#65: Consultants, eh? Who’d have ’em?

Article first appeared in the Highley Forum, March 2020 edition.

County Councillor’s Report

£130,000 + £380,000 = £510,000

Nice work if you can get it. Bit late for me to scramble onto the consultancy bandwagon, though, even with an Upper Second Honours degree in Business Studies I’ve spent too long in the real world to convince potential clients that I’m the right person to tell them what they want to hear rather than the truth.

A lifetime ago, after graduating, I looked into going into business consultancy with an ex-copper friend, Ron, who I’d been at college with and the name we decided on was ‘NBS Consultancy’, the first initial standing for ‘No’ . But Ron’s circumstances changed and the idea was dropped, although I did do two and a half years freelance work for various local and central government agencies, but soon tired of finding myself sitting on the opposite side of some executive’s desk, dying to tell him (women execs were usually more switched on) that he was actually the problem he’d called me in to try and find!

As far as the recent furore over Shropshire Council’s employing consultants at the £510,000 cost given at the head of this article (£130K to advise on “solutions” to our highways issues and £380K to advise on the refurbishment of Shirehall), what angered me was that within the Council we had people who were more than able to tell anyone who asked what the problems were and what needed to be done to put them right.

In response to the Chief Executive’s email to all Elected Members telling us of his unilateral decision to appoint a highways consultant, I wrote back…

This is some kind of joke, right?

Everything’s falling apart so “we” employ another consultant when we’ve got all the expertise we need in-house and have done since the district and county councils were operating prior to going unitary, expertise that has the detailed LOCAL knowledge that informs the work programme of the efficient highways department we WOULD have had if only officers had been allowed to do the job they’ve trained to do, if only they were given the resources they so desperately need to do the job they’re professionally qualified to do!

Let the people we’ve got do their job and give them the resources they need to do it. It really is that simple.

Angry? Me? It’s gone beyond angry, especially given that five years ago, in February 2014 – yes 2014 – I asked this question of the highways portfolio holder at Full Council…

Will the Portfolio Holder for Highways admit that they have lost the battle with potholes in South East Shropshire? In the event that they still cling to the delusion that they are in fact still in control of roads in my part of the county, would they point to the evidence to support that claim.

Claire Wild, Portfolio Holder for Highways and Transport, replied: Shropshire Council has not lost the battle with potholes in South East Shropshire.

She went on to list a number of major jobs that were programmed for Highley (including the complete resurfacing of High Street), NONE of which were ever started, so if her argument was open to challenge back then, her successor has even more of a challenge to contend with because we’ve had five years of a crumbling highways network getting even further beyond hope of being salvaged by anyone, let alone a consultant at the going rate of £1,000 a day for six months.

Too much and too late anyway.

Dave Tremellen

(The very) Independent Member for Highley Ward of Shropshire Council.

#64: The first thing elected Members knew about the highways consultant employed by Shropshire Council was via an email sent to all councillors and some service directors.

It was not marked Confidential nor did it come with a notice that circulation was in any way restricted, hence…

On 29 Jan 2020, at 14:44, Clive Wright wrote:

Dear Member

I want to inform you of changes I am making, with the support of the Portfolio Holder, Steve Davenport, in Highways with immediate effect. As you are all aware, we need to improve performance and delivery at pace. To achieve this the following actions have been taken:

1) We have appointed a consultant, Tom Blackburn-Maze, who will be with us until the end of June. Tom is providing advice on how to make crucial improvements based on his experience of running very successful Highways operations elsewhere. Tom will be providing advice to myself, Mark Barrow and the Highways team.

2) ******** has been asked to take on a different role.  He will continue to deal with front facing issues and add vital management capacity to the work of highways which is so critical to members, town and parish councils and the public.

3) ******** will continue as Interim Head of Highways and will manage the day to day operation of Highway repairs and maintenance.

4) Alun and Steve will act on the advice of Tom but will report to Mark Barrow or me in Mark’s absence (on leave for 2 weeks).

5) We are moving the Highways front of house into the Customer Service Centre. This will coincide with reconfiguring CONFIRM (the Highways computerised management system) to provide Members with up to date information on line. The Customer Contact Centre already successfully handles complex referrals such as, for example, children and/or adults requiring social care.

6) Robust conversations have taken place with Kier at the highest levels. We have agreed an up scaling of Kier mobilisation and I expect to see a change over the next few weeks.

7) We will be working at faster pace focusing on areas of highest need over coming months. We will work to eliminate unproductive behaviour such as, for example, fixing one pothole whilst leaving the one next to it. Concentrating on areas will enable more work to be done faster and make it easier for us to supervise and ensure quality.

8) We will experiment with using local contractors as an alternative to using Kier. We can do this within the terms of our contract with Kier. This will provide evidence of the best way to proceed going forwards.

9) I expect highways repair costs to increase and these costs are being projected. We also anticipate that the Government will again make available additional ‘Pothole Funding’, though this is not yet confirmed.

10) We will reduce the rate of temporary repairs with an initial target of less than 5%.

11) We will hold a Members workshop at the end of February to update all Members.

12) The Portfolio Holder has requested that Scrutiny take a look at Highways improvement to provide a forum for all Members to be as involved as they wish. This is, of course, a decision to be made by Scrutiny as to whether they wish to include Highways in their programme.

As it stands there is currently 3500 reported highway defects on our systems. Clearing this backlog is our priority. We would ask Members to please use the on line portal to report further defects as this is the fastest way to ensure that issues are logged and acted upon. We understand that some Members prefer to call the engineers or email officers directly. Where this occurs the response will be for those staff to refer these enquiries in to the Customer Service Centre and let Members know. Having multiple channels of reporting is causing defects to be missed or double logging of the same defect. We can review this as we move forward and once we are on top of outstanding work.

I hope this keeps you informed.

Best wishes

Clive Wright

Chief Executive

Shropshire Council

 

My furious response was…

Dave Tremellen 30 Jan 2020, 09:43 (4 days ago)

to Clive, Members, Directors, Tom, Alun, Steven

This is some kind of joke, right?

Everything’s falling apart so “we” employ another consultant when we’ve got all the expertise we need in-house and have done since the district and county councils were operating prior to going unitary and, moreover, expertise that has the intimate, detailed LOCAL knowledge that informs the work programme of the efficient highways department that we WOULD have if only the officers we’ve ALWAYS had had been allowed to do the job they’ve trained to do – if only they were given the resources they so desperately need to do the job they’re professionally qualified to do!

What you’ve done is an insult to every one of those highways professionals and a poke in the eye for David Evans with his arms-length list of highways problems across Craven Arms; David Turner with his catalogue of highways problems across Much Wenlock; Kevin Pardy and a lethal roundabout he’s been trying to get made less lethal for years; Me, with collapsing carriageways and an army of residents with damaged cars (one phoned me yesterday to report her EIGHTH smashed wheel) not to mention a GP practice who can’t get a locum to attend because they refuse to travel the B4555; so what do “we” do, we employ another highways consultant on top of the department full of consultants we’ve already got in WSP, all of whom, presumably, were taken on because they come with “…experience of running very successful Highways operations elsewhere”.

No way a consultant will sort that lot out, let alone the rest of the county, but now he’s here, whilst he’s at it perhaps he’ll explain to the rest of us how the hell the North West Relief Road is going to benefit the rest of Shropshire, as Steve so confidently assured those us concerned about where the £17 million difference in the predicted cost of the scheme of £71 million and the grant of £54 million is going to come from, because we KNOW where it’s going to come from – US!

Let the people we’ve got do their job and give them the resources they need to do it. It really is that simple.

Angry? Me? It’s gone beyond angry, Clive.

