This afternoon, the Southern Planning Committee approved the controversial application for more than 1,000 homes at the former Buildwas power station having rejected the scheme at its meeting on 10 August. There was an improved offer on the table, not improved enough in my view, but the committee voted by six votes to four to approve outline planning permission for the scheme.
But if it was not for an untoward email, the rejection of the scheme would have stood and an appeal by developer Haworth would be underway. Those who oppose the development, in principle or detail, will rue the day that email was sent. Because of an email, a planning battle was lost.
I do not oppose the Ironbridge development. I just want to get the right scheme.
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 on 10 August, the proposal was largely unchanged and the committee voted to reject the application by eight votes to two. Then Haworth, which had stubbornly told the committee that they could not change the level of affordable housing or address other issues, put another offer on the table.
On 31 August, Haworth sent a letter to council planners setting out its response to the issues raised by the committee members. Then on 9 September, Haworth submitted the improved offer with 10% affordable housing, most of which is likely be extra care housing that’s already in the plans. But will be secured as affordable homes rather than sold or leased on the open market. There is more health money for the Clinical Commissioning Group, though with the loss of a reserved plot for a health centre on the development. More money will be provided to alleviating traffic problems from the scheme by raiding the sustainable transport budget.
During today’s meeting, officers revealed that the Southern Planning Committee’s refusal of the application was to be refused “the next day” after 10 August. But as the planning committee had deliberated, all members of the committee were sent an email 14:44pm. That email concerned the probity of the viability assessment and the checking of the assessment by Shropshire Council’s consultants. I can’t imagine any council member so much as glanced at the email during the meeting. I certainly didn’t even look at it. However, the email was a lobbying action that could have put the council in jeopardy of judicial review if it had influenced members. Today officers told us they needed to seek legal advice. That must have taken some days and by then Haworth had made the revised offer. The council was obliged to consider that offer and that is why the planning committee was uniquely recalled today.
There are arguments for and against the current scheme at Ironbridge. But this is no way to decide one of the most important planning decisions since the unitary authority was established in 2009. Because of an email, a planning battle was lost. And above all, we did not get the best scheme we could have got.
My statement at the planning meeting
It would not surprise me if the planning committee approved this application today. The pressure to do so is intense as the late papers make clear. Councillors also face the prospect of having to defend their decision in front of barristers at a planning appeal, should they refuse the application. That is a lot of pressure for us lay members of the planning committee.
But the degree of pressure on us does not absolve us from our duty to make the right decision. A decision must be right in terms of our planning policies. It must be right for the future of our communities. And for a site of this magnitude, it should be an exemplar for our county and beyond.
There are many attractive aspects of this scheme and I find the concept of a new settlement at this location quite exciting.
But to make the settlement sustainable we need mixed communities. We are still struggling to get the 20% affordable housing required by the local plan.
Although we are told there is hope of Homes England coming to the rescue of affordable housing and perhaps also a local provider, we are at this stage offered specialist housing. This was already in the scheme and the extra care homes will become part of the S106 obligation. This means that they will be provided by a registered social landlord and that will be welcome.
If the extra care scheme doesn’t come off, then Haworth is promising First Homes, private homes sold at 30% of the market value.
My feeling is that neither of these options gives us the social mix we are trying to achieve for a sustainable settlement of this size and importance.
The difficulty of achieving social mix will not go away while we are capped at 10% affordable housing and not the policy compliant 20%.
We are a county which is failing on delivering affordable housing, just 14.4% of homes were affordable in the last reporting period.
Sustainable transport is essential for a huge scheme like this. Yet because there is no immediate demand on the sustainable transport fund, it is being raided for the Gaskell Arms junction, CCG and Buildwas school. These needs are important. But if this new Ironbridge settlement is to be genuinely sustainable, we need money to fund active travel and public transport schemes.
As always, as we see here, buses are last in line. People without cars are last in line. Climate change commitments are last in line. The prospect of a Very Light Railway is interesting, but will it connect with Telford rail station? Or will people need to get into their cars to go to Shrewsbury and Wolverhampton?
We are struggling to get this application approved. That is because it is not yet good enough. If we approve this, we will be undermining our new plan before it is even approved.
I will hear what other councillors say but at this point I am still not minded to support this application, even though I support the principle of development of this site.