Behind the lockdown, the planning goes on
Shrewsbury Civic Society is continuing its work on planning matters unabated, communicating by phone, email and video-conferencing despite the closure of the Bear Steps. This is a worrying time for everyone and especially for public health and the economy. Quite how new regulations and initiatives, both local and national, will impact on Shrewsbury’s built environment is not known yet, however, plans are being drawn up right now.
At National level, the impetus on building more houses and supportive infra-structure is even higher on the list of urgencies. Robert Jenrick, the Housing Minister is in a conflicted position of political pressure to get many more homes built quickly, economic pressure to enable developers to re-invigorate the construction industry and lobbying pressure to make sure this is only done with good quality and community consultation. This is when he has recently warmly welcomed the “Building Better – Building Beautiful” report and published a “National Design Guide” – with even more detail promised in September as a “Design Code” for Authorities without one already. Shropshire’s Planning Manager, Ian Kilby, is helping with the National Design Guide. Shrewsbury’s MP Daniel Kawczynski (who has previously expressed a desire to speed up planning decisions) is now a member of the relevant all-party Parliamentary Committee.
At local County level, some 96% of planning decisions are being taken by officers and the planning department is working at full tilt, mostly from their homes. Shropshire Council will be revealing the “Local Plan” (for development across Shropshire) a bit late in July, as there will likely be modifications needed due to the Climate Emergency and Coronavirus. The Highways Department has been working hard during lockdown to carry out various works although they are not planned with Conservation expertise or public accountability.
Consultants for the Big Town Plan (BTP) are now close to delivering outlines for the six different areas of the Town Centre. A Shropshire Council officer is overseeing the process. While originally, there was a great deal of public consultation, there is less now as the consultants work on more detailed ideas. There have been a number of “master-planning-events”, to which a few Civic Society members were invited. There is still a great deal of discussion taking place and this is now more intense with the Climate Emergency and Coronavirus recovery. These discussions are between senior Council/BTP officers and the Consultants and at sensitive stages with little determined as yet. There will be further public consultations when ideas are clearer and then the Civic Society’s voice will be most effective. Meanwhile, we have been able to make unofficial contributions and so public comments would be unhelpful at this point.
We are hopeful to find ways to ensure high quality designing for Shrewsbury. The BTP suggested a “Shrewsbury Test” and here the Officer is keen to involve the Civic Society and other local groups. We have previously welcomed the Big Town Plan, although with some qualifications. No-one would want to see change for changes sake alone, or where it harms the Conservation Area, or when it reduces the town’s functions for its residents. Nevertheless, there are areas in “The Loop”, which really need improvement and we are looking forward to the Consultants suggestions.
Meanwhile, the Coronavirus lockdown has greatly concerned the town’s businesses, and despite the copious online work by BID, a specific “Recovery Taskforce”, with a £100,000 budget has been formed from the Big Town Plan staff. There are some good ideas for the Town Centre: to reduce traffic; enlarge pavements; be more welcoming for the pedestrian; and increase signage; etc. We think that such changes could make real improvements if they are carried out with with care and concern for the Conservation Area. The Bear Steps Gallery and shop have been severely hit by the closures and the Society, like many other places, is suffering very severely from lost income.