Regards

Dave Tremellen

Independent Member for Highley Ward

Shropshire Council

Which got me this response…

From: Clive Wright
Sent: 31 January 2020 08:41
To: Dave Tremellen <Dave.Tremellen@shropshire.gov.uk>
Cc: Members; Directors; Tom Blackburne-Maze; Alun Morgan.Highways
Subject: Re: Highways Management Changes

Dear Dave

Thank you for your comments. I appreciate that there has been a number of false starts and ongoing problems in the Highways service. This is why I have now stepped in directly and personally as other management action has failed.

I agree with the thrust of what you are saying. My first port of call in initiating action was to approach and work with front line staff. The time had come to roll up sleeves etc. I have listened to what they consider is needed and I hope and believe we are winning their support. I offered to make immediately available budgets of £2.5m, their response was that this alone would not fix the problems and might make things worse. We must fix the the budget (and we have, albeit in times where resources are limited); our working processes (we are engaging our staff on this, not serving it up to them); incentivise our contractor to mobilise (we are doing this) or find alternative arrangements for small works (we are also doing this with local contractors); and provide different leadership (and I have made swift changes). We are continuing to engage the Highways staff and I met them all for an open conversation earlier this week and to feedback how we are acting on their input, what specific actions are being taken and today how we can only be successful through them.

Solutions are often seem simple from the outside and are more complicated in reality. My approach has been to understand the problem before we come up with the solution. Having said that, what we have to do in this case is not rocket science. There are four components: leadership and motivation; right process; contractor will and capability; resources – money and right skills in the right place. We have to fix all four. The goal is high quality and efficient delivery.

I agree that we should have been able to fix this ourselves without consultant input but we are way past that point and with the support of the Portfolio Holder we agreed it was time to bring things to a head. The consultant is here to bring experience, but his remit is to work with our staff and design solutions with them, not for them. The solutions for Shropshire are likely to be different to those in other places, though there are some fundamental things that we are currently getting wrong. Experience is a massive lift in this respect. I am not blaming our staff but an example is where we have been temporary fixing 74% of potholes, this should be closer to zero or no more than 5%. This change alone implemented quickly will likely pay for the cost of the consultant.

Some of the problems we have, such as parts of the network not being designed for heavy agricultural vehicles won’t be solved anytime soon (though we are lobbying and applying for funding). However, I do intend to dramatically improve our performance on the issues you raise, particularly small works and maintenance. The proof of the pudding, as they say, will be in the eating and I hope you will afford me the chance to demonstrate the change.

Finally, as you know, I too live in South Shropshire, and I’m not proud of our performance or with our contractor.  All services are stretched but overall staff motivation and optimism is good and we will continue to perform beyond what might be reasonable with the resources we have. We can and must do better with the resources we have in Highways, we will need to add funding and ensure this is well spent. I hope that Members will continue to support and work with us towards this goal. Challenge is always welcome, it provides opportunity to see things from a different perspective and this is a great strength in our Council. I am always open to finding better solutions. Right now, confidence is low in all quarters (Members, the Public, staff and our contractor), but we can and will rebuild this by getting things done on the ground.

I hope this provides you with some assurance.

Best wishes

Clive Wright

Chief Executive

Shropshire Council

Assurance it did not provide. Well, not entirely, although as a statement of intent it doesn’t leave much to challenge.

My fear is that circumstances will overtake the good intentions listed there for the simple reason that Shropshire Council’s priorities do not have to do with the concerns of ALL its citizens, as witness an economic growth policy predicated entirely on HS2 and the development of the north west of the county, everywhere else can “do one”.

There is not even any support for anywhere in the other three-quarters of the county to even think about doing something for themselves because all those of us representing that rest of the county can get is advice because it comes cheap – unless it comes via a consultant at £1,000 a day!

As I said in my response to Clive Wright’s announcement, we already had all the expertise we ever needed, it was just ignored, by-passed, marginalised, take your pick.

In the case of my own electoral ward, significant programmes of work had been planned over the last several years by our existing highways engineers, designed and costed and all of them subsequently pulled in favour of works elsewhere by people who “knew better where to allocate resources”.

Hmmmmm.

#61: THE BLIGHTING OF VIABLE ALTERNATIVES AKA LOCAL PLAN REVIEW: How planners can completely bugger up local communities.

See also #53; #54; #56

The direct impact of the promotion of the ‘preferred sites’ on Highley.

The realisation of the potential impact of the ‘review’ of Shropshire’s Local Plans (supposedly reflecting the aspirations of local communities within parameters established by national and county policy) started with a letter, received Friday, June 15, 2018.

The consultation exercise was part of the Local Plan Review and was promoted by planners as an information gathering exercise, at no time during the meeting that followed was preference for any site considered because, we were told, that would form part of the later “consultation” process.

What we didn’t fully appreciate at that time was that to planners “consultation” means something entirely different to what most people understand to be consultation. [See: #53: How Do Planners Get Away With It?]

The letter Highley parish council received said:

Meeting to discuss Shropshire Local Plan Review – Preferred Options for Site Allocations in Highley

As you are aware, Shropshire Council recently consulted on the Preferred Scale and Distribution of Development as part of its review of the Local Plan. The next stage of work involves the identification of preferred site allocations for Shrewsbury, the market towns and the key centres, [Highley is classified as a Key Centre in planning terms] together with the preferred scale of growth, development boundaries and potential allocations for Community Hubs. We hope to publish these preferred options for consultation in October 2018.

To inform this stage of work, we are assembling relevant information for all settlements which we are proposing will be identified as locations for development in the new Plan (this includes Shrewsbury & the market towns) so that we can arrange a focussed discussion on the key issues. The growth guidelines which we have identified for housing and employment land for Highley within the Preferred Scale and Distribution of Development consultation, will require approximately 4 hectares of additional housing land and 1 hectare of additional employment land to be allocated.

Shropshire Council has undertaken an initial strategic screening of development sites around Highley in order to discount those sites which are unavailable and/or wholly unsuitable. I have attached a map and accompanying table showing the remaining sites which have been promoted to us by landowners (only a small proportion of which will actually be required). This information is currently confidential and should not be shared more widely at this stage. More detailed assessments, including analysis of landscape and visual impacts, are currently being undertaken and these will help to identify constraints and opportunities associated with the remaining sites, which, alongside views from the local community as expressed through the Town Council will inform the site allocation process.

The irony of the planner’s use of the term “preferred site” seemed to have passed them by, because that last sentence clearly implies that whilst the identified “preferred” site is identified as the preferred option, the planners go on to say that the word “preferred” should not be taken to mean what everyone else thinks it means – that using the word does not indicate a preference.

Question a planner on this and you’ll get a blank look because they simply will not see what they’re doing here, and they certainly won’t get your confusion at being told that the word “preferred” doesn’t actually mean exactly what you’ve always taken it to mean – that something is favoured over any alternatives on offer.

It’s necessary to explain all that because the planning department’s take on the English language is unique and, together with “preferred”, their understanding of what constitutes “consultation” will also require a fair bit of effort to get your head around. It’s as well to be prepared and that earlier reference to an earlier blog article will help. [See: #53: How Do Planners Get Away With It?]

In the following article, the question I’m posing is: how does the way Shropshire Council planning department’s approach to “local engagement” relate to principles laid down as far back as 1969.

The Skeffington Report, ‘People and Planning. Report of the Committee on Public Participation in Planning’, prepared by Arthur Skeffington MP was published in 1969 so planners have had plenty of time to get their heads around it.

Until the Skeffington Report, planning had been a largely ‘top down’ system, consultation had been a gesture only, involving those already familiar with the planning process and how to participate, resulting in poor community involvement.

The Skeffington Report proposed that local development plans should be subject to full public scrutiny and debate. Planners were supposed to become more pro-active and ‘hard to reach’ parts of communities become better engaged as part of a “genuinely democratic process”, working towards consensus between a wide range of competing interests.

