Monday, July 20, 2009

New Housing at Welshpool

This is a post of local interest to the town of Welshpool in Montgomeryshire. Tonight, I called in at a public meeting of residents living near to the site of a proposed large housing development. Reason I'm posting is that the proposals are cloaked in controversy, and are being considered against a backdrop of much complexity. My aim is not to express opinion on the proposals, but to spread a little understanding.

Lets begin by explaining that all but two of Welshpool's Town Councillors have a dual role. Not only are they elected to represent the interests of Welshpool people, but by dint of their position, serve as trustees on the Burgess Lands Trust. The other two were at tonight's meeting. In this latter capacity, the Trustees decided to sell an area of land to a local housebuilder in order to realise a sum of money for investment in the Town's facilities - and have submitted a planning application to Powys County Council. Normally, the application, which was submitted in April and was for 112 houses, would have been processed by planning officers based at Llandrindod Wells accustomed to dealing with major applications - but as a result of a deluge of proposals for wind farms, the application was 'delegated' to officers at the Welshpool office. They were not at all happy with the proposals, and arranged a 'design review' by the Design Commission, based in Cardiff - who I'm told were extremely critical of the proposals. In response to the Design Commission comments, an amendment has been proposed, changing the design and reducing the number of houses to 90. Not for me to report on tonight's meeting but I feel safe to say that the residents continue to have serious concerns.

There are many complex side issues, which confuse things, and divert attention from the main point - which seems to be quite simple. The Town Clerk, in his capacity as the servant of the Burgess Lands Trustees has submitted a planning application of major importance to Welshpool. The Powys Planning Authority must satisfy itself that the proposals are acceptable for the site, taking all planning considerations into account. If the Authority is satisfied, the application should be granted - and if not satisfied, the application should be refused. Any attempt to stop this site being developed is likely to fail. But concerned residents are surely right to form an organised group, primed to ensure that the planners are supported in their insistence on the best possible design. Comment and opinion is welcomed. This is a space to be watched.


Gareth ap Meirion said...

This development of this site will be difficult, made more so by the topography comprising a prominent steeply sloping field with extensive views both from and to the land from vantage points within the Severn Valley. The planning application for 112 houses submitted by Walker Shepherd was indeed sorely criticised by the Design Commission (view the report on their web site ). Within days of the Design Commission’s findings, the residents were confronted by a revised plan, now showing 90 houses. The revised plan was not of the same drawing quality of the original and we soon learnt why. It had been cobbled together by the Town Clerk (Secretary to the Burgess Trust) as a response to the concerns expressed by residents. The architect quite rightly confirmed that he had received no instruction from the developer to prepare revised drawings and in any case, nothing could be done until he met with the County Council planners (this took place on 20th July). We wonder what on earth the Town Clerk was doing and what authority did he have to meddle with an architect’s plan and parade this as a formal response to both the resident’s and Design Commission’s concerns.

The architect, the developer, the Burgess Trust and indeed our local planners (who have been excellent in the way that they have handled this planning application, incidentally) must recognise that there are very serious design shortcomings with the scheme (both the original and the “revised” proposal). The Design Commission comments are a material planning consideration and must be taken into account in any planning decision. The density is too great, the layout too regimental, the retaining structures (5.3m high gabion walls) too crude and the loss of public open space unacceptable. Moreover the application does not provide any supporting information in terms of a proper landscaping strategy, urban design input, open space strategy (or evidence of need), proper transport assessment, proper flood consequence assessment, proper sustainable surface water drainage strategy…the lack of information just goes on and on.

This is an ill-thought through application. The developer must seek the advice of a landscape architect and an urban designer. We hope that the planners stay strong and demand a comprehensive re-think. The feelings last night remain strong – 90 houses is too great. Reduce this to a maximum 50 – this will still give the Trust £4 million of development value and the developer will still walk away with £1.8 million of clear profit.
We now await the architect's response to concerns of the planning officer and Design Commission.

Glyn Davies said...

G ap M - Thanks for such a full comment. I have received so many representations about this application that I've today written to the Acting Chief Executive asking him to arrange a meeting for me with the 'appropriate officer'. Its clear to me that there is a huge amount of concern about this proposal - and surprisingly its not objection to the principle of development, but a genuine desire to see development of high quality. I do not have the skills to make an aesthetic assessment myself, but I do hope that the planners do their job thoroughly as they deal with such an important application.

Anonymous said...

the town clerk will not listen to anyone and determine to force his plan through

Anonymous said...

