Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Public Inquiry: Stopping Up the Overhang at Princess House.

Social media is something I engage with on an almost daily basis.  Even so, there are moments when it really hits me just how powerful words can be in our contemporary world.  I woke up this morning to a ‘ping’ on my phone. It was Twitter telling me I had a new follower.  I looked him up.  He came from Ontario, Canada, and he’d just favourited my ‘Be There Or Be Without A Square’ link, and retweeted it to his 3,400 followers.  I shall check my Canadian statistics in a couple of days.  It’ll be interesting to see how many of them read that piece.  The stats for My Tonight From Shrewsbury anyway tell me it's being read around the world. Shrewsbury is reaching places it may never have got to before. That’s an interesting thought. 

ANYHOW, all of that’s an aside to the main drama of the last couple of days, which is the public inquiry into the building out of Princess House onto what is currently publicly-accessed land. Yesterday in the Shirehall, local people and their representatives crowded into a room that was fast becoming too small.  There weren’t enough chairs.  New ones were brought in and lifted over heads. Tables were moved.  People shifted up.

‘It’s 10.00am.  This Inquiry is now open,’ announced the bright-eyed, grey-haired, crisp looking man sitting in the centre of the room, behind a desk strewn with papers. His name was John Wilde.  He was the Secretary of State’s appointed Inspector for the Inquiry.  On either side of him, at long tables, sat representatives of Rockspring, the company that owns Princess House, and representatives of all the major objector groups. The rest of us sat in the middle, bunched together. Spectators, audience – I don’t know what to call us.  Perhaps ‘the floor’ would be appropriate.

Everybody was free to have their say, the Inspector said. There was plenty of time - nobody should think they wouldn’t have a chance.  But could they please bear in mind that this wasn’t a planning inquiry.  For good or ill [my words, not the Inspector’s] permission for the Princess House proposals had been granted at County Council level, and all that was being looked into here were issue to do with stopping up the highway.

‘You have to keep to that subject,’ warned Inspector Wilde. ‘And if you have something to say, make sure it’s something that hasn’t been said before. It won’t help this Inquiry to repeat arguments over again.’

Up to this point, the atmosphere was convivial. The room was packed, but more people still managed to squeeze in.  ‘It’s very cosy isn’t it? No one’s going to sit on my lap, I hope.’  Unless I’m much mistaken, it was Inspector Wilde who said that.  Whoever it was, certainly everybody laughed.  At least they did until the two points for consideration were spelled out.  First up - was it necessary to stop up pavement under Princess House? Second up – what were the disbenefits to the Square should this stopping up take place? 

‘In other words, do the benefits outweigh the disadvantages if the proposed stopping up goes ahead?’ said the Inspector.  And nobody was laughing now.

The Rockspring side was represented by a young man with a shaved head whose name I didn’t catch, a bigger man called Mr Tibble, with a spotty handkerchief in his pocket and lots of floppy white hair, and tall, grey man called Mr Renshaw, from a Town Planning company called Stride Treglown, who’d written a Proof of Evidence report which he started the proceedings by reading out.

Princess House, a building which sat ‘uncomfortably in its context of historic buildings’ [groan from the floor], had been bought by Rockspring with a strategy in mind to ‘regenerate this building for the benefit of the town’ [titter from the floor]. Their planning application to stop up the publicly-used pavement under the building’s overhang had come about as a result of shop tenants’ complaints, and the threat of some of them moving elsewhere. The company had spent six months making their proposals acceptable to everybody from English Heritage to the County Council, and it had been successful in getting planning permission. There were no objections to what they wanted to do.  

In addition, their desire to take custody of the pavement beneath the overhang was backed by surveys into the pavement’s use.  Granted one day their CCTV camera had had its view blocked by delivery trucks, but another day Mr Renshaw had been out in person and, despite the opposition’s claiming that the overhang was well-used, counted only a small handful of people walking beneath it in the course of an hour.

After his statement, Mr Renshaw was available for cross-examining.  I wouldn’t have liked to be on the other end of it.  Opposite him sat Sheila Sager and Alan Shrank, representing town centre residents, and they were looking very mean indeed. The town’s councillor for the ward in question, Andrew Bannerman, looked slightly more jovial, but only because his cheeks, I’ve noticed, have natural high colour.  Next to him, white faced and stern in his dog collar sat the Civic Society’s representative, the Reverend Richard Hayes – a man I know to have a razer mind and to never be lost for words. And flanking this group at either end were the equally determined-looking Town Clerk, Helen Ball, and a representative of Shops in the Loop, the town’s retail interest group, John Hall. 