Those lessons appear to have been forgotten, at least by that part of Shropshire Council’s planning department responsible for the current Local Plan Review.

Shropshire Council’s approach to consultation gives rise to concerns about effective community engagement with the planning system, which can be complex, remote, and generally difficult to engage with, negative factors planners often do nothing to mitigate because the status quo works to their advantage!

As the Rt Hon Nick Raynsford MP said following the recent review of the planning system he undertook in 2018:

“We ignore at our peril the anger and disaffection felt by so many communities at the failure of current planning policies and procedures to listen to their concerns and respond to their needs”.

Well, someone doesn’t mind a bit of peril because very little has changed in the interim and it’s arguable that things have actually got worse!

How much worse for Highley?

The map accompanying the letter we got from Shropshire Council setting out Shropshire Council planning department’s intentions identified seven sites, two of which had been the subject of earlier applications for Outline Planning Permission, one had been withdrawn for unspecified reasons – the agent acting for the landowner in that case had been Helen Howie (see blog #56: Planning: The Failed Process or The Curse of the NPPF, a community nightmare) – the other (HNN014, see map below) had been refused, the details of which I set out later in this text.

[Taking advantage of the newly-acquired ‘preferred site’ status, HNN014 subsequently reappeared as an application for 20 ‘affordable’ houses, a development that was refused as ‘over-development’ See Appendix.]

The earlier history of the preferred site.

YEW TREE SITE

Look closely at that location map above, in the centre at the top you’ll see “Hazelwells”, a Grade 2 Listed building, the preferred site falls within the curtilage of that historic local asset Hazelwells Hall!

You will also notice that the left hand (western) boundary of the preferred site is indented because 20 years ago, householders on Yew Tree Grove, whose properties overlook the field, bought a 25 yard strip to extend their gardens.

YEW TREE SITE BUFFER STRIP

The householders on Yew Tree Grove applied to get the strip of land changed from Grade 3 Agricultural land to Residential but Bridgnorth District Council (BDC) placed an order called an Article 4 Direction on the whole of this site…

An article 4 direction is made by the local planning authority. It restricts the scope of permitted development rights either in relation to a particular area or site, or a particular type of development anywhere in the authority’s area. Where an article 4 direction is in effect, a planning application may be required for development that would otherwise have been permitted development. Article 4 directions are used to control works that could threaten the character of an area of acknowledged importance, such as a conservation area.

Article 4 directions can increase the public protection of designated and non-designated heritage assets and their settings. They are not necessary for works to listed buildings and scheduled monuments as listed building consent and scheduled monument consent would cover all potentially harmful works that would otherwise be permitted development under the planning regime. However, article 4 directions might assist in the protection of all other heritage assets (particularly conservation areas) and help the protection of the setting of all heritage assets, including listed buildings.

[Historic England: Restricting Permitted Development: Article 4 Directions and Heritage]

ANY development by those householders, regardless whether that “development” took the form of a greenhouse or raised vegetable beds, was forestalled by Bridgnorth District Council planning department’s Article 4 Direction placed on the WHOLE FIELD.

Not to be outdone, the house owners on Yew Tree Grove did eventually go to the expense of getting the Article 4 Direction overturned on the strip they’d purchased, had they not then every household would have had to apply for separate planning permissions to erect any “structure” (however loosely defined) on their individual plot.

Crucially, that Article 4 Direction remains in force on the rest of the field to this day.

The senior planning officer for Bridgnorth District Council at the time issued additional guidelines that precluded any further development on the WHOLE of the eastern ridge of the ‘plateau’ that Highley sits on, to preserve the skyline as viewed across the Severn Valley. That senior planning officer was Ian Kilby, current head of planning at Shropshire Council who said…

The view of the Bridgnorth Office is that we would prefer not to see more development on the eastern side of the village – i.e to not add to existing development on the western ridge of the Severn Valley or the upper slopes to the western side of the village. We consider therefore that any allocations should be on land to the south/southwest on the basis of landscape impact.”

The blighted alternatives.

There are a number of realistic alternatives to Shropshire Council planning department’s preferred site, but one in particular offers a solution to a long-standing problem on the main road through the village – the rat run down the Hazelwells estate road to avoid being stuck behind the 125 bus in either direction as it travels along Clee View Terrace, the terrace of houses shown in the centre of the Google Earth image below.

There is a bus stop opposite the middle house in the row (under the large tree in the image). With cars parked on the road immediately outside the houses the road becomes a single carriageway, so if there is a bus there you have to wait until it clears Clee View.

Clee View bus stop and rat run via Hazelwells Road…

CLEE VIEW AERIAL

Coming from the northern Bridgnorth direction, in anticipation of that hold up vehicles choose to turn left off the B4555 and travel down Hazelwells Road to its southern junction with the B4555, the route shown shaded running vertically down the middle of the image below.

RAT RUN AERIAL

This site offers the solution…

TAYLOR SITE
… Woodhill, obscured by the ‘HNNO19’ label, to the left of Clee View terrace.

The schematic drawing below shows one design for the site. The block shown away from the separate dwellings (bungalows) is a residential block for nursing the elderly and infirm.

TAYLOR SITE PLAN WITH CLEE VIEW

The design is an indicative illustrations only and subject to change following detailed discussions with the landowners, their architect, and the planners, but it’s an idea of what COULD be done.

The bus stop is to the right of the word “Shelter” and the area roughly drawn in outline is the area where off-road parking for Clee View residents could be sited, together with an off road pull in for the 125 bus.

The bonus offered by this alternative site is the employment opportunity offered by the sheltered retirement housing, a significant economic benefit to Highley.

APPENDIX

The following Appendix is particularly useful in demonstrating how advisory comments can be ignored by both developers and by the planning officers that make them.

A planning application for the smallest of the preferred sites (HNN014) for TWENTY two-storey ‘affordable houses’ has recently been submitted. An earlier application had sought to build NINE bungalows.

The earlier application for bungalows was refused planning permission in 2016 and was taken to appeal on the grounds of non-determination because of delays by Shropshire Council in processing the application. The application was then refused for the following reasons:

1. Insufficient information has been provided to enable the Local Planning Authority able to conclude that the proposal will not cause an offence under the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations (2010), the scheme as such is contrary to National Planning Policy Framework and Shropshire Council Local Development Framework Core Strategy CS17.

2. In the absence of the agreement to make a contribution towards affordable housing provision, the proposed dwellings would be contrary to Policy CS11 of the Shropshire Council Local Development Framework Core Strategy and to the Council’s Supplementary Planning Document on the Type and Affordability of Housing.

(Officer’s report to the South Planning Committee.)

My own view as the Local Member was that whilst the application for nine bungalows was a reasonable use of the plot (because relatively low profile in terms of its visual impact), I shared both the parish council’s concerns about the site falling outside the established development boundary and the serious concerns about access to the site off the busy B4555, otherwise it would have met a local need for such housing.

On notice of the appeal, Shropshire Council’s report (subsequent to the earlier officer’s report to the South Planning Committee) was submitted because…

2.1 An appeal has been lodged against non-determination of this application and the decision now rests with the Planning Inspectorate. However the Council is required in the appeal process to indicate what its decision would have been if it still had authority to determine the application.

2.2 The application is presented to committee as the Parish Council has submitted a view contrary to officers and the application has been requested to be referred by the Local Member.

That report went into considerable detail to explain how the development of nine bungalows would have a moderate-to-low impact, both aesthetically and in terms of its impact on the local infrastructure, Shropshire Council’s own planners were of the opinion that whilst…

Highley is identified as one of the key centres in Policy CS3 of the Core Strategy. This establishes the principle of Highley as a sustainable location for new development. The application site in particular is located within walking distance of town centre services and facilities (the town centre around 500m from the site boundary) and is within close proximity to the Severn Centre. It is considered that in these respects there are clear sustainability credentials to the site which must be weighed up when determining the application.

