Life as a councillor – defending Oldbury (updated)

Update 25 January 2015

I am pleased to say that we won this appeal. The planning inspector said development would harm the setting, character and appearance of the Oldbury Conservation Area. These were the main reasons the South Planning Committee rejected the proposal. The inspector said:

The contribution that the proposed development would make towards addressing any undersupply of housing would not outweigh the harm that the scheme would cause to the Conservation Area and its setting and, thus, it would not be the sustainable development.

The inspector refused the developer’s application for costs. He said:

The Council’s reason for refusal is explicit and made with reference to policy. It was expanded upon in the Council’s Statement and at the Hearing, where a robust, considered, evidenced and articulate defence of it was made.

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Some while ago, a Ludlow resident asked me: “How does Shropshire Council work?” I’ll add to that another question: “What do councillors do?” I’ve been trying to shed light on both these questions through this blog. Some of the work I have to do as a councillor is quite unexpected.

Shortly after 10am yesterday, I was presenting the case for Shropshire Council at a planning appeal hearing. I hadn’t expected to be there.

When I was elected, I was keen to be appointed to the South Planning Committee. I have settled in really well on that committee. That is hardly a surprise as I have written about planning and environmental matters for more than a decade. But I never once thought that I would be leading for the council at a planning hearing.

Back in June, the South Planning Committee unanimously rejected an outline application for housing on the border of Oldbury Conservation Area on the outskirts of Bridgnorth. For technical reasons, the application came back before us in July. We threw it out again without dissention. A slightly different version of the application was presented to the committee in November. We were resolute. Out it went.

Oldbury_sat_view

Yesterday’s planning hearing concerned the first two rejections. On one side of the room, the developers had a team of four, including a heritage specialist. We fielded five people – Councillor Robert Tindall and myself, and three planning officers. Fifteen Oldbury residents packed the public gallery.

The big debate was over what harm the proposed development of maybe nine houses would cause to the Oldbury Conservation Area. Our view was that it would cause harm and that harm was sufficient to outweigh the benefit of extra housing.

“Harm” is both an everyday word and technical planning term. We think the housing will damage the setting of the conservation area and destroy an important hedgerow. That hedgerow was carefully planted in the last century and fenced with a neat iron railing, though it has since been seriously neglected. In the jargon of planning, we considered the damage to the conservation area and hedgerow to be “less than substantial harm” but gave that harm considerable weight in the light of the Barnwell judgement.

That’s one of the problems with planning. You can’t get away from jargon. When the hearing moved on to discussion of whether Shropshire has an adequate supply of land for housebuilding, we heard of the Sedgefield approach, 20% buffers and the complexities of viability. It’s pretty impenetrable stuff but essential given the way that planning rules are phrased.

We were well prepared for this meeting. Robert Tindall and I had held two preparation meeting with officers and another to explore the historical geography of the conservation area. We went on a site visit to refresh ourselves. I spent nearly two days writing the brief for the hearing. Even then, I felt very challenged as the inspector pressed me on details of just what harm the development would cause to the conservation area.

I thought this was a fair hearing. The inspector was considerate and inclusive. Our side inevitably disagreed with the developer’s team on many points, but we engaged in a civilised debate.

After little more than three hours, and a lot of dry as dust technical talk, the hearing closed. We should hear the result in a month or so, including whether, should we lose, we will have to pay the developer’s costs. Shropshire Council argued that as we councillors had made our decision on rational interpretation of planning rules, so there should be no costs awarded.

Will we win? I hope so for the sake of Oldbury and its residents. But I don’t think we could have presented a more thoroughly prepared and argued case.