Slowly they picked their way through the evidence.  Those shop keepers’ complaints – had they been unsolicited? [It turned out that no unsolicited complaints had been made.] Did Rockspring deny offering assurances about outdoor seating arrangements being retained if the proposals went ahead? [Yes they denied it, though later it turned out they had]. That survey Mr Renshaw had conducted, with such low numbers for people’s use of the overhang – was it true that it had been taken during a snow storm when almost nobody was about?  

After Mr Renshaw’s cross-examination, it was the objectors’ turn to make their statements, starting with Town Clerk, Helen Ball who, when facing cross-questioning, ably fielded Mr Renshaw’s attempts to tie her up in knots. ‘I couldn’t possibly answer that question,’ was her bemused, and not infrequent reply, ‘why are you asking that?’ to which Mr Renshaw replied, ‘I’m meant to be asking the questions here, not you,’ to which, in turn, Ms Ball replied,  ‘Well, ask me something I might know.’

I’m sure that gives you the idea.  After Helen Ball’s statement, all the other objectors took their turns. Included amongst their concerns were the impeding of views into the square from the High Street if the stopping up was allowed; issues of personal safety [and just as importantly, perception of safety] if pedestrians were forced out into the public highway which runs through the square; the value of café culture and what would happen to the square without it; issues to do with how close to the highway tables and chairs could be safely placed; where highway ended and pedestrian use began; how many people, on what sorts of occasions, could be expected to pack into the square for major events and small, and whether more space was needed rather than less.

Somewhere in all this, one of the Rockspring people – I can’t remember whether it was Mr Renshaw or Mr Tibble – wondered whether Shrewsbury people understood the way the retail sector worked.  As a number of the people in the audience were retailers themselves, this was met by indignant groans.

People talked about the uses of the square as Shrewsbury’s main – indeed only – large open space.  Its civic role was mentioned, as was its neighbourhood role, as an open space used by residents as well as visitors.  Some sterling work had been done by Alan Shrank for the Town Centre residents on acceptable distances between tables and chairs and the highway which ran through the square. He was dry. I’d even push out the boat and say on a couple of occasions, though his face moved not a muscle, he was droll.  Certainly he wasn’t to be tripped up.   And then, after him, came Richard Hayes.  The Reverend Richard Hayes. Our white knight - and I’m not joking here. If Shrewsbury had been a damsel in distress, she couldn’t have been better saved. 

For those of you who haven’t had the privilege of meeting Richard Hayes, he’s the quintessential English cleric.  Slight stoop, almost imperceptible stutter, sweep of white hair, razor sharp mind and, though quietly spoken, the sort of tongue that goes with it.  Beginning by knocking on the head the idea that Shrewsbury people – including himself, who’d been a parish priest for many years in the City of London, at the heart of the banking culture – had little understanding of commercial/retail interests, the priest in charge of town church, St Alkmund’s, launched into words of praise for what he called ‘our Saxon town’. The square at the heart of it, he said, was a place of harmony. It contained fine buildings and seating, flowers and space.  It was open - a place where people felt safe.  Once there had been anti-social behaviour in the square, but that had been greatly reduced by the growth of café culture, and now that culture was under threat.

In an interesting take on proceedings, Reverend Richard Hayes seemed genuinely concerned for the owners of Rockspring and what they were bringing upon themselves.  Looking directly at their representatives, he used the phrase ‘shooting yourselves in the foot’.  Rockspring wanted to attract customers to their tenants’ shops, he said, but they were creating an environment that was less attractive and welcoming, and therefore less likely to attract footfall.  For all his sympathy, however, there was steel behind his summing up. The square belonged to the people of Shrewsbury. It was a piece of public highway that had been in use for the entire forty years of Princess House’s life.  And now it was about to be lost.

‘Abandon this ill-considered plan,’ said Richard Hayes. ‘Refurbish Princess House as you see fit, but leave the shop fronts where they are.  If you do that, you will win the good will of local people, and financially it will be to your gain.’

The rhetoric was really ramping up by now, ably followed by Councillor Bannerman who challenged Rockspring’s assertion that the people who objected to one seventh of the town square being taken were ‘only a little cabal.’  To quote Churchill,’ said Councillor Bannerman, drawing himself up to his considerable height, and looking round the packed room, ‘Some cabal!’

