Here’s a really interesting piece written for the Brownhills Blog by Andy Dennis. Andy is a fine writer, and as regular readers will know well, a man of considerable intelligence with a vast experience of planning. Andy worked in Walsall Council’s planning department for a very long time, and his knowledge of the system, law and just how everything works is encyclopaedic.
Here, Andy writes clearly and articulately of the planning history of the Lanes Farm/Sandhills site in light of current angst over a mooted further development. I’m still of the opinion that we’re being trolled for other reasons, but Andy raises some excellent points.
I don’t agree with his conclusion about the potato field, and I personally feel there is enough brownfield land to accommodate enough development without stealing our greenbelt, I’ll say here and now; but Andy’s points are excellent, reasoned and worthy of thought, discussion and considered debate. Please do comment here, or if you prefer, mail me on BrownhillsBob at Googlemail dot com.
When I began working for Walsall Council in 1982 there was in progress a review of the West Midlands County Structure Plan. I had a walk-on part, perhaps little more than ‘man in lift’, but its consequences would dog my career on and off for many years.
Among the key issues was a shortage across the region of high quality employment land. It was considered that there was a need for large, readily developed sites to attract major employers to the region, which at the time suffered very high unemployment and great swathes of obsolete industrial property on derelict sites. Such sites were in piecemeal ownerships and too difficult to develop, so new greenfield land was needed outside the built up areas. These new “premium” sites were to have high quality access and a search was carried out. Sites were identified at Basset’s Pole and along the M54 north of Wolverhampton. The only possible place in the Walsall sector was Sandhills, which, as well as having good access via the A461 and A5, would soon have a new motorway to its advantage.
Starting in 1987 the Council was required to produce a Unitary Development Plan (UDP) and, by means to which I was not important enough to know about, it was decided to include Sandhills as a premium industrial site for consultation. Naturally, this was not liked by all, and among others, Councillor Gamble knocked on doors and encouraged people to object. A residents action group was formed and more than 400 objections were received, including one from me. Working for the local authority should not impinge on one’s democratic rights!
As a result the Council dropped the proposal from the draft UDP. The owner, Mr Lane, and his representatives provided courtesy of St. Modwen Developments objected to its withdrawal and a public inquiry was held. A young barrister, name of Jeremy Cahill, was given something of a runaround by the the Director of Engineering & Town Planning, Geoff Marsh. Mr Cahill would be back!
The upshot was that, following adoption of the UDP in 1995, Sandhills as a potential development site lay dormant for several years until a review of the UDP commenced in 1998. This time St Modwen objected to Sandhills not being included for development as a high quality employment site. They argued that Walsall was unable to meet its obligation to allocate sufficient land for high quality employment uses in accordance with regional and national policy. They presented ambitious drawings and even took members of the local committee to see Cranfield University Business Park, telling them that this was the sort of thing they proposed for Sandhills. Absolutely marvellous if they could pull it of, but this really was too far-fetched.
Again a public inquiry was held in 1993. This time yours truly was in the hot seat. This time Mr Cahill had QC after his name and a reputation as one of the finest planning barristers in the land. To no avail. Following adoption of the UDP in 2005 Sandhills returned to its dormant state. But now the smoke is rising again and it won’t be long before sparks begin to fly and tremors are felt in the northern wastes.
The Council is consulting on a Site Allocations Document (with the unfortunate abbreviation SAD). This will decide where, and, to some extent, when various types of development will be permitted over the next 15 years or so. An early stage was to invite people to put forward land that they think would be suitable for development and Sandhills has been put forward for both housing (ref HO 105) and industry (IN 405). Oddly, it is not proposed to remove the site from the green belt. The Council has decided not to reject the site at this stage, so it is there for people to support or object to.
Because of this range of options, Sandhills also appears in the Choices section (ref CH 34) and people are asked to comment on which option is the most appropriate.
I imagine the promoters of development will argue on one hand that the Council is still unable to meet requirements for industrial land, especially of high quality, and on the other that here is a precious opportunity to effect a massive step up in the quality of housing and local service provision within a high quality environment that exists nowhere else and only a fool would pass it up. These arguments can be made very powerfully and it truly is a fool who would dismiss either as pie in the sky.
Housing: There is a requirement for about 12,000 homes in Walsall during 2006-26. Some have been built, some already have planning permission or are otherwise committed, but there is a balance of about 2,700 to be found on new sites. On my quick reading (and experience) there appears to be no need to eat into the green belt to find them, but that does not mean that some will not find the idea appealing.
Industry: There is an issue with high quality industrial land in Walsall, the Black Country and across the West Midlands. However, the Council has succeeded twice in arguing that other opportunities exist and that losing the open nature of Home Farm would be too high a price to pay.
Green Belt: This is the ‘as you were’ option; another dormant period.
The current consultation on the Issues & Options stage of the SAD ends on 3 June 2013, so there is not much time for thumb-twiddling. There will be further opportunities to comment, but if you feel strongly about this issue you should get stuck in now.
When I first heard about this, still thinking in some kind of residual planner mode, I thought it should be resisted vigorously, but now that I ask myself whether either option would upset me to any great degree I find that they would not. On the plus side it might bring jobs to the area or it might bring more residents who want to use things in Brownhills. On the downside it might spoil the view from a short stretch of canalside that I visit infrequently, but it might, with careful design, make it more interesting than a large potato field. I care much more about the heath!
Obviously, there are other proposals to consider and there might be something proposed near to you that you like or dislike. However, don’t just complain to your mates in the pub or at the bus stop and don’t just say you like or don’t like it; say why it’s right or wrong and what you want the Council, or ultimately a government inspector, to do about it.