Friday, 1 March 2013

The Inspector's Report

It’s not just our Square, of course. The creeping hand of commercial interest over all others is a world-wide phenomenon.  No matter what they say about localism, governments side with big business, not local interests. This is a story writ large. I’m sure our little Shrewsbury saga could be repeated anywhere. 

In the months and years to come everybody who comes to Shrewsbury will be able to see for themselves what’s been fought over so fiercely and authorized today.  Put in a nutshell, however, what’s happened is this. Because Shropshire Council agreed planning permission to work being done on an ugly 1960s building, Princess House, and because that work entailed stopping up the pavement under Princess House, and because  the case against this stopping up, which was made by Shrewsbury Town Council and seventy four non-statutory objectors, was not deemed strong enough [or in the words of the Secretary of State’s appointed representative, because ‘there are no overriding reasons on the grounds of public interest for not stopping up this highway’], permission has been granted for this work to go ahead.  

Strangely, in all of this, the owners of Princess House have not offered to buy the land in question from the town, nor has it been offered for sale.  The Inspector’s report refers to the ‘loss’ of the Square as though it was a pound in the pocket that had fallen out. But what appears to have happened here, as far as I can make out, is that the owners of Princess House have been given permission by central government to take town land for free.  If I’ve got this wrong, perhaps somebody could explain it to me.

Anyhow, onto the Inspector’s Report, which outlined in short  what had happened at the Public Inquiry last month.  It noted that the owners of Princess House considered their ‘enhancement scheme’ [my italics] to be ‘of benefit to the owners, retailers and the town’ [quote from report] and that it couldn’t go ahead without the stopping-up and taking over of the street underneath Princess House. It took on board the fact that Shropshire Council’s Planning Officer considered that ‘the benefits of the scheme are clear in terms of providing a much more active and vibrant shopfront that would attract shoppers and retailers.’  It pointed out that no objections had been made from emergency services. It also said, despite some objections, that disabilty access to Princess House would be improved.

Moving on to the objectors’ position, after summarising these the Inspector questioned their calculations, said that the loss of outdoor tables and chairs was not considered by him to be significant, and said that safety issues [on account of a public highway running through the Square] had not been a problem in the past, and, should the stopping up go ahead, he saw no reason why they should now.

Everything came back to the fact the Shropshire Council had already granted planning permission prior to the Public Inquiry, and that permission could not be implemented without the stopping up taking place. In conclusion, wrote the Inspector, ‘I respectfully suggest it is not appropriate in this context to question either this decision or the background to it,’ and again, ‘I recommend that the Order be made without modification’.

A bit of a whistle-stop tour through the report, but there you have it.  Except for two final, interesting points:

One.  In his report, the Inspector wrote, ‘It is the merits or otherwise of the SUO that are germane to the Inquiry, and not the principle behind its request’ [my italics]. But he does at least acknowledge the presence of a principle in the debate - and that on account of the stopping up order being sought by the owners of Princess House, in the Inspector’s own words, ‘for personal gain’.  In other words, maybe it couldn’t be discussed or judged upon, but there is a greater issue here. It’s good to see that point made.

 Two. A concern was raised at the Public Inquiry that allowing one developer to grab land for free might create a precedent, and that soon bits of pavement and brought-forward shop fronts might appear all over town.  Not so, wrote the Inspector in his report. ‘Every application for a SUO [Stopping-Up Order] has to be taken on its own merits, dependant on the circumstances surrounding it.  I do not therefore consider that implementation of this particular SUO would necessarily cause a compelling precedent.'

Let’s hope not.    

[Click link HERE to read Shrewsbury Town Council's Press Release on Princess House 

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