…it should be noted that…

Sustainable development’ isn’t solely about accessibility and proximity to essential services. The NPPF states that it is ‘about positive growth – making economic, environmental and social progress for this and future generations’. In paragraph 7 of the NPPF it states that these three dimensions give rise to the need for the planning system to perform a number of roles:

an economic role – contributing to building a strong, responsive and competitive economy, by ensuring that sufficient land of the right type is available in the right places and at the right time to support growth and innovation; and by identifying and coordinating development requirements, including the provision of infrastructure;

a social role – supporting strong, vibrant and healthy communities, by providing the supply of housing required to meet the needs of present and future generations; and by creating a high quality built environment, with accessible local services that reflect the community’s needs and support its health, social and cultural well-being; and

an environmental role – contributing to protecting and enhancing our natural, built and historic environment; and, as part of this, helping to improve biodiversity, use natural resources prudently, minimise waste and pollution, and mitigate and adapt to climate change including moving to a low carbon economy.[6.1.15]

Significantly, the original committee officer report referenced the contextual factors that are supposed to be at the heart of a “plan-led planning system”.

It is not considered necessary or appropriate to [seek] additional sites outside of the Highley development boundary in an area of open countryside, and this would be contrary to the development strategy for the area. A core planning principle in the NPPF is that development should be genuinely plan-led, empowering local people to shape their surroundings, and this is what the recently adopted SAMDev Plan [Shropshire Council’s long term development plan] has achieved, providing a practical framework within which decisions on planning applications can be made. The use of this land for residential development would undermine the NPPF’s objective of a Plan-led approach to development.

The presumption in favour of sustainable development that runs through the NPPF is a relevant material consideration, but it is not considered that this ‘presumption in favour’ should outweigh the significance and primacy of the up-to-date development plan policies in making decisions. On balance, it is considered that the proposal would not be acceptable, being contrary to Policies CS3, CS4 and CS5 of the Core Strategy, and SAMDev Policies MD1, MD3, MD7a and S9.

The promotion of Shropshire Council planning department’s preferred sites blows a hole through all those clearly expressed reservations about the earlier application for the development of the site HHN014, the smaller of the two sites comprising the preferred development area identified by Shropshire Council.

According to Shropshire Council’s figures, the two sites HHN016 and HHN014, are scheduled to take a development of 122 dwellings, despite the reservations expressed over the earlier 2016 application for “just” nine bungalows.

The more cynical among us saw the recent application for 20 affordable two-storey houses as an ill-disguised attempt to sneak in a larger development on the back of the clearly expressed Shropshire Council preference for this, a suspicion that was confirmed in the albeit brief conversation I had with the developers of those 20 two-storey houses at their ‘public exhibition’, the preferred status actually being cited to confirm the “local need” for “such a development”.

It was also clearly inferred that their decision to apply for planning permission was AFTER discussion with Shropshire Council and so I was doubly gobsmacked that, given the history of the site, they still went ahead with an application that was subsequently refused as “over development”!

And Shropshire Council are giving the go-ahead for 122 dwellings regardless of the consequences. Why? Because they can point with one finger to a site that meets in one go what Shropshire Council planning department has determined to be Highley’s contribution to meeting the county’s housing quota until 2036.

That’s why.

#60. County Councillor’s Report, November edition of the (Highley) ‘Forum’: the significance of symbolism in civic affairs.

County Councillor’s Report

Excepting my RAF years from 1959 to 1965, I’ve been known to have a bit of an anti-Establishment “attitude”, doubtless because of a dry/wry sense of humour that has meant I’ve always had a bit of a job taking seriously people who take themselves too seriously, but I’ve nevertheless always respected the views of others as long as they haven’t tried to thrust their views down either my throat or the throats of others.

Sincerely held beliefs are deserving of respect unless they are extreme and impact adversely on the lives of others. I’m an atheist and have been for as long as I can remember, but I believe that religious principles are the basis of any civilised, caring society and as such are central to the principles of democracy because they are the basis of the civic principles upon which an orderly society are based.

Just as religious symbolism is important to the communicating of religious principles, so civic symbolism is important to the communicating of civic principles, “the panoply of State”, whether the Monarch’s ‘opening of parliament’ or the small ceremony that marks the opening of full council at Shirehall, when a bell is rung and everyone stands for the prayer that precedes official business. You don’t need it explaining, you just know that something “important” is going on, and even if the significance isn’t obvious to you, you appreciate its importance to someone.

Out of respect for the beliefs of others and to show deference to those principles of democracy, I stand throughout that little opening ceremony because it costs me nothing and reminds me that others hold to different beliefs.

I always remember what we “sprogs” (new recruits) were told when we were first on parade in our blue serge uniforms and had the technique of saluting drilled into us along with the explanation of the significance of the cap badge.

Each of the armed services has a different way of saluting. In the RAF, palm facing forward, finger tips one inch behind the right eye; in the army, palm facing forward, edge of index finger above the right eye; the navy, palm down, index finger above the right eye)

The crown on the cap badge was what mattered because it was symbolic of what we had joined up to defend. As explained by the sergeant instructing us on why we were expected to salute officers:

“Even though you scrawny lot are not old enough to be trusted with a vote in this democratic country of ours” – most of us were 151/2 or 16 at a time when you had to be 21 to vote – “the head of the British state is the Queen, and what does the Queen wear on her head? A crown. THAT’S what you’re saluting. Even if the person wearing that badge is a complete idiot, it’s the QUEEN as represented by that crown that you’re saluting, not the person who holds a commission from her!”

That was our baptism into the significance of symbols, of symbolic ceremony.

Whether it’s saluting that cap badge, standing for the prayers of others, singing the National Anthem, or respecting the procedures of council that engender civilised debate over matters of differences of political opinion. Which is why I was so angry about the disruption of council business by members of Extinction Rebellion at the last Shropshire Council meeting and the unforgivable applauding of that disruption by members of the Labour, LibDem and Green parties.

Such behaviour is bad enough in Parliament, but in what I’ve always vainly believed should be a non-political arena primarily concerned with local issues, it was incredibly disheartening.

But also revealing.

Dave Tremellen

Independent Councillor for Highley Ward of Shropshire Council.

#58: County Councillor’s Report, first published in the (Highley) ‘Forum’ September 2019: Living with a Shrewsbury-centric Shirehall.

County Councillor’s Report

Not a lot to report or comment on this month because for some obscure reason everything “political” still closes down over August. A fellow councillor said that he’d been in Shirehall earlier in the week (I’m writing this in mid-August because of the Forum’s deadline) and reported that the place was “like the wreck of the Hesperus”. The ‘Marie Celeste’ might have been a more accurate comparison.

I suppose I can understand Parliament at Westminster shutting down to allow MPs to spend time in their constituencies, but at a local level it always seems a bit of a faff because it’s not as if local councillors spend days stuck in committees or attending rounds of meetings, as I explained in last month’s report all that is a thing of the past since the Cabinet system was introduced in 2009.

The concerns of our town or parish constituents don’t go away for a month so council officers are still in post to keep the wheels turning, although with the increasing tendency to promote “flexible” working trying to find an officer at their desk when you phone can be challenging, if often happens that your first point of contact is a request to leave a voicemail, ending with the dreaded words: “… and we’ll get back to you.”

There is some advantage to email because at least you have a paper trail, but there are often instances when you’re having to chase someone up just to check they’ve had it, the old fashioned way of confirming receipt as a simple common courtesy is sadly a thing of the past, which can be embarrassing if you’ve told a constituent that you’ll get onto their case without delay but then find yourself having to hang fire getting back to them because you’ve been assured you’ll get a response “ASAP” and then hear nothing.

