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David Walker, a Civil Engineering Surveyor, at one of the many unplanned housing sites.
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What has Shropshire Council got to hide?

“What has Shropshire Council got to hide?” That is the question I now find myself asking. On the 9th on March I asked a public question for the Shropshire Council Cabinet meeting on the 11th. The question was duly tabled and an answer promised to follow the meeting. Fair enough. It was a complex question. To date, over 5 weeks later I still have no answer, which is extraordinary and frankly unacceptable.

I am very concerned about the lack of transparency and secrecy surrounding CIL & s106.

Rumours are flying about that the Conservatives want to use Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) to fund their empty pledge to repair potholes – it came up at Tuesday’s Parish Council meeting from another member after the formal agenda had concluded. If that isn’t the case then how will they fund their £40m pothole pledge? The empty pledge isn’t in the recently approved Conservative budget. Will the Conservatives cut Social Services or take the money out of Capital to pay for their pledge? The pledge itself will only get funding back to 2017 levels by 2024. That doesn’t take account of the decay in our roads since 2017. Nor indeed the under-investment prior to 2017.

David examining the half the lane has gone in Hindford. The whole pockmarked section of lane is appalling and dangerous
David examining the half the lane has gone in Hindford. The whole pockmarked section of lane is appalling and dangerous

As a Civil Engineering Surveyor, I would argue that the roads are now much worse through neglect and will take even more to fix than before had they been maintained properly. I would also suggest £100m is probably required to get the road network into a more stable condition. Healthy well-maintained roads are better able to withstand bad weather than our current poor network is. Maintenance bills are higher in terms of time and money. Repairs are altogether less effective, and more costly. So much time is being wasted by repeated visits to assess and patch pothole. The capital program only has enough money to plane the wearing course off of a puny percentage of Shropshire’s 6,500km of roads – 0.06% of the road network a year ago. The capital program is literally papering over the cracks in our roads with chippings.

Moreover, I am very concerned that they plan or have indeed allocated ALL of the available CIL & s106 money to the NWRR and that there is none left for other vital community projects, like the West Felton School Expansion Project. That may include the Local fund money they already tried to poach in 2018. Not answering a straightforward question with a straight answer sends massive alarm bells for me.

Rural parishes are increasingly alarmed about the volumes of money being pumped into Shrewsbury with no regard for the needs of rural communities like ours. An email from the Chair of Childs Ercall Parish Council was circulated amongst rural parishes calling for a coordinated approach to ensure we get our fair share of the money at the end of March.

Senior members of the Conservative administration had been quoted in media output saying that the North West Relief Road would be part-funded from CIL and s106 money but gave no detail. This is infuriating. How can any town or parish council plan their own finances and projects if they don’t know what money is available in the Neighbourhood Fund or indeed if any is left in the CIL Local Fund.

Without transparency and openness on the CIL funding, communities can’t properly plan for their own needs. Projects already on the fringe of the Regulation 123 list may be in jeopardy. So I am calling for the courtesy of a response to my questions and some clarity of the matter. Without answers, speculation will only grow.

Part of the main benefit of CIL for communities is buying into housing growth. They can more directly see the benefits for their community from development. Rural areas contribute more to CIL funds per m2 because they don’t have the same economies of scale. Communities are already at odds with the unsustainable housing growth in the draft local plan. However, if money is increasingly diverted to urban areas from rural areas then that buy-in will break down.

Question to Cabinet on 11th March:

In recent media output there has been comment from cabinet members about the use of CIL and s106 money to contribute to building the NWRR. The council have published their Infrastructure Statement dated December 2020, some 10 months after year end. Many authorities have been quicker at reporting their Annual Infrastructure Statement. Indeed Shropshire Council used to publish CIL figures much earlier in the year. Sometimes as early as May.

Given we are nearly at the end of this financial year, what are the projected totals for the CIL categories for 2020/21?

How much of the CIL categories / s106 money has been allocated to the NWRR?

Does that allocation have any implications for items listed in the statement / regulation 123 lists, given they are out of date and don’t mention the NWRR?

Will there be any unallocated funds left after contributing to the road?

Quoting the council’s website:

“The CIL Regulation 123 List is annually signed off by Cabinet, following the process set out in the Core Strategy and its accompanying Developer Contributions Supplementary Planning Document and Code of Practice.”

Why then is the last published list so out of date, a list that makes no mention of the NWRR?

Wouldn’t a more timely approach to reporting be more beneficial to everybody?

Can parish councils be updated on their neighbourhood funds so that they can properly plan their own activities?

Cabinet response

Shropshire Council published the cabinet’s answers later that day stating: “Responses to outstanding questions will be added in due course.” The response at the Cabinet meeting itself was: “In light of the detail needed and the short time available to respond, a written response will be provided after the meeting.” Not unreasonable I thought.

