A missed opportunity

On 17th January Much Wenlock Town Council met to “consider the  Much Wenlock section of the Local Plan Review – Preferred Sites and to agree the Town Council’s response to Shropshire Council.”

The casual observer might have believed that what was intended was a overview of the various site proposals that had been submitted to Shropshire Council, consideration of their alignment with the aspirations and policies of the Much Wenlock Neighbourhood Plan, and reflection on the views of the community. That casual observer might therefore have been disappointed if they had attended the meeting.

The agenda item was introduced by the chairman of the Town Council’s Planning & Environment Committee. In so doing, she made it clear that all the Town Council was considering at this meeting was a recommendation from the Committee. This was for the “preferred site” MUW012 of 3.8ha of land adjoining the Primary School and Hunters Gate, Much Wenlock, with an indicative capacity for 80 dwellings. The Committee had only considered the preferred site and had not taken into account any other site proposals, nor indeed any other outside issues such as the development of Ironbridge Power Station or the impact of development in Cressage on the capacity of the medical practice.

Having set the ground rules, the mayor then invited members of the public to speak. Having registered with the Locum Town Clerk a couple of weeks before, I was called first.

I urged the Town Council to take a broader view than was their intention and, in so doing, if after that consideration the decision was to support Shropshire Council’s recommendation, so be it. Further, I mentioned that a local resident had alerted the meeting on 3rd January to Shropshire Council installing a 14-inch pipe across the parkland (situated to the east of Barrow Street) to discharge through the pools into the Shylte river and ultimately into the River Severn. It was claimed that this could be utilised to route surface water from the Hunters Gate area. I queried whether the proposed roundabout on the A458 was necessary for anything other than gaining access to the preferred site.

I then suggested that if a site outside of the development boundary is selected, that the town would still be subject to infill (or “windfall sites”) – within the development boundary. The windfall sites could provide the same number of units if two or three-storey apartments were built (possibly based on the Churchill and McCarthy & Stone models*), which would comply  with the Neighbourhood Plan policy H2 . H2 gives encouragement to provision for single-level living – and thus providing more suitable housing for the elderly and those with physical disabilities. So, instead of the 95 units proposed (80 in the proposed allocation, plus 15 windfall sites), we could potentially have 150 or so additional housing units by 2036, in addition to the consents already granted.

I then went on to cover the draft minutes of the Town Council  Planning Committee meeting of 8th January which referred to the size of the proposed developments – “It was noted that some residents would prefer several small housing developments. However, these would not qualify for Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) funding and would not bring infrastructure improvements to the town.” Whatever the motivation for that statement, it was likely to mislead councillors who are not members of the Planning Committee. And it is likely to mislead members of the public who look to the Town Council for guidance. And of course, it is a position that is not in line with the aspirations of the Neighbourhood Plan.

I said that Shropshire Council makes a CIL on every new dwelling – except affordable housing. Shropshire Council says “CIL applies to all development that involves ….. the formation of one or more new dwellings, (including holiday lets), either through conversion or new build, regardless of size (unless it is ‘affordable housing’). The reaction at the meeting from the Town Council was somewhat muted, and there was some mumbling about economies of scale – clearly nothing to do with CIL.

The Planning Committee recommended that the Town Council did not comment on the Cressage proposals, despite Cressage being in the Much Wenlock Place plan area. I repeated the suggestion made by a local resident at the 3rd January meeting that more people in Cressage will place a further burden on the medical practice which, of course, has surgeries in both communities.

I touched on the concerns that are being raised about the Town Council not taking the lead on site allocations by embarking on a refresh of the Neighbourhood Plan. Some residents had expressed an interest in taking this forward.

I concluded by saying that the development of Ironbridge Power Station is not included in the consultation. The Town Council had been briefed on the  emerging proposals by Harworth, the owners. I suggested that the Town Council might consider whether this is the right time for any site allocation in Much Wenlock, or whether to press for a deferral until more is known about a site two miles distant with capacity to accommodate more than 1,000 dwellings.

Several other residents were then invited to speak, and they covered a range of issues. To his credit, the mayor asked Town Councillors if they had any questions of the speakers but, in an extraordinary challenge to the representative speaking on behalf of the Much Wenlock Civic Society, one Councillor stimulated an aggressive confrontation until I intervened.

Another speaker referred to the address given by Connexus at the Town Council meeting on 10th January when reference was made to their ambition to build a further twenty affordable dwellings next to their Callaughtons Ash development. The speaker said that this didn’t appear to feature in the assessment for future development and, if it went ahead, would place further strain on Much Wenlock’s infrastructure.

A landowner gave an address in support of the site that he had submitted to Shropshire Council – not one that had been “preferred”.

At the end of public session, the mayor asked Town Councillors, in turn, for their thoughts on the proposed site. They responded one by one, but there was no debate or discussion around the table. Scant regard appeared to be given to the observations of those members of the public who were present. No reference was made to any written representations from Wenlock residents. Hopefully Town Councillors would have seen those letters and emails. The mayor then called for a vote and it was agreed to respond to the consultation by supporting the preferred site adjoining the Primary School and Hunters Gate.

Only time will tell whether this is a Town Council decision that the Much Wenlock community at large will support. I believe that, whatever the Town Council’s response was to the consultation, the opportunity to have a richer and broader debate about the future development of Much Wenlock was deliberately missed.

The Shropshire Council consultation is open until 8th February – you can find further details here, or pick up the forms at the library.

* I am not an advocate for either Churchill or McCarthy & Stone. I simply use their names as an illustration of what might be possible.

Whilst Much Wenlock Town Council has shown marked reluctance to refresh the Neighbourhood Plan which was “made” by Shropshire Council in 2014, many believe this could be achieved by community effort. If you’d like to get involved in a short and transparent exercise focused on development proposals, please email your contact details to: mwnprefresh@gmail.com. Your information will not be used for any other purpose.