if only.

Declarations of pecuniary interest might deflect a formal accusation (interestingly, the police tend to take them at face value because that’s all they can do, see blog #24), but watch the eyebrows of the general public go up when they hear or read of such declarations because they are seen as, at best, disingenuous. Perception again.

Whilst a formal declaration of pecuniary interest satisfies convention, what it doesn’t do is deflect suspicion of the lesser evils of bias, favouritism, or cronyism inherent in any grouping of members of the same political constituency association. And if that group happen also to be the overwhelming majority on a committee? Wow!

And therein lies the problem that has bedevilled all earlier planning reviews. No one wants to point the finger and you can hardly blame “them” for not putting a gun to their own heads by exercising the power that being an overwhelming voting majority hands them on a plate. (See blog #27, The power of patronage.)

The object lesson.

One of Shropshire Council’s three current planning committees is made up of eleven members, ten Conservatives, one Independent. The North Planning Committee.

Back in 2013, an Outline Planning application was submitted to that committee and passed, subject to certain conditions being observed.

An application to vary one of the conditions went back to committee in October 2014, asking that the original condition of providing two access roads (west and south) be changed to one, south only. The variation had officer and statutory consultee (Highways, Environmental, etc) support.

Now with that level of support the application met the conditions that would have qualified it for a delegated decision in the new planning system being considered by the current T&F group, regardless of which form the eventual ‘new’ planning system takes. In fact, the lack of contention actually makes it a candidate for delegation under the current – albeit informal – guidelines. But it went back to committee. (See the actual planning reference given at the end of this blog.)

Further, as the application for variation was unanimously supported by the residents of the estate immediately neighbouring the site, a further qualifier for delegated decision was met – absolutely no contention.

NOTE: I need to go into a bit of boring detail here, but this particular case is an example of how prone to accusations of bias the current system is and how a single planning committee would guard against that.

The attraction of the south access alone was that it avoided the considerable cost of having to purchase the narrow strip of land on the western side of the development plot giving access to the roads of the neighbouring estate. Understandably, residents of that estate supported the application for the variation of conditions because removing that western access meant no increase in traffic flow past their houses.

NOTE: A narrow strip of land which needs to be purchased to gain access to a development plot is known as a ‘ransom strip’. It is a legitimate, commercial practice.

The applicants had the support of the planning officers, the statutory consultees and the residents of the neighbouring estate, they were expecting the variation of that condition to go through without a problem. It didn’t. The committee refused the application for the variation of conditions but it is important to understand that in doing so they did everything by the book. Remember, this is all about perception.

Unfortunately for the reputation and good standing of the Shropshire planning system there was a particular, very salient, fact that cast a shadow over the outcome, giving rise to allegations of ‘political interference’, allegations that would be unlikely, if not impossible, to make under a single planning committee system.

Regular readers of this blog will know that the ransom strip in question was owned by a local company, one of whose partners just happened to be the Leader of Shropshire Council, the Local Planning Authority whose decision over whether to allow that development to take place would make someone a lot richer. (See blog #1.)

Now, when you’re talking about “perception” you’re acknowledging the importance of not only being clear about what you’re doing but clear about why you’re doing it, there is no room for leaving your actions open to misunderstanding if you want your actions to pass what Private Eye calls the “whiff test”, critically important when one of – if not the most important – considerations in the process of introducing change is whether or not it increases, or at the very least maintains, public confidence in whatever you’re changing.

The outcome of that application for variation, and the processes that led up to it, was a formal complaint made to Shropshire Council which was passed immediately to the police. Everyone on the “defence” side was interviewed but none of the parties making the complaint which, unfortunately, rendered it barely an “investigation” in the generally accepted sense of the word. Assurances that declarations of pecuniary interest had been made were evidenced by the minutes of the committee meeting, so that’s alright then.

End of? If only.

The ‘whiff’ that came off the public perception of that planning case persists, nevertheless: “We’ve done all we can and can’t influence the way people think.”

Maintaining confidence in the planning process is paramount, especially now, whilst all the processes of local governance are under threat from the increasing control of central government and ‘localism’ has proved to be the chimera it always promised to be.

If there ever was a time when the planning system, the most sensitive operation in local government, had to present an open front it is now.

The planning process has to be transparent and open. If it says that on the tin then it has to be what it says on the tin, not a can of worms.

PS: I’ll consider the devilish details of the changes in a following blog, because there is a balance to be achieved between giving an already stretched planning department more applications to consider and “sharing the load” with planning committees. But remember that 8:1 ratio of cost? Time and stretched resources account for that. Think on.

Incidentally the details of the referenced planning application, should you wish to apprize yourself of them, are here:

The initial application for Outline Planning Permission…

13/01393/OUT

And the variation of condition…

14/05461/VAR

Either a note for an online submission to one of those online sessions that characterised 2021 or the seed for an article not written. Just found it in the drafts folder…

The difference in thinking this debate reveals has to do with our individual idea of what a “council” is and does. If I have a reference point it goes back to Keith Barrow’s ambitious plans for “his” council-owned trading company, ip&e, and what most people wouldn’t be aware of, the subsequent police report (2016), which said that whilst the initiative established a more “businesslike approach” to the council’s activities, it also removed those activities from the scrutiny of Shirehall, raising the question of whether that removal from scrutiny was intended or was “just” an unintended consequence.

