On Friday, the 204-metre chimney at the former power station tumbled to the ground. It is the last major structure to be demolished before the site is redeveloped for 1,000 homes, shops, community facilities and a school. This will be a new settlement around the size of Much Wenlock or Ellesmere.
The planning application for the site is proving controversial and complex. At its meeting in June, the Southern Planning Committee voted to defer a decision to get a better deal on affordable housing and traffic impacts on Much Wenlock and more information on the impact on local health services. When the application returned to the committee in August, the proposal on the table was largely unchanged and the committee voted to reject the application by 8 votes to 2.
Now, in an unusual move, the application will be reheard at a special meeting of the Southern Planning Committee on 20 September. There is a new offer on the table in a letter from developer Haworth with more affordable housing. The letter is laden with dire portents of doom for the council should the committee refuse the application again. Never has the Southern Planning Committee been under such pressure. The cost of an appeal could be £1 million, with at least half the cost falling on Shropshire Council.
Although Ironbridge is in Telford & Wrekin, the power station site is mostly in Buildwas parish within Shropshire. It therefore falls to the Southern Planning Committee of Shropshire Council to make a decision on the outline application (19/05560/OUT). Telford & Wrekin Council has already said it supports the application.
This the largest housing application to be heard by a planning committee in Shropshire. It will create a small town, around double the size of Bishop’s Castle. It is important to get it right and that is what the Southern Planning Committee has trying to do these last few months.
The latest offer on the table from Haworth, increases affordable housing from 5% to 10%, which will deliver up to 100 affordable homes on the site. The additional 5% affordable housing will be delivered through either First Homes and/or through a specialist retirement housing or extra care for older people. Harworth is already in discussions with Housing 21, a not for profit provider of retirement housing and extra care for older people. Haworth seems very committed to First Homes, which are aimed at first time buyers and key workers. They offered for sale at a 30% discount to market prive and can only be sold on at 30% discount.
Haworth says any delay to approval will lead to a two-year delay and increased borrowing costs and that “will inevitably impact on the level of affordable housing and infrastructure funding that can be borne by the development.”
Will Southern Planning Committee approve this? I have no idea. We all go the meeting with initial views but open minds.
The simplistic view of planning committees is that they decide the application before them. Yes or no. It is usually not that easy. If an application is not quite right, the committee’s approach is to try and get it right.
That means a form of negotiation does happen between the committee and developers. For example, at the same meeting as Ironbridge was rejected, the committee unanimously approved an application for three homes on condition that this was enabling development to reopen the Acton Arms pub. The application was enthusiastically supported by nearby residents and the parish council but was opposed by planning officers because approval would lead to the cluster (local area) having more homes in local guidelines. Officers told the committee that while the guideline for housing is “not a maximum figure, going beyond it by too great a degree could result in unsustainable development that stretches infrastructure and community goodwill to breaking point.” That rather incredulous comment conflicts with what the community told the council.
Not for the first time, I got the impression that senior planning officers presenting the application to committee did not support the conclusions of the more junior officer that had written the case report. This raises questions about the level of quality control of reports before they come to committee, something we councillors should examine in scrutiny. The Southern Planning Committee had deferred a decision on the scheme at an earlier meeting to ensure that the new housing was legally linked to reopening of the pub. It was a win win situation and the committee approved the application unanimously.
This example of a small scheme highlights that planning committees do have a strong role in shaping and deciding applications.
The discussions over Ironbridge are far more complex and rather threatening. In its letter, developer Harworth says in the event of a refusal of planning permission it would have no option but to lodge an appeal and it estimate its costs would be in the region of £0.5million. That could mean a bill of in the order of £1 million overall, with the council paying at least half that. Haworth would probably apply for its share of the costs though the application would not succeed if the council had not acted unreasonably in its interpretations of planning rules.
The nub of the argument has been that Haworth initially only offered 5% affordable housing, in breach of the emerging local plan policy of 20%. It said that the site would not be viable with more affordable homes. This issue had been discussed at a unique private meeting of the Southern Planning Committee earlier. The meeting was classified as training but it felt more like pressure to accept only 5% affordable.
Three issues dominated the three hour debate. They were summed up by Councillor Tony Parsons early on. Since the committee’s deferral, there had been no change on the level of affordable housing. No change on resolving traffic pressures at the Gaskell Arms in Much Wenlock. No change on impact on health services. On viability, he said: “It looks to me that the costs have been shown to a maximum and the income not at a maximum.”
But Haworth had told the meeting earlier: “Financially, there is nothing more we can offer.“
Planning committees develop a view by listening to arguments made of the floor by developers, communities and councillors. And of course, council officers. Sometimes, as was the case in this application, councillors and officers find themselves in opposition.