Which is why I’ve given up making promises or indeed raising expectations, because a central plank of Tremellen’s First Law of Fundamental Errors acknowledges that disappointment is directly proportional to expectation – the greater the expectation the greater the disappointment. Conditional assurances like: “I’ll get back to you as soon as I hear something”, are meaningless because making an outcome ‘conditional’ on something else happening is to introduce doubt; the hedging of a bet where the chances are odds-on.

I’ve always tried desperately hard to avoid doing that conditional thing, but over the last few years it has got increasingly harder because “non executive councillors” (by definition those councillors who are not one of the ten members of Shropshire Council Cabinet) have very little power, they are essentially conduits of information.

Add to that the obvious North Shropshire bias evident in both Cabinet and the Authority as a whole and you have a recipe for the factional make-up of Shirehall, where even some Members of the majority Conservative group can find themselves representing areas that are overlooked for funding. It’s a bit of a postcode lottery, but one weighted in favour of the north.

Pretty much every area to the south, east and west of the Wenlock Edge consistently loses out in favour of the north and north-west, which is why I have – for a VERY long time – insisted that the Wenlock Edge isn’t just a geological barrier for the powers-that-be at Shirehall, it’s a psychological barrier.

Shrewsbury is an anomaly because a massive amount of funding goes into the town despite it being the power base of the Labour group at Shirehall (virtually all Labour seats are in Shrewsbury electoral wards). So how come? Simples. Shrewsbury Town Council sees power shared between Labour and Conservative, two recent (successive) mayors of Shrewsbury have been Labour and Conservative, their electoral self-interests are mutual. So yet another factor that sees the self-interest of “the north” work against the desperate need of “the south” for a fairer share of funding.

But at least we have each other.

Dave Tremellen

Independent Councillor for Highley Ward of Shropshire Council.

#56: Planning: The Failed Process or The Curse of the NPPF, a community nightmare: Living with the indifference of planners to the consequences of their actions.

NPPF CARTOON

The Local Context.

The cartoon at the head of this article was used several years ago by Helen Howie, at the time a senior planning officer in Shropshire Council’s planning department, in a presentation to local councillors at Shirehall to illustrate the power of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF).

Helen Howie subsequently followed other planning department colleagues by leaving Shropshire Council to work for one of the larger local land agents.

Following the mass exodus of senior planning officers in 2013 (South Shropshire alone lost 40% of its experienced planning staff), those that were left behind found themselves facing private sector planning agents who had not only helped to draw up Shropshire Council’a planning policies but knew where all the skeletons were hidden.

Helen Howie would now, of course, be sitting up there in the cab with the developer.

Helen Howie used that cartoon to demonstrate what everyone in the county would be facing if Shropshire Council’s 5 year housing land supply – on which all planning assumptions regarding housing need was based – was challenged by developers who argued that they should be allowed to build more houses to meet a need that THEY determined. If that challenge to Shropshire Council’s figures was successful then the NPPF would kick in and developers would have carte blanche, it’s why the NPPF even in its consultation stages was known as “the developer’s charter”.

The 5 year housing land supply figure was challenged, in a case known as the Teal Drive appeal…

https://www.shropshirestar.com/news/local-hubs/oswestry/ellesmere/2017/07/07/appeal-to-build-homes-near-the-mere-in-ellesmere-thrown-out-/

As the case progressed, Shropshire Council had to acknowledge that the methodology used to determine its 5 year housing land supply needed to be amended to make it more “objective”, a process that was actually called “Full Objectively Assessed Housing Need”, handily referred to as “FOAHN” (pronounced as in “phone”).

The impact of the NPPF was eased only in the sense that its grip on the throat of Shropshire Council was no longer deadly enough to kill it off, it lived. Ironically, the victim then started to emulate its tormentor to the extent that it was difficult to tell them apart.

The victim becomes the perpetrator.

As I explained in some detail in blog #53: How Do Planners Get Away With It? planners are not averse to forcing through schemes that they haven’t fully consulted on by claiming to have neither the time nor the resources for such a waste of taxpayer’s money.

“Not in the public interest.”

Planners have a blind spot for irony!

What’s so creepy is that what’s between the lines is the implicit threat to any community that challenges the underlying assumption that it’s OK to build houses as long as houses ARE being built, that where they’re built is a mere detail not worth losing sleep over.

Planners vs The People: the chasm has in fact always existed but has just got wider.

On being elected to Shropshire Council in May 2013 my previous experience of “planners” had given me a rather jaundiced view of the profession, to the extent that I lumped them in with lawyers and architects, in fact in with all the various “professionals” who decide what’s best for the rest of us based on their tenuous grasp of reality.

For a number of years I was a Moderator on the ‘ebuild’ forum, an internet-based forum dealing primarily with energy-efficient self-builds (and any other incidental construction subjects, including historic buildings). If any subject took up more time than any other it was “planning”, not just the bare-bones law of national planning policy but the post-code lottery type of issue, where one local authority’s planning department took a different view on an issue than its neighbour; the subjective issues, subjective because planning departments have directors of planning and, as in all organisations, whatever cultural bias exists at the top will filter down through the ranks.

I remember a similar pattern of enquiries during my few years as a regular contributor to the Green Building Forum.

So I’ve had a lot to do with planners and planning departments from this side of the fence, including what used to be called Conservation Officers. My own business was called ‘Conservation Joinery Services’ and I was engaged in that work for over 20 years so I’m familiar with the way planning officers think and planning departments work – or did, until fairly recently, when even more power was shifted into the hands of planners.

What little accountability they were subject to before was lessened even further by the greater control they were handed by central government to self-determine whether and how far accountability applied to them. (See blog #53 and its references to the ‘Statement of Community Involvement’.)

What happened was not a subtle shift, it was a difference of an order of magnitude.

It’s worth getting your head around the NPPF because it’s so important a planning consideration, but also note that whilst the NPPF might be the primary factor, what’s lubricating the wheels is the Localism Act 2011. That, too, needs a little explaining.

So, the “NPPF”?

The NPPF followed a commitment made in the 2010 Coalition Agreement to ‘publish and present to Parliament a simple and consolidated national planning framework covering all forms of development setting out national economic, environmental and social priorities’. The then-Minister for Planning and Decentralisation, Greg Clark, suggested it introduced a simpler and more accessible approach to planning policy.”

https://www.designingbuildings.co.uk/wiki/National_planning_policy_framework_NPPF

[See also… https://www.localgovernmentlawyer.co.uk/planning/318-planning-features/38849-reflections-on-the-revised-nppf ]

Eric Pickles (now Lord Pickles) was the government minister who wielded the axe over the old planning regime.

From the outset the NPPF was generally recognised by affected stakeholders as disastrous for local communities, in fact as being nothing more than a lightly disguised “developer’s charter”.

Pickles had dissembling down to a fine art; a consummate politician he wasn’t averse to bending rules, including arbitrarily calling-in and over-riding judgments of the High Court and Appeal Courts to suit his own ends when things weren’t going his way; the loose wording of the NPPF allowed him to justify every twist and turn.

The Localism Act 2011 was ostensibly about decentralising power to local people to “give local people far more ability to shape the places in which they live”*.

Through a series of reforms, Pickles claimed that:

the coalition government was making the planning process more accessible to local communities, because planning works best when communities themselves have the opportunity to influence the decisions that affect their lives”*.

Specious beyond belief!

That cartoon at the head of this article says it all graphically, the NPPF does the ethical and moral damage by ploughing its way through objection and the Localism Act adds insult to physical injury by sticking a bandage over it and telling communities that “at least you’ve had your say”.

Under the subtitle: ‘Greater community consultation’, Pickles actually set out in the National Planning Policy Framework “the importance of early and meaningful engagement with local communities”*, a statement that verges on the criminally misleading.

[* Written statement to Parliament by Eric Pickles MP, Secretary of State for Communities & Local Government.]