Intentional or not, closing Shirehall and moving its activities to a town centre location achieves that same outcome – it removes those activities from immediate scrutiny because councillors are, at a stroke, removed to the periphery.

To me, Shirehall is more than a concrete symbol of 60’s brutalist architecture, it is actually a well designed building for its purpose, although that will obviously be open to debate, much of it based more on personal prejudice and vested interest than the £380,000-worth of detailed technical consultancy (freely available to anyone) that argues a solid case for the original decision to retain Shirehall but which later, as if by magic, turned itself – with a little help from directors of service – into the extensive set of documents that were – allegedly – the basis of the subsequent decision to demolish Shirehall.

The word “Shirehall”, as much as the building itself, represents all the established principles of local government that have been established by successive administrations over the years but which now, through straitened circumstances, finds itself threatened by what seems to me an endless search for ways to up-end those principles in pursuit of a bad dream.

Our directors of service had a wake-up call that argued that their case wasn’t as rock solid as first claimed (with much fanfare), and which advises them to watch for that bit of loose carpet at the head of the stairs. It’s not as if they haven’t been warned about it!

Forum article for December issue.

You know, for all it’s solemnity, in its way Remembrance Day, November 11th, is a good day because we not only come together to remember those who gave their lives in conflicts in the cause of our own and other people’s freedom, but to give personal thanks to those who survived and to those who are, on our behalf, still actively engaged in various theatres around the world.

I served in an active ‘conflict zone’ in Aden back in 1963 until 1965, as ground crew on a Hunter squadron, which meant I never actually saw ‘active service’ in the sense of being in imminent danger from direct enemy action, although terrorist activity was increasing towards the end of my tour out there, the most shocking of which was the death of a young girl when a grenade was thrown into a children’s Christmas party.

It’s thousands of miles from that married quarter in Aden to the war memorial at Highley church and yet it’s the memory of that young schoolgirl that comes back when I’m standing there, not the Hunter fighter pilot who, having survived operating in the most hazardous conditions imaginable ‘up country’, suffered an airframe malfunction and flew into the ground during an aerobatics display in front of thousands of onlookers.

Those two personal memories fall into line with the names that George Poyner reads out each year, that unnamed young girl and that fighter pilot tag onto the end of that column of local men and march off until they return next year.

Implicit in that memorial service is the acknowledgement of what that loss of life meant beyond any named individual, to those of us left behind.

That was brought home to me when, as one of the guard of honour at the funeral of that Hunter pilot, lined up with others alongside the graveside in what must be the loneliest burial ground in the world – aptly named ‘Silent Valley’ – I watched the wife of that pilot gently push their daughter forward to throw a flower onto her father’s coffin, and that’s the image I have when I see the adults at our Remembrance Day parade gently encouraging their charges to step forward on behalf of our football club, or brownies or scouts and place their wreath on the war memorial.

That’s an image that cuts across not just a few thousand miles of the most barren (and now war-torn) landscape on the planet but 78 years of an incredibly full life.

And back then, the last thing I imagined I’d be doing a lifetime later was carrying the responsibility for representing the interests of those fabulous wreath-laying kids and their parents who promoted such vivid memories of not just a very different landscape but a VERY different world.

We’re lucky living in Highley.

Dave Tremellen. 19 November 2021.

Silent Valley, Aden.

#88: PECUNIARY INTERESTS ARE OF INTEREST TO WHOM? THEY MATTER TO WHOM AND WHY?

On the matter of pecuniary interest…

At an “extra” meeting of the South Planning Committee on the 20th September (2021), called to reconsider the submission of the Ironbridge Power Station application, I substituted for Robert Tindall and it was with a sinking heart that I heard the current Assistant Director of Economy & Place, Tracy Darke, actually defend the argument made by a representative of the company that decided on the level of viability that would determine the number of affordable houses to be included in the development (5%), subsequently increased prior to this meeting to 10%.

Mrs Darke denied that his company’s claim to complete independence on the question of viability was open to challenge “just because” he and/or his company had acted on behalf of the power station developers Harworth in earlier schemes. Hmmm.

OK, went the argument, so those earlier instances might well have established a commercial relationship, but went on to argue that most people engaged in commercial operations will have had multiple dealings with other companies operating in the same sector, and that, moreover, it would be naive to assume otherwise.

Mrs Darke was supported in her argument by a couple of councillors who made much of their “commercial experience”. It was, they insisted, indeed naive to believe that wasn’t part of how commerce kept the world on an even keel, so what was the problem?

Well, indeed, what was the problem?

