When I first joined the South Planning Committee in 2014, it was a well-run committee that made the right decisions much of the time. But since it was replaced by the Southern Planning Committee standards have slipped, particularly in recent months.

Officers have argued amongst themselves in meetings. A public speaker made defamatory comments. And votes have become less informed as members are brought in from the far corners of the county to vote in on applications in areas they barely know. The result is too often bad planning decisions.

I have received several complaints about recent Southern Planning Committee meetings. Among those I can publish: “So many comments from people all over the area angry and shocked by what they witnessed.” And: “As a member of the audience it was very difficult to listen to!!”

The former South Planning Committee was a coherent, generally competent body, though of course it was not always consensual. It had a regular attendance of members that lived in the south of the county and knew almost everywhere. When they didn’t know a place they visited, either on a formal site visit or independently.

The replacement Southern Planning Committee was established in September 2019 after the Conservatives decided to reduce the number of planning committees from three (North, Central and South) to two (Southern and Northern). There were excuses made at the time, including that there was not enough workload for three committees and reducing to two would cut administrative costs.

But there was another consequence. Planning committees must be politically balanced. When there were three, they had to be balanced by committee area and substitute for members that could not attend were drawn from the committee area. With planning committees reduced to two, committee members must reflect the political balance across the whole unitary area. And substitutes can come from across the entire unitary area.

It was very clear that the former Central Planning Committee would not have passed the controversial North West Relief Road, opposed by Shrewsbury Town Council and by many of the members of the former committee. The new Northern Committee is dominated by Conservatives for many of whom supporting the road is a political obligation. The reduction to two committees also ensured that chairs and vice-chairs of both committees were Conservatives.

The chair and vicechair positions attract an additional payment to reflect the workload. These has long been a suspicion that committee chairs of all the council committees are political appointments that ensure the leader of the council has support and control.

One clear example of this is that Councillor Robert Tindall was summarily sacked by Lezley Picton, the leader of Shropshire Council, as vicechair of the Southern Planning Committee for voting against the local plan. He was immediately reinstated by the planning committee – the leader of the council has no powers over who is vicechair of any committee and had acted unconstitutionally. But Tindall’s return was not to last. The Tories took their revenge as soon as they could and Robert Tindall was soon dismissed as vicechair, and due to the complexity of allocating seats between parties, lost his place on the Southern Planning Committee.

One of the other consequences of the reduction, and increased politicisation of committees, is that Conservatives are swapped around the county. Thus, a councillor from Prees, substituting for a member from Bridgnorth, proposed that the Greete solar farm was accepted. Had he ever visited Greete? I doubt it. He certainly wasn’t on the site visits. The landscape, road structure and communities of Prees are nothing like that of Greete.

With the reduction to two committees, we have lost any sense of locality in planning. Any intimate understanding of the communities and landscape. At times, I have a feeling that the planning committee might as well be making decision about anywhere but South Shropshire. (It meets in Shirehall not the south of the county as it used to do.)

Protocol in the Southern Planning Committee has also declined.

One councillor was allowed to vote in favour of the Ironbridge application despite being out of the room for part of the discussion. A complaint against this by four councillors was rejected.  

At the first discussion of the Greete solar farm application in September, a resident made an accusation against the developer and said councillors would stand similarly accused if the approved the solar farm. The defamatory comments continued for around three minutes. There was no intervention from the chair of the planning committee and the video was published in full online after the meeting. The video was withdrawn after I objected to council legal officers and it was republished with the defamation removed. The speaker should never have been allowed to continue once their message became clear.

And then we had the argument between officers at the last planning committee. It was an extraordinary officer on officer conflict, unprecedented in my time on any committee in Shropshire Council. The application was for an affordable dwelling. Planning officers routinely recommend refusal of these applications on grounds that can include the settlement is not a named settlement and that the housing will be in the open countryside. In contrast, the Southern Planning Committee and its predecessor have a track record of finding ways on getting affordable rural homes approved. But one senior officer started challenging another on the location of the homes. As the debate between two officers continued, a councillor called a point of order. But this objection was summarily dismissed the senior planning officer: “Excuse me, I’m the planning manager.” In that role he should have known it is not for officers to debate between themselves. They only speak at the discretion of the chair.

I am also concerned about the lack of knowledge of some members about planning procedures. At the last meeting one was asking about affordable housing and S106 policies, something that was bread and butter to the previous South Planning Committee. One officer seemed not to understand the protection S106 gives to affordable housing either. At a previous meeting it was clear that a number of the committee members had not read the paperwork.

There is no doubt that the planning department is under resourced. Documents are frequently published late and sometimes after the meeting has made its decision. But a lot of the current problems come from the lack of the effective management of committees, planners and the pressure to push some applications through regardless of the quality of the process.

Planning is one of the most important council functions and, inevitably, one of the most controversial. Planning committes need to be the most careful and most professional of committees. Recent meetings have suggested the Southern Planning Committee is not meeting that standard.

2 thought on “Planning in south Shropshire is losing credibility”
  1. Andy,

    You are absolutely right- what went on at the planning meeting held on the 18th October was an absolute disgrace. I attended the meeting, not as member of the committee because as you rightly say I have been taken off the Southern Planning Committee having served on it since 2009, but in order to support the applicant who was seeking planning permission for an affordable dwelling in my ward.

    Sadly I am beginning to feel that not being on the Southern Planning Committee is probably no bad thing.

  2. I agree with the comments, what was presented at the Ledwyche and Grete solar applications and then again at the Grete application was a disgrace. There are real issues here with a lack of knowledge on subject matter and a lack of local knowledge- even to the point where applications are placed in the wrong place. My question is- What is anyone going to do about it to improve the governance of these committees. As an example, we have applications called in to committee for serious debate (one would hope) and then members co-opted onto the committee who don’t even bother to do site visits but still can vote- how is this right? The meetings are a disgrace and so much mis information is spoken in the meeting but can’t be challenged because of the rules governing how the meetings are run. Statements are made that are not true and members don’t have the insight or knowledge to challenge them, and the public are not allowed to do so- this is not democracy.

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