Glyn - the Town Clerk and the local Town Councillors are in a very difficult position. Yes, they are also members of the Burgess Trust and yes, they do have real ambitions for using the proceeds to benefit Welshpool. The Town Clerk has come in for a great deal of personal criticism not only on this issue but for other local issues also. But you can't fault his enthusiasm. What he does lack however is a strong Town Council who together with the Trust have given him a long lead and he has been able to take risks that no one in public life should be allowed to do. It seems that he has mis-informed the public on a number of issues about this development, one example being the plan for 112 houses that he himself has changed to 90. We were told that the builder's architect was oblivious to the changes that had been posted to neighbours. We were also told that he has refused to let anyone view the minutes of any Trust meetings. This is a very secretive practice and just raises suspicions locally about the whole saga.

With regards to the housing scheme, there does seem to have been a lack of thought given to local residents but as one resident said last night, this site is one of the most important housing sites in Powys which will do much for the area provided the right development is built there. It is important to get it right and we also heard that the traffic impact will be significant at a time when there are other traffic issues affecting the town centre and Red Bank. I agree that 112 even 90 is too many and the houses are not well designed. I can't believe that the council planners will grant planning permission for this development as it stands. I am pleased that you will be raising this with the Chief Exec of Powys.

Glyn Davies said...

Anon 1 - The Town Clerk is acting as any developer would. He wants to secure planning permission for the application he has submitted. He will not be in a position to influence the decision. That will be a matter for the planning authority.

Anon 2 - I agree with much of your comment. I too admire Robert Robinson's enthusiasm - and if you were at last night's meeting you may recall me suggesting that the personal criticism should not form part of any representation. All I want to be assured of is that the planners take a strong but fair approach to this important application, and decide it on its merits rather than be influenced by non planning considerations.

Joe Pensarn said...

It is a pity that Welshpool Town Council didn't engage with the public in a proper way at the outset. As usual we were told what was to happen. This happens in all walks of Government life. The Town Clerk fell into the same trap of pretending to consult (no, telling people what's best for them). We the residents met twice at the Town Hall and asked to complete a simple questionnaire with the Town Clerk collecting views and sending them on to PCC planning. Why didn't he invite residents to a meeting well before these plans were drawn up and where ideas could have been shared? We are not ignorants but it is clear that the Town Clerk has insulted our collective intelligence. He has further insulted us by drafting an amended housing scheme and mailing this out to individual households. And without the knowledge of the developer!! Yes Glyn, it is the planning committee that have to decide on this and not Mr Robinson.

As a Trust and Town Council representing the interests of the wider public of Welshpool, the residents should reasonably expect the interests of local residents to be respected too. Instead we have a scheme that smacks of speculative development at any cost whether this is cost to local people or to the landscape of the area. The Trust is being advised by both Mr Robinson and a certain local agent who are both estate agents by profession (not surprisingly)but who see the £ symbol as the most crucial element above all else, sod the residents. Another blogger has now put a value to this piece of land. The public should know that the value of this land is circa £5 million with the 120 houses so his/her estimate might be correct. The developer boasted at the exhibition in May that his profit equated to almost £2 million after building costs, "it will be my pension pot!". The issue here is a Trust and a developer cramming development on a site that should accommodate far far fewer homes. Luckily the residents are now an unified group. We want a say. Most importantly we demand a better scheme than the incredulous carbuncle that the Trust, the Town Council and the developer were more than happy to force on this community.

Glyn Davies said...

Joe - I can see that there are very strong emotions involved here, which is a shame. I do not want to become involved in what's gone, and want only to do what I can to ensure that the planning authority insist that the site be developed in the best possible way. And there is no reason to think that this will not happen.

Dave Cox said...

In all this I am dissappointed that all but two of the local Councillors are buring their heads in the sand instead of supporting the people they are supposed to represent. Yes, I can see that being Trustees of the Burgess Lands Trust makes it a little difficult, but they have done their duty to the Trust by agreeing to the sale and finding a purchaser. Now is the time to put that behind them and join the local resident's concerns in the development of this site in an appropriate and desirable manner.
It would be nice if you could put this to them, Glyn.

Dave Cox.

Edgar said...

I agree with Dave Cox, Glyn - the local community is not well served by our councillors. They have a conflict of interest and can bury their heads in the sand. The £5 million is too tempting and they are blinded by the £ symbols. But worse, they do not understand what is proposed; they came to the table believing that Committee power would keep the individual at bay. They had a mouthpiece in Mr Robinson with his chartered surveying background that would keep the natives quiet. But unfortunately for the Trust, it has come up against a community of predominantly professional and business people who can think for themselves. Like snails, they have retreated into their shells. Mr Robinson has lost face and is probably a spent force in our wider community. Tell me Glyn, how do we bring about a vote of no confidence? Our elected representatives are compromised and the Town Clerk one maverick too far.

