Shropshire Council paves the streets of Shrewsbury and Oswestry with gold and throws crumbs to rural areas

Yesterday, the Conservative group on Shropshire Council blocked a bid to create a fund to boost the health of market towns. While Shrewsbury and Oswestry are being put forward for up for £25 million each of government money, market towns look likely to only get money from a levy on developers. Shropshire Council bought three Shrewsbury centres at a cost of £51 million. Income from the centres is 11% below target just one year after purchase. Millions have been spent on roads in the north of the county and the council is committed to another £20 million plus for the Shrewsbury North West Relief Road.

Fellow Lib Dems and I proposed to set up a working group to look at capital fund for market towns. But the Tories were whipped into voting against this proposal. Peter Nutting even said he wasn’t certain he could find the money!

My motion is in full below. We were instructing the leader to set up a task and finish group to look at establishing a market towns vitalisation fund. The group would look at the case for a capital fund to be spent on supporting the high streets of any town or village with a recognisable high street. I think we might need £10 million to improve park and ride services and get derelict buildings back into use. Many towns need to improve the public realm – things like paving, greening and signage. What needs doing must be down for towns to decide. It needs to be a locally driven bottom up initiative.

That’s not what is going to happen after Tory councillors were instructed to vote against the motion which they did with absolute obedience. Bridgnorth councillors voted against capital funding for their town. As did councillors for Market Drayton, Shifnal and a host of other towns and large villages.

Peter Nutting said he didn’t like being “instructed” – my wording in the motion. I accept that point, though my language is normal for council motions. I should have said “asks”, “pleads” or “begs”. But no motion should fail on a form of words. Nutting could have tabled an amendment but he was determined to rule against investment in the towns outside Shrewsbury and Oswestry.

Nutting also said he wasn’t certain where the money would come from. Just a few weeks ago he was bragging on BBC Radio Shropshire that he could easily find the missing £20 million for the Shrewsbury North West Relief Road. But he can’t find a penny for anywhere outside the Tory heartland of Shrewsbury and Oswestry.

We had expected an amendment to my motion. Instead, the cabinet member for communities, Gwilym Butler asked the council to reject the motion. He represents Cleobury Mortimer, a market town. That’s a town that won’t get any infrastructure money unless it builds big housing estates all around. Butler said that funding needs must be determined through Place Plans. These plans look at the service and infrastructure need for areas.

I haven’t had so much as a glance at the Place Plan for Ludlow and its hinterland. It’s being written in secret in Shirehall. We are due a two-hour consultation on the draft planning Place Plan on 21 March but only councillors will be invited to attend. The Place Plans will not make the case for a capital fund raised from council reserves or on the market (currently we pay 2.5% on loans). Any funding must come from the community infrastructure levy (CIL), a tax on housing development – it doesn’t apply to industrial and retail development.

CIL is a problematic levy. We need more smaller homes in rural Shropshire, properties with one and two bedrooms. But larger homes pay more CIL creating a perverse incentive to favour three and four bedroom homes. There are also arguments about how it should be distributed. Should it all be used in the parish where the development happens or should the lion’s share go to the market town that supplies the key services for that parish?

My back of envelope calculation is that Ludlow and Ludford could receive £3.4 million CIL from planned development. That’s useful money but it will come in over 20 years. It is always going to be a reactive investment. It is not the needed up-front investment to improve market towns and attract people to them, either to live or visit. It is nothing other than a model of stretching the resources of a market town like ours to the limit and then patching up the problems. That’s not planning for the future of our county. And there won’t be a penny if housebuilders decide not to build because there is no market.

Rural areas are being starved of investment under the Mayor of Shrewsbury’s leadership of Shropshire Council. After yesterday, we know that is formal Tory policy in Shropshire.

In other news, Shropshire Council agreed to set up a housing company. I agree with that as did all councillors. But until the yet unnamed company makes a profit, and it will be burdened with £1.25 million debts from day one, the only investment will be in St Martins north of Oswestry and Shrewsbury. Only when it makes a profit, will it invest in towns like Ludlow. The council is saying “watch this space”. I am saying “watch the decline of the market towns”.

Motion on a market town vitalisation fund from Councillor Andy Boddington

Supported by Councillors Roger Evans, Chris Mellings, Tracey Huffer and Andy Boddington.

The recent government recently announced a Future High Streets. After discussions within councils and with MHCLG, it became clear that most rural market towns are unlikely to benefit from the scheme. This is not because these towns are thriving. Many are struggling. But the criteria issued by MHCLG tips applications towards failed town centres in larger towns and cities.

The Future High Streets fund has nevertheless created a desire for public sector intervention to boost and maintain the viability of high streets across Shropshire. Even those high streets that are currently regarded as successful could decline quickly in the face of challenges of online shopping and, should one occur, a recession.

Every market town in Shropshire has different needs. Some have derelict buildings. In others, the quality of the public realm is poor. Several need to improve sustainable transport infrastructure to increase footfall.

This motion instructs the council leader to appoint a task and finish group with the following terms of reference:

1) To examine the case for and feasibility of a market towns vitalisation fund for Shropshire.

2) To identify the level of budget required to meet identified need, using finance from capital reserves or borrowing as appropriate.

3) To ensure the fund is open to all towns and large villages in the unitary area that have a recognisable high street, not just those considered to be a market town in planning policy.

4) To report back to cabinet and council in May 2019.

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