My annoyance could not be hidden in my closing remarks to the public inquiry. The planning inspector was getting a bit annoyed with me too.
I had really had enough by then. The developer, Tesni, has been heavy handed in pursuing this development from day one. Their public consultation was minimal, limited to a letter drop of nearby houses and an online consultation that few people knew about.
They had insisted on an adversarial public inquiry not an inquisitorial hearing. An inquiry is much like a court case with barristers concentrating as much on legal rules to stop arguments being made as presenting a case for or against a development. A hearing is a round table discussion, tightly controlled but less concerned with rules than discovering the merits or otherwise of a development.
The inquiry was held, appropriately, in the Ludlow Room in Shirehall. To my left was the Tesni team – a planning barrister flanked by Tesni’s agent and transport consultant. To my right, two council planning officers. I had a desk of my own as a Rule 6 party – a legal status I had taken on to ensure my arguments were fully heard. I faced the inspector at the head of the room.
Behind me was the public gallery, occupied by Councillors Glen Ginger and Colin Sheward – they spoke well. Beside them was a reporter from the Shropshire Star and two of the Tesni team. Also – and this was a surprise – John Acre from Turley Associates and Michael Jones from Richborough Estates. They are the promoters of the Foldgate Lane development that was thrown out by council planners in September.
The inquiry began badly.
In his opening statement, the barrister for Tesni announced that they were pursuing the full application including the footbridge over the Corve to Fishmore View. I can’t print what I muttered under my breath as he said this but it translates into polite language as “treachery”.
Tesni has twice offered to withdraw the plans for this controversial footbridge at the South Planning Committee. The company’s argument was that while it thought the bridge was a good idea, it was not essential to the development. Tesni’s agent, Andy Williams, even wrote to the South Planning Committee in June 2014 saying as much. I met with Tesni, Mr Williams and council planners last summer to discuss an alternative access route from Corve Bridge.
But these previous commitments and discussions counted for nothing to Tesni. They announced they wanted to pursue the footbridge.
This became the biggest of the two main issues at the inquiry. The other issue was whether Shropshire Council has identified a five year land supply (but the arguments over that were far too tedious to report here).
At most inquiries into controversial housing schemes, the principle of building is the main issue. But Shropshire Council had decided not to defend the decision of the South Planning Committee to throw out the planning application for 215 homes. The committee had said it would be a lousy, unsafe place to live – or in the jargon of planning, an unsustainable development. As the planning officer admitted, not defending a decision was an unusual position for a council to take.
It seems that the council took this route because it did not accept its own committee’s decision and because it was concerned about the costs of losing the appeal. It need not have worried because Tesni declared at the outset that it would not be pursuing a claim for costs. That was a surprising statement as Tesni was clearly entitled to costs from a council that had a made a decision that it had declined to defend.
So the footbridge became the biggest issue. I was present at the inquiry to oppose the footbridge on behalf of residents of Fishmore View. At times, it was an argument between me, with my inexperience of the legal niceties showing, and Tesni’s souped-up team.
But although Tesni’s team had the legal might, at times it showed its complete lack of knowledge of Ludlow. The team could even pronounce the street names at times. “Broomfield Road” was not only mentioned several times, it appeared in documents.
We were told by Tesni’s ‘transport expert’ that there were buses servicing the site that had not run for years. A last minute update on the buses included the Link service (cancelled in October 2013) and the 722 giving convenient access to the park and ride (except that the 722 doesn’t go within mile of the site except on the school run). After I ridiculed this, a new update was produced showing eleven services along Bromfield Road, failing to mention that most of these are school buses. I was pressed hard by Tesni’s barrister to agree that this amounted to a sustainable public transport service for the site. I refused to acknowledge that. As anyone who lives at Castlefields or Keepside knows, the bus service is sporadic.
We went round in circles on the merits or demerits of the footbridge. With hindsight, I should have a lot more data and presented it earlier in the inquiry. I was admonished by the inspector and Tesni’s barrister for introducing “new evidence” in my closing statement. That was my error.
I should have recognised that I was addressing a developer that claims it is doing something good for Ludlow. Therefore providing information that the population of this town is more elderly than average and that there is housing along Bromfield Road that would benefit from an improved bus service was clearly too much. What to you and I is common knowledge is to them “new evidence”.
But then, Tesni is a developer that thinks Ludlow is a 30-minute drive from Shirehall. It’s a development team that arrived 20 minutes late at a meeting I held at Ludlow Library because they couldn’t find the library. It’s a developer that employs consultants that believe they are planning to build on “Broomfield Road”.
Although I was at one point threatened with additional cross-examination, the inspector was fair. He simply said I could make my closing statement and he would ignore anything he thought was out of bounds. But more than once he spoke as though he planned to approve the development before quickly saying, “I say that without prejudice”.
I am utterly fed up with this development and infuriated with the process by which it has been put forward. At times, this inquiry was very adversarial. I am a calm man but at the end of the one-and-half days, my frustration could not be hidden.
So I departed from my prepared closing text. I was blunt and said:
“There is not much distance between us. If you had consulted and engaged with us from the outset, you’d be building by now.”
A lot of people don’t agree that developing this site is right for Ludlow. That’s fair enough. I have taken the view that planning rules and Shropshire Council’s position means that it is better to negotiate a decent development than try to oppose it altogether. Maybe that’s the wrong position.
But it’s nowhere near as wrong as Tesni’s position. The world we live in means that this town will expand. We need to get that expansion right. That’s not going to happen if we get developers like Tesni who are concerned with their bottom line first and Ludlow a poor second.
We really don’t developers like this in Ludlow again.
The inspector will publish his decision by December 4. I am not holding my breath for a refusal of the development or a refusal of building the Fishmore View footbridge.