Giving with strings attached.

The NPPF guidance says that a proposal should be approved as sustainable development unless the adverse impacts clearly and significantly outweigh the benefits. Anyone with even a passing interest in semantics will see that the battle is lost before it’s begun.

That “a proposal should be approved as sustainable development unless the adverse impacts clearly and significantly outweigh the benefits” is, on the face of it clear enough. But define “clearly”; define “significantly”.

To make an aggrieved local community faced with an unwanted development feel as if it has a chance of arguing its case, the NPPF dangles a carrot by saying that if the development is not “sustainable” any claimed planning advantages can be considered non-existent, therefore the presumption in favour can be challenged, which is WHY developers pepper their supporting arguments with the word “sustainable” and so, supported by the government’s determination to encourage building wherever a brick can be laid, the planning “benefits” can be made to appear overwhelmingly in favour of the “presumption” which, bitter experience has taught us, makes it difficult-to-impossible to displace, proving that you can be beaten around the head with a carrot as well as a stick.

Keep the buggers guessing.

Another consideration, for the planners as well as the developers, are “market signals”.

Market signals may be just one of many factors but they can be manipulated easily (planners are learning from developers here – as are the politicians), objection can be made to appear unreasonable:

But people need somewhere to live, are you suggesting we shouldn’t build houses?”.

Given the malleable nature of “market signals”, subject as they are to government policy based more on the numbers on a spreadsheet, as well as political expediency (especially close to general elections), than locally determined need based on, well, locally determined need, “market signals” are nothing more than white noise.

So how do you determine “need” when that “need” is presented as being nothing more than a response to “market signals”? It’s a movable feast!

Here in Highley a few years back the number of houses the community assessed it needed was determined according to the number its infrastructure could handle, the sums were kept simple. The assessment was completed as part of the main county-wide planning document known as ‘Site Allocations and Management of Development (SAMDev).

By the time SAMDev was first rolled out in its final form the bulk of that locally determined “need” had already been built and occupied, leaving a balance of 30 houses needed to meet Highley’s quota, a balance easily identified and classified, not least because one outstanding site within the development boundary had Outline Planning Permission (OPP) for at least 30 houses in place for over 30 years anyway!

Also on the books was another site (known locally as ‘The Cedars’ and officially included in Shropshire’s 5 year housing land supply figures) with OPP for 40 houses which has subsequently been developed with 35 houses and renamed the Staley Grove estate, so more than enough to satisfy anyone other than the planners.

Bewilderment Rules, OK.

So what about the “plan-led” planning system Shropshire’s planners make so much fuss about?

So what about it?

Indeed.

Couch legislation in the vaguest of terms and it’s made arguable and whilst both sides of the argument might be heard, only one voice will ever be listened to – the planners.

It’s my conviction that even in planning it is not unreasonable to expect a minimum standard of professional ethics at a level the public expects of its public servants (and public perception here is paramount) because the term “public servant” isn’t without meaning, and certainly isn’t without expectation on the part of the public, a public that public servants ostensibly exist to serve.

They often add insult to injury by claiming that the “consultation” they engage in is a concession because they are under no obligation to consult at all. That was made clear by the planning officer presenting Shropshire Council’s case for the further 122 houses in Highley assumed in the Council’s latest Local Plan. His exact response to criticism of the methodology in respect of the publication (2019) of their “preferred sites” locations was…

Well, we didn’t actually have to consult at all!”

What the planners rely on is the document I referred to earlier, the ‘Statement of Community Involvement’ (SCI). As an exercise in just how extreme the limits of cynicism can be stretched it takes some beating because the CSI not only allows a local authority to decide whether to consult, it allows them to set out the conditions on which it is prepared to consult.

https://www.shropshire.gov.uk/planning-policy/local-planning/statement-of-community-involvement/

When 2 + 2 = 3.5 – x (where x = infrastructure).

Even a basic understanding of the social housing market explains why, in a place like Highley (population circa 3,600+ and semi-rural with little local employment), the availability of social housing at affordable rents can make the difference between a family or an individual just about managing and not being able to manage at all. There is, after all, supreme irony in building houses for the open market that no one can afford to rent, let alone buy.

But you cannot in all conscience build houses in communities without thought for the impact those developments will have on local roads, shops and schools, yet significantly for Highley future development is not linked to infrastructure in any way, shape or form.

Without consideration of infrastructure the word “sustainable” is meaningless.

Consideration of infrastructure is critical at the outset and makes the inclusion of Highways in inter-departmental planning an imperative, but the impression given is that, at least in the Shropshire Council planner’s book, instead of being a core consideration it is seen as a radical divergence from orthodoxy.

Planning classifications of ‘communities’, which determines how a community is viewed in terms of its potential to absorb more development, is now decided by Shirehall planners. Regardless of how those communities might insist they should to be classified in line with their local knowledge based on actually LIVING in that community, it is Shirehall calling the shots.

How out of touch with reality planners can be is demonstrated by their continuing to argue that the population figure for Highley in 2016 was “estimated” to be 3,195, despite the earlier 2011 official government census (not known for making ‘estimates’) showing the population – eight years ago – as 3,602, since when we’ve seen 122 houses built since 2013.

Either the planners have got it seriously wrong or the population has shrunk.

The population has obviously shrunk, there couldn’t possibly be any other explanation.

#55: County Councillor’s Report, first published in the August 2019 edition of the Highley Forum: The absence of effective scrutiny.

Local Councillor’s Report

The turnout at the public meeting of the Highley Patients Group on July 16 was a testament to the concerns of the community regarding the way local GP practices are changing so having Dr Allen there to explain the wider GP scene was good, not least because it brought home that change is happening because it is having to happen, and that it doesn’t just affect Highley but Shropshire, and in fact the UK generally.

I’ve been following the local county health scene since I was first elected in 2013, in fact the first external meeting I ever attended was the AGM of the Shropshire Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG – local clinicians who commission all health services in the county) in Oswestry, subsequently attending numerous meetings in the first few years of ‘Future Fit’, which turned out to be little more than an endless round of “consultation” about the future shape of healthcare in the county. I was frustrated because the CCG was trying to please everyone and failing on all counts.

You can only attend so many committee meetings that end up resolving nothing and I eventually dropped my regular attendance at committees I wasn’t actually a full member of anyway. That’s how frustrated and angry I had become. It’s difficult to sit there and hear people waffling on and keep your own counsel, let alone your temper. I did eventually let rip at the last meeting I attended and, significantly, every one of the dozen or so heads around the committee table were nodding in agreement throughout. Did it change anything? Don’t be silly!

It isn’t just the CCG that maintains a distance between themselves and “the people”, regular readers of these ‘reports’ will know how angry I get whenever the conversation moves around to “the council”, and it all has to do with the system of governance that came into being back in 2009, when the old Bridgnorth District Council was absorbed into the new Unitary Council, the old Shropshire County Council becoming just plain Shropshire Council.

That change involved a complete change in the workings of “the council”. The old committee system morphed into a system called (and I kid you not) ‘Strong Leader with Cabinet’, in which the leader of the political party with a majority of seats chooses his or her own Cabinet, in the same way that a Prime Minister chooses their Cabinet. In effect, decisions affecting the 311,000 residents of Shropshire are made by ten people!

There is a requirement in that model for at least one scrutiny committee to oversee the workings of the system, Shropshire has five such scrutiny committees. But whilst the text books on this model of governance tell you that in an ideal world, whilst membership of scrutiny committees is “politically balanced” – in a way that reflects the balance of power within the council – to achieve a democratic balance scrutiny committees should be chaired by members of opposition parties (as they usually are in parliamentary select committees). But the ruling group in Shropshire are not so stupid to risk adverse criticism of decisions made by a Cabinet wholly comprised of members of the ruling group. As scrutiny committees have a majority membership from the ruling group, when it comes to the “election” of scrutiny committee chairs, it’s no coincidence that all Shropshire’s scrutiny chairs are card-carrying members of the ruling group.