I asked the committee Clerk for an update on the 25th of March: “Is there any timeframe on the answer to my question at cabinet on the 11th?” To which I received neither acknowledgement nor a reply.

Addendum: I have this Friday lunchtime received a parish breakdown of Neighbourhood Funds via the Parish Clerk so that at least takes care of the last part of my question – if not directly 🙂

What has Shropshire Council got to hide? Plenty it seems

After more than 5 weeks I and any member of the public can only conclude that: “Yes they do have something to hide.” An inconvenient truth that the Conservative-run council would rather remain buried until after the elections, perhaps?

Why did I ask my question?

You will rightly be wondering why I asked my question. My starting point was the budget cycle at West Felton Parish Council. We were setting our budget with no idea what CIL money we had at our disposal. Extra money coming in could fund a number of projects that could save us using Council Tax payer’s money. Worse still important projects in the village like the School Expansion Project were seeking money from us and Shropshire Council but the Regulation 123 list was out of date. Their Infrastructure Statement dated December 2020, was nearly a year old. Not having projected numbers for CIL would mean the Parish Council wouldn’t be able to budget for it, leading to yet more money sitting in our balances and our plans another 12 months behind. Nearly 2 years from a developer paying Shropshire Council to the PC being able to budget for it and spend it. A crazy and unnecessary delay. Projects that could potentially be funded this way would have to come from the Parish precept instead.

David Walker, a Civil Engineering Surveyor, at one of the many unplanned housing sites.

David Walker, a Civil Engineering Surveyor, fighting for Whittington Division. Conservative-run Shropshire Council has already tried to divert our CIL local money to their CIL strategic pot and out of our area

CIL and s106 money is obtained from local developments to fund infrastructure to support those developments and the communities that have to absorb extra housing etc.

s106 is money obtained from developers, legally bound between them and Shropshire Council, to build or pay for playing fields, class rooms or other community assests. To divert this money all parties to the legal agreement have to agree to it.

CIL is split into 3 infrastructure funds:

  • Neighbourhood fund – spent by town and parish councils
  • Local fund – spent by Shropshire Council in the settlements within which development has taken place;
  • and Strategic fund – spent by Shropshire Council for countywide strategic benefit.

Back in November 2018 I reported that Shropshire Council were trying to divert CIL money away from our area: “Shropshire Councillor, Steve Charmley, announced that there was £12m unspent in the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) ‘Local Fund’ pot and that they wanted to move this into the ‘Strategic’ pot because they didn’t have enough money to do the things they wanted to do.” See: West Felton risks losing £325,000 CIL Local Funds to Oswestry. After a backlash from town & parish councils the plans were shelved. An officer group was set up to draw up the Regulation 123 list of CIL projects with no member involvement.

The Conservatives plans for the NWRR are mad by the way.

NWRR Planning application gets over 1,100 comments

The North West ‘Relief’ Road is 6.9km of road costing around £87m + overrun costs and generating 70,000 tonnes of extra CO2 emissions before it is even opened. Sensitive habitats will be destroyed in the name of ‘relieving’ traffic in parts of Shrewsbury. However, Shropshire Council’s own traffic study has shown traffic will increase in critical areas. Particularly on the A5 at Churncote. Make no mistake this road is only about creating more development land and cash for Shropshire Council. It has nothing to do with need and it has nothing to do with relieving traffic. Far too much of the financial risk is being borne by Shropshire tax payers for such a dubious project.

The design of the road isn’t future-proofed based on their projections for any future development in the area. This will lead to a costly upgrade at a later date – much like Mile End has had to be rebuilt multiple times at a huge cost and waste of public money. It would be far cheaper to spend a fraction of that money fixing the islands on the existing bypass, with bigger cuts to journey times for everybody on the A5 and in the town centre. Removing pinch-points with Underpasses / reconfigured islands would mean there would be no need to try and cut around the top of Shrewsbury to save a few minutes and would remove traffic from the villages North of Shrewsbury. The new bypass would be designated the A53. This will generate new commuter routes and journeys which don’t exist at the moment. The classic example of this was the M25 which didn’t account for these new routes. The M25 was consequently over capacity on day 1.

On the flip side, we have all seen the massive reduction in traffic levels due to the pandemic forcing people to work from home. In the new normal many people will want to retain their newfound life balance and continue to work from home. Committing to this scale of spending in the current climate is bonkers. Far better to invest this money in our internet and mobile infrastructure and our market towns so that the whole county can benefit and compete on the global stage. As a Civil Engineering Surveyor of over 30 years, if I am elected I will certainly be looking to axe this project and the other crackpot projects in favour of more sustainable long-term projects that will actually provide a return.

If you want to comment on the planning application the deadline for comments is the 27th of April. Read more about it here: Shropshire Wildlife Trust and Better Shrewsbury Transport