Nearly one hundred residents turned out on Tuesday for the first day of the planning inquiry into proposals from property speculator Richborough Estates for 137 houses off Foldgate Lane. This is a greenfield site. It is not allocated in our local plan. The location is unsustainable and the development will damage setting of our historic town. The turnout was a strong public statement that we all feel that this proposal is wrong for Ludlow.
There is more at stake at this inquiry than the beauty and tranquility of Foldgate Lane. The inquiry is not just about preserving views. It does not only concern the damage the development would do to the setting of historic buildings and the conservation area, or the impact the development will have on traffic and flooding.
Ludlow is caught up in something much bigger.
We would not be at this expensive inquiry if millions of pounds of speculator and landowner profit were not at stake. If Richborough wins this appeal, it will sell the site to a developer – we can be certain that a handsome profit will be taken. If Richborough succeed, they will have shredded the local planning rules written to ensure that housebuilding happens in towns and villages, not in the open countryside. If Richborough walk away with a victory, developers will rush to cash in on speculative greenfield developments all over the county.
If Shropshire Council loses this appeal, local planning will be all but dead in Shropshire. We will yet again be in a position where we have to approve housing schemes even if local communities and planners in Shirehall believe the location and scale of the developments are damaging to our towns and villages.
Public inquiries are never pleasant affairs and operate rather like a court. Highly paid legals are paid to face each other across a meeting room in front of a planning inspector. The barristers are always inquisitorial and often combative. Local residents, who may have never been in an inquiry or a planning meeting before, can find themselves being interrogated
That was certainly the case this week and some residents were given a difficult time when cross-examined by Richborough Estates’ barrister. Shropshire Council officers and their consultants had a tougher time still.
On Tuesday, the enquiry began with a move of venue for the inquiry. None of us knew how many residents would turn up. By 10am, more than 90 people piled into the Gateway Centre in Craven Arms. The crowd spilled out of the room and down the corridor. After hasty discussions, and with a good degree of efficiency, the ensemble picked up their paperwork and marched to the community centre, CasCA, up the road. There rarely can have been a sight like this in the Arms. Legals were towing travel bags full of evidence, often two apiece, and nearly hundred protestors were walking alongside them.
We were soon settled in at CasCA.
The inspector, Cullum Parker, sat centre stage. To his right, Shropshire Council’s team was led by barrister Gary Grant, backed by three planning officers. A team of four.
On the inspector’s right, Christopher Young led for the developer, Richborough Estates. His online biography says he has “an enviable track record at appeal.” The biography quotes from Chambers Directory 2016:
He is confident, has excellent technical knowledge and sheer force. He’s a guy with a lot of charisma: he makes you sit up and listen. He can also be quite ruthless when necessary.
I am not sure about the “sit up and listen” bit but we certainly saw evidence of that ruthlessness. Mr Young was being briefed by John Acre from Turley, the planning consultancy advising Richborough Estates. They were backed by a team of nine heritage, planning, transport and legal experts. Turning out eleven experts is an impressive show of might. This inquiry must really matter to Richborough.
The Richborough Team
During their opening comments to the inquiry, Gary Grant and Cristopher Young soon slipped into technical planning speak. Over the next four days we went on to hear of OANs, FOANs, SHLAAs, SHMAs, the OBR, SAMDev, CS this and that, and a lot more inaccessible jargon.
Residents took the stand. In turn they presented prepared or off the cuff statements. Many were subsequently cross-examined by Mr Young. I didn’t like his style. It reminded me of those teachers that would shout at me at school when I argued with them. “Isn’t it Boddington?” “Boddington, do you agree?” they would shout as they picked up a slipper or board rubber ready to throw I didn’t give way to their view.
Mr Young had no weapons to hand other than his voice. This he used to heap pressure on residents who had come to the inquiry simply to give their views as local people and concerned citizens. “Isn’t it,” he asked repeatedly as he tried to get them to agree a position they didn’t agree to. He suggested that residents had not been fair to Richborough Estates. He claimed that Richborough – a company that able to afford a team of eleven at a planning inquiry – had been unfairly treated by citizens who have no skills in planning or law.
No one was convinced by this heart bleeding performance by Mr Young. At one point, a cry of “you are bully” came from the audience. It was backed by a chorus of assent. The inspector, Mr Cullum was none too pleased with the intervention and in his quiet style requested that members of the public with such opinions should refrain from expressing them. But the point had been made about Mr Young’s unpleasant and “ruthless” style.
As he cross-questioned residents, it seemed to me that Mr Young was trying to conjure up a conspiracy theory. It was Richard Maddicott of Foldgate Farm had stirred us all into action. The outcry over this development lay at Maddicott’s door. At one point, Mr Young waved flyers that had been pushed through doors to arrange meetings and brief residents. He wanted to question Richard on aspects of them. Viv Parry stood from the floor and said that some of the leaflets and meetings were organised by herself. Richard was never questioned on the leaflets but he had a tough time in the stand.
Young pressed Richard hard on conversion of the barns on his Foldgate Farm property. He was trying to suggest that the insertion of large windows had damaged the heritage asset. Why was he trying to do this? Young’s aim, as was his aim with other witnesses, was to undermine their credibility. If Richard had not followed best practice in converting Foldgate Farm, then he would have no credibility in arguing that the proposed Richborough development would harm the setting of his historic property. But Richard had followed best practice. The barn was converted under the guidance of local conservation officers and with the necessary listed building consent and planning permission.
Mr Young then tried to undermine other witnesses, claiming that they were friends of Richard Maddicott. I am afraid that he doesn’t understand small towns like Ludlow. We are all friends to one degree or another here.
When it was my turn to take the stand, I was determined to turn the tables on the developers. I outlined how we had worked together to the local plan, SAMDev. I didn’t claim that there was unanimity over SAMDev. Universal agreement on housing and planning cannot be expected. But we had achieved a reasonable consensus locally. We plan to build most new housing across the bypass. We began a while back with the Rocks Green social housing settlement. We now have allocated space for 200 homes behind the Nelson Inn. Planning permission has been given in principle for 80 homes between Sheet Village and the Eco Park. We are at the first stages of a new suburb.
I told the inquiry we are good at planning in Ludlow. Developers that are causing the problem. Speculators like Richborough are trying to get housing approved outside of the local plan simply to pursue profit.
Housing land supply dominated the third and fourth days of the inquiry. Richborough’s team claimed that, at best, Shropshire only has 4.6 years land supply in the bank. It could be as low as 2.87 years.
This is important because if we have less than a five-year land supply, national planning rules state that our local plan (SAMDev) will be declared out of date. Once that happens, developers can build almost anywhere providing it can be demonstrated to be sustainable. This means a free-for-all in housebuilding across Shropshire because ‘sustainable’ is a notoriously vague concept.
Land supply is important to Richborough Estates too. Christopher Young told the inquiry that the Richborough Team had employed seven people to work for four months trawling through the technical details of Shropshire’s five-year land supply ahead of this inquiry. That’s a huge commitment of time and money. They must have examined every site in the planning system, talked to very landowner and developer. I do wonder if Richborough have other interests in Shropshire. It seems a costly operation to get planning permission for just one site.
I came away from this inquiry more convinced than ever that planning should proceed by working towards consensus, not legal conflict.
The inquiry had not finished examining expert witnesses by the end of Friday. It will reconvene on 4 and 5 October.
. OAN: objectively assessed [housing] need; FOAN: fully objectively assessed need; SHLAA: strategic housing land availability assessment; SHMA: strategic housing market assessment; OBR: Office of Budget Responsibility; SAMDev: site allocations and management development document; CS: core strategy.