When it comes to the wielding of power, democracy doesn’t get a look in.

Dave Tremellen, 20 July 2019.

#55: County Councillor’s Report for July 2019, first published in the Highley Forum: The B4555 and a planner’s view for Highley that conflicts with the community’s needs.

County Councillor’s Report.

It’s been a funny old month but I’m not laughing after the bone-shaking drive on the first seven miles of the 30 miles to Abbey Foregate.

Newcomers to Highley have it in their heads that no-one has done a thing to improve the situation. As newcomers they won’t know about a recorded history of at least four generations, discovered by Mandy Burgess who found letters to the Bridgnorth Journal from ‘citizens’, businessmen/farmers, even local councillors, complaining about the state of the Highley/Bridgnorth road back in the day when it didn’t even have the number we all now know and love it by, the B-four-triple five.

Geology and geography is our problem, not helped by a self-perception that militates against any serious consideration of Highley as a viable place in which to invest the kind of money it would take to bring our road up to a usable state, let alone a decent one.

DSCN9031In terms of geology? Well, you don’t need me to tell you about the problems on the New Road. It’s built on a series of hillsides all of which give the distinct impression that they’d really rather be in Borle Brook and can’t wait to get there: as fast as a slippage is addressed it starts to reappear, although we’ve been fairly lucky with the last three/four, with just the one bit beginning to move (and older readers will doubtless detect a fair bit of touching wood there), attributable to my insistence that the job(s) be done “properly” this time. It’s worth noting that based on previous geological surveys, Highways give ANY repair to the New Road an expected life-span of five years!

When the recent work on Knowle Sands was being planned I received a conditional promise that if there was “anything left over” then serious consideration would be given to the state of the rest of the B4555. I wasn’t holding my breath.

We’re stuck down here in the remote south-east corner of the county with no A-road giving us a direct link to the commercial centres of the West Midlands, even our doctors and nurses have to travel a considerable distance to get here. I remember when we moved here 19 years ago friends saying: “We’ll call in when we’re passing.” And I’m thinking: “No you won’t because Highley isn’t a place you pass on your way to somewhere else.” It doesn’t matter that we’re a diversion to some of the most interesting countryside in the county, we’re still a diversion. Which, of course, is what makes it an attractive place to live.

Right, that’s geology and geography covered, now what about that “self-perception” bit?

In their recent contentious announcement, Shirehall planning department told us that THEIR “preferred site” for the location of another 122 houses was on the field backing on to Yew Tree Grove. (For reference, 122 houses is exactly the number of houses we’ve seen built since 2013 (Taylor Wimpey 58, Rhea Hall 29, Staley Grove 35), so that’s the scale of the intended development AND WITHOUT REFERENCE TO THE IMPACT ON OUR INFRASTRUCTURE.

So what’s that got to do with what I’m saying is Highley’s self-perception and why is that a problem?

Highley sees itself as a “village”. In the documents that accompanied Shirehall planning department’s notice of the Yew Tree Grove site as the one THEY preferred for 122 houses, the planners said that in 2016 our population was “estimated” to be 3,195. Yet according to the 2011 official government census (not known for making ‘estimates’) the population then (eight years ago) was 3,602, since when we’ve seen 122 houses built since 2013. And the population has shrunk? Hmmm.

Acoording to those eight-year-old census figures a population of 3,600 makes us bigger than at least two other population centres in the southern half of the county, both of which are designated “towns” (figures as per the 2011 census), Cleobury Mortimer (3,268) and Bishops Castle (1,639).

You see the problem? How we see ourselves is how others see us, in a way that reinforces the view that couldn’t be better expressed than how it is in the ‘Highley & Surrounding Area Place Plan 2019/2020’:

“The area’s predominantly rural nature will require development to be both limited in scale, and sensitive to the environment.”

Despite tourism being a major contributor to Shropshire’s economy, would you invest money ANYWHERE that was predicted to remain “predominantly rural”? At one time, certainly when I was first elected in 2013, I actively pushed – and still do, actually only a matter of weeks ago – the 2004 feasibility study commissioned by the rather wonderful and sadly missed Highley Initiative with the intention of developing the old Kinlet Colliery site as a tourist attraction along the lines of the lead mines at Stiperstones.

I’ve consistently pushed the technology-based industry argument because ‘rural’ doesn’t always faze them, not least because we have a site with outline planning permission in the form of the area behind the existing Netherton workshops which contains a global player in the high voltage sector: Genvolt. (And there has been some ground-breaking innovations at both our pen factories!)

But I am constantly reminded of Highley’s perception of its status as a “village”. “Villages” no longer attract public funding because most – if not all – current funding from central government or the EU (through the Local Enterprise Partnership), has to be match-funded and used to “promote growth”, housing comes into it ONLY if it supports proposals for industry and/or commerce. So that’s Highley out of it and goes a long way to explain Shirehall’a reluctance to spend money on our roads.

I sometimes feel as if I’ve been entered into a race with my shoe laces tied together.

Dave Tremellen

16 June 2019

#54: Submission to planning department supporting the calling-in of a local housing development.

19/02791/FUL

Erection of 20 (affordable) dwellings with estate road, using existing vehicular access

Proposed Residential Development Land East Of Bridgnorth Road Highley Shropshire

Submission from Councillor Dave Tremellen, Member for Highley Ward of Shropshire Council.

22 July 2019

Throughout the documentation accompanying this application there are repeated assertions about the low impact that these 20 houses will have on the traffic situation at what is LOCALLY considered to be one of the most dangerous short stretches of road in Highley. Quite why this assertion persists throughout the documentation when officer and consultee reports from the earlier application for nine bungalows, whilst acknowledging the low impact of nine bungalows, does so with an air of caution.

Members may remember the officer report to the South Planning Committee (Agenda Item 9) dated 1 March 2016 which said (my italics):

6.2.3 [……] The Councils Highways Officer considers that on the basis that a typical domestic dwelling generates on average 6 vehicle movements per day the 9 dwellings proposed would generate possibly 54 movements, plus any associated with the farm access, although it is noted that the dwellings are bungalows and are likely to be occupied by older people who may not make as many journeys each day.

Compounding the surprisingly optimistic assertions made in the current application, in the ‘Rural Exception Site Planning Application Supporting Statement’ that accompanies it a number of erroneous claims are made and repeated throughout the documentation, not least that:

The traffic speed is 30mph but due to the local facilities and residential properties on the road this is reduced further.”

A claim that, frankly, got an incredulous response on the local Facebook pages. I include representative samples, collected after just six hours online between 09.00 and 15.00, at the end of this submission.

The developer, TC Homes, again quoting another stunning presumption on the part of the earlier traffic engineers (my underlining):

“‘This development will also significantly increase the likelihood of slow moving and stationary vehicles undertaking turning movements at this location, which would not be unexpected in this semi urban environment. Therefore, as long as the proposed new access is constructed to an appropriate specification, including satisfactory visibility splays, parking and turning areas, then there is unlikely to be any issues for highway safety, associated with this development proposal.’”

An assertion strongly contested by local residents far more familiar with a stretch of road generally considered to be one of the most dangerous in Highley because of the brow of Benn’s Bank!

Nor, in the current application fot 20 dwellings, is there convincing evidence that consideration has been given to whether the layout, density and scale are appropriate in relation to the context in which these 20 houses are proposed. A comparison needs to be made with what is being proposed here and the scale of the earlier proposed development of nine bungalows.

The March 2016 report goes on to say about the bungalows (my underlining):

6.4.4 The existing residential dwellings in the area vary in type and size and the majority have spacious gardens. The application site is considered to be of relatively low density which results in the proposed plots being spacious, this and the single storey nature of the dwellings would be fitting for an edge of settlement location such as this and compliments the character of the surrounding estates.

