Yesterday afternoon, the South Planning Committee provisionally rejected plans for four retail units and a coffee shop at Old Smithfield, Bridgnorth. It approved a modest expansion of a camp site near Much Wenlock. A decision on plans for giant chicken sheds at Walkhamwood Farm near Bridgnorth were deferred to a later meeting.
The three applications had reached the planning committee because they are not easy decisions. Our decision-making was not helped by the inexcusable behaviour of some members of the public.
Us members of the South Planning Committee set off in a council minibus from Shirehall at 9.30am to visit sites on the agenda. (Sometimes we tour on Monday as well.) Our first stop was the Withies campsite outside Much Wenlock, which wants to add four shepherd’s huts and a washhouse and toilet block. We then drove into Bridgnorth, where, as expected, we were greeted by around 200 protestors.
It is not unusual for the planning committee to be met by a crowd of people opposed to developments (though it is rare to be greeted by a crowd of people in support of a scheme). This was initially a well-behaved group. The Shropshire Star reports that it was organised by the Bridgnorth Chamber of Commerce.
The committee did what it always does on site visits. We walked around the development site as officers explained to us the plans pointed out topographical points and highlighted issues that the committee might wish to consider. But on this occasion, our progress was impeded by the protestors.
As we stood trying to listen to officers and examine the plans, we were challenged by shouts from the crowd which had surrounded us.
“How many of you are from Bridgnorth?” “Do you know that 7,000 people have signed a petition against this scheme?” “Do you know we won…” “Brown envelopes!” “Are you getting backhanders?” “We pay your wages.”
The behaviour reminded me of the trade union pickets of the 1970s and 1980s, where cries of “scab” were heard almost daily. The protestors clearly intended to intimidate the committee and the planning committee, and to some extent they succeeded.
The shouted questions were insulting. It was clear that few, if any of the protestors had troubled to learn how a planning committee works and how diligently members of the South Planning Committee work on applications ahead of meetings. They obviously assumed that the members of the planning committee were in favour of the application and were going to rubber stamp the planning officers’ recommendation to approve the scheme. As it was to prove, those shouting were quite wrong.
The vocal protest was led by a few men and women but the entire group of protestors acted as a pack. At times, they crowded around so closely that some people in our group felt threatened. They shouted so loudly that at times I could not hear what planning officers were saying.
When we returned to the planning bus, the crowd surrounded the front of the bus and prevented it leaving the car park. One or two of mob banged on the side of the bus. Shouts of “brown envelopes” and “backhanders” continued.
William Parr, the local ward councillor and a member of the planning committee, got off the bus to negotiate with the mob. Members on the bus discussed calling the police. Councillor Parr did a good job and after a few minutes someone shouted, “Let’s go. We are probably doing more harm than good.”
That remark misunderstands how planning committees work. We take account of public opinion, but we don’t make decisions based on how loud people shout. Neither do we mark an application down because a rabble of people accuses us of taking “backhanders” and “brown envelopes”. We make decisions based on how the best interests of the locality can be balanced with the planning rule books. As one committee said firmly later in the formal committee meeting, “We won’t be bullied”. But he was talking about a different application.
I don’t know what the protestors were trying to achieve by being so rowdy. The protest was shabby behaviour. It let down the good people of Bridgnorth and damaged the town’s reputation, which otherwise is running at a high after winning the large market town category in the Great British High Street awards.
After a tour of Bridgnorth car parks and High Town, we continued to Walkhamwood Farm. At 2pm, we sat down around a table in Shirehall to begin formal work on the three planning applications.
The audience area of committee room was full but there were not as many people attending from Bridgnorth as I expected. Throughout the meeting, most members of the public remained silent, other than a smattering of applause after the Bridgnorth decision.
That decision came after a two-hour debate. The first hour was taken up with presentations and representations from planning officers, those opposing the scheme and the developer. During the second hour, committee members debated the issues and tried to come to a common view. We didn’t achieve that.
After a while, I proposed rejection of the scheme. Councillor Gwilym Butler proposed acceptance. We had a long discussion with legal and planning officers on my grounds for rejection. Officers did not believe that the loss of car parking spaces should the proposed scheme be built would be significant. Neither did they accept that the scheme would have a major impact on existing trade in the town centre. I did not agree. I think loss of car parking in any of our market towns would be significant. I think the developer’s estimate that only 4.7% of trade will be lost from Bridgnorth town centre is no more than guesswork. I worry that the impact could be higher. We have been told for decades by developers that retail developments will not damage traditional town centres, yet we have seen the decline and destruction of town centres across the country.
We went to a vote on my motion. I was far from certain that it would be approved by the committee. Five members voted for rejecting the scheme and four voted in favour. My motion was carried.
However, as with the decision on the Ludlow Rocks Green supermarket application last October, we were only allowed to “be minded to refuse” the application. That’s because the officers that recommended approval of the scheme didn’t accept our grounds for refusal.
Officers will now discuss the committee’s decision with the developer. It will come back to a future meeting of the South Planning Committee. Perhaps the plans will be changed by then. Perhaps not. The developer is also within its rights to appeal directly to the planning inspectorate citing non-determination by Shropshire Council.
Current plans for Bridgnorth
The debate on the Walkhamwood Farm poultry units was deferred to a later meeting as new information had been received just before the committee meeting.
The final decision was more straightforward. Members voted unanimously to approve the addition of four shepherd huts to the existing Withers campsite on the edge of Much Wenlock. This resulted in one member of the audience standing up and ranting at the committee about road safety. He claimed the first death would be on the committee’s head. It was an extraordinary interruption that brought to an end a lively day.
Planning is often excitable. That’s part of its attraction – you don’t volunteer to be on a planning committee for an easy life. Yesterday was a good day for the committee in the way it worked through two complex planning applications. But it was not such a good day for the reputation of Bridgnorth.
Two videos of the protest at Bridgnorth are on YouTube. They concentrate on the committee, rather than the crowd but they give an impression of the occasion.
Formal decision as recorded in the draft committee minutes
Land adjacent to Sainsbury’s supermarket, Old Smithfield, Bridgnorth (16/02739/FUL) Decision: That, in accordance with Shropshire Council’s Constitution, consideration of this planning application be deferred to a future meeting, with members minded to refuse the application for the following reasons: The Committee acknowledges that the proposal would provide additional retail choice in Bridgnorth Town Centre, but the loss of car parking spaces and the uncertainty of the impact on independent traders in the Town Centre would be contrary to Core Strategy Policy CS15 and paragraph 27 of the National Planning Policy Framework.
. “It is the statutory duty of Local Planning Authorities ‘to take into account’ representations received from the public about proposed development. However, local opposition is not a ground for refusal, unless it is founded on good evidence.” Keith Thomas, Development Control, Routledge, 102.