Iain Cox said...

Hello Glyn. Many thanks for attempting to shed some light on this issue.

As a former resident of Burgess Croft (with a vested interest as my parents live there!) I share the concerns that are voiced by many residents here. Whilst we have been informed that there will be no u-turn on developing the site I just think it's a shame that the development has not been viewed more widely than simply selling land to build houses.

There are more sustainable alternatives that would enable the ownership of the land (a finite resource) to be maintained whilst creating jobs, generating wealth and improving the social wellbeing for the people of the town over the long term. This would help to justify a need upfront for houses to be built whilst enabling local people to afford them.

Surely it makes sense for these alternatives to be explored and decided by the townspeople before any irreversible development is allowed to take place?

Gareth ap Meirion said...

Iain's views are from a heartfelt sustainable development standpoint and there is merit in his thinking. But the Unitary Development Plan that allocates this site for housing has been the subject of Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) and Strategic Impact Assessment (SIA). Accordingly the site has passed the various sustainability least at the Powys wide level. As residents we had the opportunity at the UDP preparation stages to voice concerns and suggestions for alternative uses. We didn't express concerns then or make suggestions - a failing of the planning process maybe as most of us were unaware of the Plan's preparation. As usual we only get involved when the subsequent planning application is lodged - far too late to influence matters. So we now have a planning application before us, which essentially meets the Development Plan site allocation - save for the DESIGN, DENSITY and other TECHNICAL issues. We need to use our energies to get the best development for the site. The other issue? Well, is the County Council planning team strong enough to withstand a developer hell bent on doing what he wants, supported by a Town Council and Burgess Lands Trust who want to maximise land values with disegard for local residents and the environment. The developer has no association with this community other than maximising profit. We are devoid of democratic support from our local councillors who are either tied up with the Trust or who do not fully understand environmental impacts. So, we are left with the planning team at Powys. Be strong...but be true to planning values....reject this scheme and start again.

Rachel Pritch said...

Thank you Glyn for taking time to attend our residents meeting and listen to our concerns - a first in this process!
I hope you grasped from the meeting that we are are not just an 'anti mob' hoping to stop this development ....but a group of like minded intelligent folk who realise change happens but will do all we possibly can to see that the development is of the highest quality, sympathetic to the countryside and neighbourhood where we live.
We must put out trust in our Planners to ensure fair play and ensure that the initial ghastly, high density rows of ugly modern units are not inflicted upon this lovely area. I don't believe the Architects will 'win the locals' around with drawings like this.

Glyn Davies said...

Dave Cox - I have already discussed this with two Concillors, and have arranged a meeting with the Town Clerk to outline the concerns that have been put to me.

Edgar - You may not agree with me, but the answer always lies in the ballot box. Any group disatisfied with those elected should establish an organation behind a candidate to stand. Its a long time until election, but a stateemnt of intent could have an impact - not that its for me to suggest such a thing.

Iain - The planners have to decide on the application that has been submitted. My interest in planning applications is always the same. I want decisions to be taken in a timely manner, and to not be influenced by anything other than a combination of common sense and proper planning considerations. I have great sympathy with the Town Councillors in this case. I fear that I would not have have wanted to remain a Trustee in this situation. Even though I spent getting on for seven years as Chairman of the Planning Authority, I feel that I need several more discussions before I can settle on a firm opinion.

Gareth and Rachel - You both take an entirly realistic approach - which is also how I normally look at these things. Experience has taught me that this is the only approach that makes a difference.

Anonymous said...

This development was bound to happen at some point. This we know. What we did not anticipate was the scale of this proposed development. The idea of planning to build 112 houses on the site was MAD, and even reducing it down to 90 is unrealistic and selfish - A total lack of planning shines from the plans. Plans of 50-70 houses would have been sound.
I believe Welshpool's town clerk has a lot to answer for too - who's interests does he have?? How does he think he can intervene with the plans (only to confuse many people!!) He himself has shown little consideration to residents who have lived in Welshpool for many many more years than he has.
I am pleased that a large number of local residents have joined together in order to get the best possible outcome. I hope this continues.
For now, I hope the planners work on this in order to get the best possible result for Welshpool and also for the local residents.