Councillor Bannerman pressed home the point that Rockspring were exceeding their powers in giving assurances to tenants that outdoor tables and chairs would be retained if the overhang which currently housed them was built out.  It was not for developers to make Planning Approval decisions.  That lay in the power of the council, he said. He also talked about localism, and the importance of public feeling - as indeed he did later in the day, in his closing remarks. He made the point that Shrewsbury needed more space in its fine old square, not less. [Someone from the floor - quickly reprimanded by the Inspector - called, ‘Pull Princess House down, that would make enough space.’] The words ‘private gain at public expense’ came up, and were also repeated in Councillor Bannerman’s closing address, as were the words ‘fly in the face of reason.’

I could go on. So much more was said by so many people whose points deserve to be reported - but unless I give it to you verbatim, I can’t repeat it all. Highlights from the floor included a gentleman called Mr Petridis pointing out that shelter from the elements was what most shopkeepers wanted for their customers - not to have that shelter removed; this was an ugly 60s building, he said, its only redeeming feature its overhang - and here its owners were trying to do away with it.

Then Peter Owen of the Friends of the Museum pointed out the sheer numbers of children who’d be tipped out of buses into the square once the new Shrewsbury Museum was open for business later this year.  Disability issues got a mention. So did the potential for Princess House to sink into a watery bog if the building work went ahead [this was discounted].

It was beginning to feel like the end of the day.  Numbers had dropped off. A room that had been bulging at the seams in the morning now at the end of the afternoon had some significant gaps.  Points had been scored. Weaknesses in arguments, and downright twisting of facts had been shown up. Final statements were made for and against.  Stirring words, thank you Councillor Bannerman. And when Mr Renshaw for Rockspring accused the town’s case [despite the weight of information presented in its argument] of being purely emotional, an emotional roar rose to the rafters of ‘what do you expect?’.  

Inspector Wilde said he’d submit his report to the Secretary of State in the next three weeks.  After that - he raised his hands.  This was government we were talking about.  No way of knowing how long their decision would take.

The Inspector’s final suggestion was that with a [silent] representative from each side [‘not the whole lot of you – I don’t want to look like the Pied Piper of Hamlyn’], he should retire to the square to take a look around.  He’d already done so before the Inquiry.  Now, having heard what people had to say, he wanted another look. 

‘This Inquiry is now over,’ he declared.

‘Can we thank you for the good-humoured spirit in which you’ve conducted it,’ ex-Chair of the Town Centre Residents, Professor Lalage Brown, declared in return.

Claps all round.  Everyone agreed. There had been humour in the day.  Inspector Wilde’s down-to-earth demeanour had had a knock-on effect.  There we all were, on both sides, giving it our our best according to our lights. Allowing for the strength of feeling, things could have been so much worse.   



  1. I am so glad you are finding the words that fail me in drawing attention to this. Why, when in so many towns and cities across the world, where they see their squares/plazas/zocalos (excuse my Span-bias) as the beating heart of their community- a place of congregation and repose, does someone in Shrewsbury seriously consider that it is mere space?

  2. You should have seen it this morning, LMW, packed full of stalls selling everything from jewellery and trinkets to bread and hog roast. It looked great. Really alive. What came out at the Inquiry was how much people loved their town square. It was great to have it put into words.

  3. Hi Pauline

    I was sitting just behind you on Tuesday and want to thank you for capturing the essence of the public inquiry so well

    Colin Dowse
    Comms member for STCRA

  4. Oh, that's kind of you. And something of a relief. One person's take on an event can differ so greatly to another's and I did so want to do justice to the occasion, especially as there were likely be people who hadn't been at the Inquiry reading what I wrote. I tried my best, at any rate, to distil the essence of the day, and I'm glad you think I succeeded.

    By the way, I hope I didn't block your view. I'm not a front row type at all - much happier tucked away at the back somewhere!

  5. A really superb piece, Pauline. Insightful and entertaining. Might I be so bold as to refer readers of my Shrewsbury Chronicle column (Shrewsbury Matters) to your blog? I hope this is okay. Best wishes, Phil Gillam.

  6. Phil, of course you might be so bold! Thank you for your generous words. I'm delighted to have as many people as possible referred to my blog and hopefully over the year it will do Shrewsbury proud. We have a fabulous town. I hope in a year's time I'll have gone some way towards reflecting that. Look out for my next piece, up tomorrow night I hope [Tues 5th] on Kate Gittins, manager of Shrewsbury Market Hall.