Neither that independent consultant nor Tracy Darke, nor those recently-elected councillors were aware of the authoritative legal opinion a few of us had heard frequently expressed by the ex-Head of Legal & Democratic Services at Shropshire Council, Claire Porter, that whether a pecuniary interest should be declared is a matter for public perception (I reminded her of that on a number of occasions, much to her annoyance), not the opinion of the person with the potential pecuniary interest, a view reinforced by another member of the legal department at a later scrutiny meeting, in response to a councillor asking whether he should declare an interest that he “doubted” was a pecuniary one, the solicitor said that it should always be a case of erring on the side of caution and the pecuniary interest declared “anyway”. At no time at that power station planning meeting had that happened, whether out of ignorance of the higher ethical standards that we elected Members were held to, or heaven forfend, any intention to mislead.

In other words, the exercise of that caution is the difference between commercial interests and the concerns of those of us who represent the interests of a general public who actually expect their elected representatives to look after their affairs; the reality is that those parties to the discussions who have a fiduciary duty to shareholders are not going to share the same concerns as taxpayers who don’t like the idea that they might be being ripped off, a sentiment enshrined in something called the Localism Act, which actually makes a criminal act of any attempt to hide a hidden interest, a pecuniary interest. The onus of proof is on the person who is expected to make the declaration of an interest no one else may be aware of.

Now, back in 2019, representatives of Shropshire Council (the Local Planning Authority, let us remind ourselves) attended a jolly in Cannes.

Now, you don’t need a particularly long memory to recall a few salient details, not least of which is where it was reported that:

Three delegates from Shropshire Council will be attending the show, including Steve Charmley, executive director for place, Mark Barrow, and business growth and investment manager, Matt Potts. They will be joined by delegates from their partners and sponsors: Harworth Group plc, Berrys, Morris Property, WSP, Montagu Evans and LDA Design.

Whilst there, the council will showcase four investment opportunities via two events:

  • Shrewsbury: The Big Connection will tell investors the story of how the birthplace of Charles Darwin is evolving, in particular the opportunities with Riverside as a development corridor.
  • Shropshire: Rooted in Heritage, Developing for the Future will highlight the county’s countryside, vibrant market towns and strategic central base within the UK, unlocking key development opportunities through infrastructure investment including the former Ironbridge Power Station site which will be led by Harworth Group plc, The Oswestry Growth Corridor and The A49/A41 Growth Corridor.

Photographed in Cannes at taxpayer’s expense, just a few months later the name of Harworth Group plc reappears in reports of the affairs of Shropshire Council, although not surprising given the heads-up above, all to do with the Ironbridge Power Station.

At the first planning committee meeting called to consider the Ironbridge Power Station, what struck me was that everyone was at pains to stress their independence, especially when the amount of affordable housing was officially declared (although known about from the official documents) to shouts of “pitiable” loud enough to drown out Harworth’s insistence that that’s all they could afford, pointing to the “independent” assessment made by the consultant appointed by Shropshire Council and Telford & Wrekin Councils.

Much to the dismay of the planning officers, the decision was deferred to allow that disappointing affordable housing contribution of 5% to be “discussed”. At the next planning committee meeting it was noticed that the independent consultant whose figures were being cited by the two local authorities – and challenged by some members of the planning committee – had had dealings with Harworth before, raising the question of his independence, which is where we came in.

Alongside that revelation, adding insult to perceived injury, it had come to light (thanks to research by Steve Mulloy) that there is a completely independent viability valuation service:

DVS provides property valuation services including for financial accounting and housing revenue purposes, acquisition/disposal advice, compulsory purchase and general valuation advice.

We work closely with local authorities providing independent viability appraisals for site assessments where Affordable Housing and s106 contributions are in dispute. We only undertake work for Public Bodies and so provide completely independent advice, to ensure appropriate and fair contributions are made, where Developers are seeking to vary from fully Planning Compliant housing schemes.

[ Copy and paste ] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/services-for-local-regional-and-devolved-government

Questioned as to why this clearly independent service hadn’t been one of the consultees, Shropshire Council’s response was rather surprising, they simply didn’t think the completely independent service was up to a project the size of the Ironbridge Power Station.

But had they bothered to look?

But had they asked?

Can you see where the problem’s coming from?

Shropshire Council’s planning department obviously can’t, nor can Tracy Darke.

#85A: RE-WRITE OF: 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 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.

[see: https://wordpress.com/post/dtremellen.com/1294 ]

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.

Exaggeration?

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…

[ see: https://wordpress.com/post/dtremellen.com/1691 ]

…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!

Ah well.

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.

Visit to upgraded Highley CCTV system by Deputy Police & Crime Commissioner Tracey Onslow.

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.”

#87: County Councillor’s Report to October meeting of Highley Parish Council. (Longer version of the earlier ‘Forum’ article.)

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.

#86: This month’s ‘Highley Forum’ article.

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.

Dave Tremellen

18th August 2021.

#84: County Councillor’s Report in the August edition of the Highley ‘Forum’.

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.

Dave Tremellen.

18 July 2021

#83: (Based on) County Councillor’s Report to Highley Parish Council

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.

From: Brian Williams <brian.williams@shropshire.gov.uk>
Sent: 24 June 2021 15:49
To: Andy.Begley@public.govdelivery.com
Cc: Members <Members@shropshire.gov.uk>
Subject: RE: Message from Council Leader and Chief Executive

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.

Brian Williams

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”.

Dave Tremellen

30 June 2021