There were two levels of conflict between the council’s legal and planning officers and the committee. The first was that planning officers saw the need to promote the development, sometimes speculatively. The second was repeated warnings that the council did not support the committee’s emerging view. We were told councillors would be on their own if it came to a public inquiry.
I think I can speak for entire planning committee that not of us wanted to turn this application down. We saw it as our duty to get the right scheme for this site. We didn’t get that.
Taking the second point first, the vice chair of the Southern Planning Committee was first to say he had attended planning inquiries before and he was prepared to do so again. I later told reporters that I had been “fried alive” by planning barristers and was up it again.
At one point planning officers dangled speculative opportunities that might arise from the development. We were told that the power station site might host a new health hub for the area. Obviously, that it will be a good thing for a community of more than 3,000 people and a wide hinterland. But, as I pointed out, this was speculative and the committee can only determine the application before it.
After an exchange with the council’s lawyer, I proposed grounds for rejection. The lawyer argued that the committee should not refer to the merging local plan just the current local plan. I remarked ironically that if that was the case, then we should reject the application as it in in the emerging local plan, not the current local plan.
The application was rejected by 8 votes to 2.
It is impossible to do justice to the debate in a short article. But I thought it useful to explain the challenges and pressures planning committees come under.
My statement to the Southern Planning Committee on 10 August
If we accept the proposal before us, we will let Shropshire down by not building the affordable housing we so desperately need. We will let our county down by not building the sustainable communities our residents wish for.
If we approve this proposal today, we will deliver a severe blow to the emerging local plan even before it has been examined. One of the biggest principles of that plan is providing an adequate supply of affordable housing. Another is to ensure that we have well designed, sustainable communities.
A community of 1,000 homes, up to three thousand people, with just 50 affordable homes cannot be described as a sustainable community. What is more, the business model suggests to me that the proportion of affordable housing will not increase. If we agree this proposal today, we will be stuck with five per cent as each incoming housebuilder argues that the planning committee said 5%, so 5% it must be.
There is much talk of overage, clawback of any excess profits. I wonder how much money we will see after the accountants have done their work maximising costs and minimising income, including financial charges for different options.
In any event, it is now clear that clawback could be used for other purposes other than affordable housing. For example, for health facilities, and easing the transport impacts this scheme will have.
Any clawback that goes to affordable housing is likely to go offsite because of the way the site is to be parcelled up and sold off. That reinforces the view that is an almost exclusively private development and that affordable housing could be somewhere else.
We are given hopes in the late papers that Homes England could rise to the rescue. But only after the planning permission is granted with 5%. I see nothing in the way that the government or Homes England works that gives me confidence that it will ride in to fix a flawed scheme when it is leading so many other developments, many of which see affordable housing as a priority, not as an add on.
We are told that affordable housing providers could express an interest in buying up parcels for development. In other developments around the county and country, the social housing providers are in at the outset, not an afterthought.
We cannot and must not approve an application on the basis of wishful thinking.
We did hear more about the viability assessment in a private session of this committee which was labelled as training. But it was no more than an explanation of the methodology used for this application and I came away not knowing whether we have the right viability model or not. The full viability assessment is on my desk here but members of the public and independent experts are not allowed to see it.
We are told that Haworth cannot alone resolve the traffic implications of this scheme. In major schemes of this size around the country, infrastructure issues are anticipated and resolved at the outset. We have seen that around Oswestry and Shrewsbury. But here, we are offered what may best be described as piecemeal approach. Yet this is one of the biggest developments this planning committee will ever approve.
What is clear is that Shropshire is not getting a good deal out of this application. We get housing numbers we need, and that is always useful in the current planning regime, but we don’t get the affordable housing and the sustainable communities we need.
If we reject this application, and I believe we should, we will face an appeal. There is no reason why we should lose that appeal.
We will have stood our ground. We will have defended both our current and our emerging local plan. We will have started the new local plan period on a strident foot. Championing what is best for Shropshire. Sticking to our principles.
Grounds for rejection:
The highways and health services implications of this scheme are not adequately addressed and any solutions needed are not adequately funded.
The level of affordable housing is too low for any development in Shropshire, let alone a flagship development at the heart of our emerging local plan.
The following grounds for rejection were dropped on legal advice.
In terms of the emerging local plan:
The proposal fails the Shropshire Test (SP1) by not supporting cohesive communities and providing sufficient services. Specifically, the lack of affordable housing and the uncertainty of health provision fails SP1.
The affordable housing provision, notwithstanding the viability assessment, is too low to meet the ambitions of DP3.