I notice that over the past few weeks some outrage seems to be abroad over supposed plans to build a housing estate or industrial park, near Shire Oak on Lanes Farm, between the farmhouse at Sandhills and the Chester Road; broadly the site of the old Brawn’s Wood.
There is no need to panic. This is not a solid plan, it’s an expression of half-hearted interest as part of a very long-term, unquestionably doomed planning policy document currently being consulted on by Walsall Council.
Sadly, the situation seems to be being exploited for political ends by the Aldridge North and Walsall Wood councillors, all of whom are Tory. An occasionally circulated free pamphlet from the local Conservative Party, ‘In Touch’, has been selectively delivered to some local homes in Shire Oak, dealing with the whole issue in unnecessarily sensationalist terms. One can only wonder what the gentlemen concerned might be trying to distract local attention from. I include scans of the sheet at the bottom of this post.
There is no planning application at the moment of any kind, and several historic attempts to build industrial units on the land were thrown out in the 1990s, every time refused by the council, then additionally defeated on appeal to higher authorities. The land is protected greenbelt, and the council’s own planning document for the site includes the description:
Site in Green Belt. Development of sites in the Green Belt would be contrary to the objective of the BCCS to develop brownfield sites first. Impact on highway network is also likely to be considerable.
Further, it notes:
Would need to demonstrate that there was insufficient land for the proposed uses elsewhere, before considering in more detail.
In other words, for development of the site to even be looked at, there would have to be nowhere else in the area suitable to develop for the purpose specified. In the case of housing, there are many brownfield sites in the borough, and specifically in Brownhills itself that merit redevelopment. There are a glut of unacted upon approved permissions for developments of housing throughout Walsall. The chances of getting to the stage where there are no alternative sites are very low indeed. Effectively, by that note alone, Walsall have pointed out that there’s not a chance, but are forced to consider the development’s chances of approval due to a process currently ongoing, that all councils have to undertake at the moment.
Walsall Council are currently consulting – and will be for a long time yet – on a planning and development strategy for the whole borough. This is called Walsall 2026, and gives a long term strategy for urban, rural and transport development. All councils have to produce these strategies, and Walsall is not unique. Lichfield District Council produced theirs, to some controversy, over 18 months ago. What these strategies do is frame a development plan as to where housing, commercial and transport – as well as leisure and greenspace – should be developed. The document produced is called the ‘Site Allocation Document’, and will be published probably in 2015, after which it will be audited.
This is a similar, but borough-wide equivalent to the 1980s Aldridge Brownhills Local Plan, probably one of the finest works of fiction ever published by a local authority.
The Site Allocation Document will be a wish list. It sets out options for change, the type of development that will be favoured in specific areas and so forth. It provides no funds or other drivers to develop anywhere, and is is not even legally binding, in that it can be ignored or contradicted if sufficient reason is given, just as the Aldridge Brownhills Local Plan was. Any applications submitted, even if the conformed to this strategy would still be considered on their own merits, as is normal.
Therefore, sites specified still have to undergo full and normal planning process before anything happens.
The reason the Lanes Farm site has come into contention is that part of this process involves asking landowners, residents and developers to suggest sites for consideration as part of the Local Development Framework. However daft, however unlikely, if a site is suggested, it has to be considered publicly as part of the process. It looks as if the landowner and the developer who were formerly rebuffed have tried to submit the side for consideration. It will fail.
In it’s response, Walsall has already effectively sidelined the suggestion.
It’s important that residents take part in these consultations, and engage. Not just to prevent erosion of the green belt, but to help shape strategy for future provision of social housing, transport and green space. Like it or not, we’re facing a housing crisis, and Brownhills (and Aldridge) have huge areas of brownfield, derelict sites that could be used to this end. We need to seriously consider and pressure the powers that be to increase the pace of redevelopment of places like the former Silver Court Gardens, not just to remove them as a blot on the landscape, but to revitalise our town. Getting involved in that conversation is important and necessary.
I’d be a lot more impressed with the incumbent councillors if they cut back on the alarmist rhetoric, explained the issue properly and didn’t attempt to cry ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theatre. One wonders what this is a mask for – with Walsall Council facing another huge round of budget cuts, the crisis in Social Care, the lingering thorny issue of the Aldridge bail hostel and flight of fancy over Oak Park all on a Tory watch, there’s plenty they might not want you to be noticing, but do pay attention to other issues you may find yourselves being distracted from.
Interestingly, the process should resolve in time for the next local election round. Only a cynic would suggest this to be anything other than sheer coincidence.
In the furore, Councillor Mike Flower – once the poster boy of Walsall Council social media, but now largely absent from the online community for unknown reasons – has set up a group on Facebook dedicated to ‘Protecting the green belt around Aldridge and Shire Oak’ which, at the time of writing this has 32 members – mostly invited in from the local Tory party, including Lichfield MP and sometime TV clown Michael Fabricant MP. My request to join under my usual Facebook identity has oddly been declined. I wonder why that might be? Thankfully, they don’t recognise the other one I use…
In the meantime, get involved with the process. It’s long term, and will be rumbling on for some time yet – indeed, the ‘call for sites’ is still open. This hasn’t been a secret, and there’s no conspiracy – Walsall have been trumpeting many aspects of this consultation for some time, and there’s plenty of opportunity still to give your feedback. I haven’t mentioned it directly here as there’s been (up to now) very little of direct concern.
Here are resources you can read and participate in:
- Read about the consultation on Walsall Council’s ‘Planning 2026’ blog
- You can ask direct questions from this page
- Here’s the formal planning page relating to the 2026 project
- The ‘Call for sites’ process is explained here
- Initial Council responses to the ‘Call for sites’ suggestions, including the implied dismissal of Lanes farm (it’s CFS 25, map on page 40, comment in table crossing pages 9 & 10).
- A leaflet detailing the Site Allocation Document process
- A wider breakdown of the stages and process, including timeline of Planning 2026
- Planning 2026 has an official Facbook Page
- Walsall Planning have a twatter account
People who follow this blog will know that I love the countryside, and indeed, one of my favourite views is of a lone tree on this site from the canal at Catshill. I’m not worried, as I’m certain any development here doesn’t stand a chance, for a number of reasons, relating not just to planning, but technically and commercially. Such a large development, should it ever get as far as a formal application would face a lengthy appeal process and could, conceivably, be driven to public enquiry. These are tremendous barriers to cross.
However, the consultation process is important and I urge readers to engage and take part.