The second report, produced as part of the appeal process when the bungalow application was refused, emphasises the significance of the environmental impact of any development on this site, but points up that the scale of a development of nine bungalows goes some way to mitigating that impact:

6.5 Visual Impact and landscaping

6.5.1 The site forms part of a ‘broad location’ considered to have medium capacity for housing in the Landscape Sensitivity study (part of the evidence base that informed consideration of sites within the SAMDev Plan preparation) and is considered ‘moderate’ in the generalised landscape character assessment. The site is much smaller than the broad location in the landscape sensitivity study but clearly the impact on the setting of Highley, recognising the prominent ridge upon which the village stands, and its potential impact on the visual amenity of the area and the Severn Valley needs careful consideration when determining the application.

6.5.2 The site adjoins the current development boundary that runs along the eastern edge of Highley. The proposed layout shows that the built part of the proposal would not project past the existing built development at Vicarage Lane as such it is considered that the scheme would relate well with existing built development and would not encroach significantly into the open countryside.

6.5.3 It is acknowledged that due to the location of Highley on the ridge the built development at the edge of Highley is visible from public view points in the wider landscape and it is inevitable that the proposed development would, like the adjacent dwellings, be visible.

6.5.4 The scale and density of the development is considered appropriate for the size of the application site and its edge of settlement location. The single storey nature of the dwellings would create a low level development which would go some way towards reducing the potential visual impact. Landscaping and appearance of the dwellings are matters to be dealt with at reserved matters stage should outline planning permission be granted, however it is considered that there is sufficient space to enable the integration of design solutions and landscaping which takes into account the sloping nature of the site to further help mitigate potential impacts on the visual character and appearance of the area. Given these factors it is considered on balance that the impact on visual amenity and the Severn Valley would not be significantly detrimental to justify refusal. The Appeal Inspector on the previous application 14/02129/OUT concurred with this assessment, as may be seen from the paragraphs from the appeal decision letter at 1.5 above.

At which point it is interesting to note observations by Ian Kilby (Planning Services Manager at Shropshire Council) when he was resident at the Bridgnorth Office of the (then new, 2009) Shropshire Council, Ian having been a planning officer with the old Bridgnorth District Council:

The view of the Bridgnorth Office is that we would prefer not to see more development on the eastern side of the village – i.e to not add to existing development on the western ridge of the Severn Valley or the upper slopes to the western side of the village. We consider therefore that any allocations should be on land to the south/southwest on the basis of landscape impact.

At that time, it should also be noted, an Article 4 Direction was in force on this site together with its larger neighbouring field to the north of the site.

The March 2016 report concludes:

7.0 CONCLUSION

7.1 The site is considered to be in a sustainable location and the proposed layout and scale would be appropriate for the area. The development would relate to existing built development being bounded by housing to the south and west would not represent significant built, encroachment into the surrounding countryside. It is considered on balance the scheme would not be of significant detriment to visual amenity or the character and appearance of the Severn Valley. The scheme can be implemented without compromising highway safety or exacerbating flooding, further the scheme can be developed in a manner so as not to result in undue harm on residential amenity. The Inspector in the July 2015 appeal decision, prior to the adoption of the SAMDev Plan, reached these same conclusions about the proposed development.

From nine bungalows to 20 two-storey ‘affordable’ houses is a jump too high and too far, an over-development that shows no consideration for either its environmental or social context (in terms of its impact on a local infrastructure already stretched beyond breaking point).

Again, as noted in the 2016 report:

setting aside the location being outside of the village development boundary, [….] the provision of bungalow accommodation has often been requested in development proposals for the area; the impact nine 2 bedroomed bungalows on village services would be limited;

Members will recall that I withdrew my objection to the earlier development of nine bungalows because I considered that the development of the ten houses on Whittles Close breached the principle (established earlier by Ian Kilby – see above) of restricting development on that side of the Severn valley. In comparison the development of nine bungalows on the site under consideration here would actually have had less impact than those ten houses on the lower slope of the eastern ridge. In fact I had earlier argued for a development of ten bungalows on that old garage site, in alignment with the existing bungalows on Rhea Hall!

The claim by TC Homes that their development…

…will have minimal impact on the established setting of the village in the countryside.”

…ignores all the reservations expressed in earlier reports.

Nor was I impressed by the cut and paste nature of TC Homes’ ‘Rural Exception Site Planning Application Supporting Statement’, a desk-top exercise as evidenced by the inclusion of one sloppily edited section which even managed to locate the site in question on the opposite side of the county…

Furthermore the Council’s Supplementary Planning Document: Type and affordability of Housing makes it clear that the provision of affordable housing should be reflective of the scale of the community and where exception sites seem out of proportion to the scale of local need – there is a strong need for housing growth in Bishops Castle to meet the demands of the area and this is supported by the Council’s Housing and Enabling team.”

That more or less did it for me, I’m afraid!

But that was just the full stop to all the reasons why I not only cannot support this application but object to it in the strongest terms because, unlike the earlier application for nine bungalows, it has absolutely nothing to commend it.

FACEBOOK POSTS.

Hannah Ellis The bend is absolutely lethal Dave. My parents live in the White House at the top of the rec, and the majority of the time, someone has to CROSS THE ROAD to see us out of the drive safely. The speed at which some people go is is scary. People also take it wide as well, but when you’re coming the other way in a vehicle round that corner, it’s a bit of a shock when they are over the white line on your side of the road, and people that turn into that junction coming up from the village chance it as it is due to poor visibility. As you can well imagine, the visibility hasn’t been great since Severn Centre had their fencing redone many moons ago and the repositioning not its best; they’ve only recently strimmed down there because my Dad sent emails and pictures complaining. How on Earth are we all going to cope when we have this heavy duty traffic- and for how long will the work be going on right opposite the house on that unforgivable bend? To even entertain the notion for access there is completely ridiculous when there is another viable, safer access point that the vehicles necessary for this job can use. It will save them travelling through through the top half of the village, and will also keep commuting school children safe when the work does start, as they can use the other access point. It will also have less impact on commuting. I’ll speak to my parents and see if I can collate their views here for you?

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Anne Windsor Absolutely ridiculous that bend is dangerous at the best of times as you don’t have any visibility around the corner

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Chris Sandy That bend is horrendous.

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Alice Pete Burden Utter madness to even consider that increased traffic in and out of that access at this point on the road is feasible.

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Megan Plant I live right opposite that junction and even though the main road is 30mph most traffic is doing approximately 50/60 mph and of course the roads are terrible.

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Alan Edwards Plenty of cars regularly exceed 30 on all parts of the Bridgnorth road. To assume people go slower because it’s sensible will not protect the children going home from the Severn Centre.

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Russell Drye Then the same problems exist, turning out on to the main road will be a gamble as some don’t always follow the 30mph limit so will be harder to judge traffic coming from the right, even now crossing the road by the alleyway is a nightmare at times. I traffic lighted crossing would make crossing safer for all to use. Speed bumps? Mini round about? Whatever is said by us the people won’t be listened to, they have made their minds up already and nowt we can do to stop it sadly.

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Jane Woods That stretch of road, specifically the corner bend is totally lethal. Using the track, regardless of having it widened or not will not make any difference to the speed people go on the Bridgnorth Road and around that bend, in particular. The amount of times I’ve nearly experienced a head on collision with a driver who is driving WAY TOO FAST around that bend, subsequently driving on my side of the road, beyond the white line is unmentionable, you add building trucks etc to that and a fatality is imminent.

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Colin Beesley the bend is dangerous why are we letting this happen and also there are people always crossing the road i have seen cars doing 70 mph

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Dave Tremellen

Member for Highley Ward of Shropshire Council.

22 July 2019