Local democracy (in)action

Winchester City Council's special planning meeting on Silver Hill, in a festive Guildhall

Winchester City Council’s special planning meeting on Silver Hill, in a festive Guildhall

A depressing morning at a ‘special meeting of the planning committee’ of Winchester City Council, to discuss the city’s Silver Hill development.

Silver Hill is a large area of Winchester that is, at the moment, a hodge-podge of 1930s bus station, 1960s medical centre, and modern but crumbling brick car park. It is undoubtedly run down and in need of regeneration; and a scheme to build a new bus station, a new car park, small shops and almost 300 homes was given the go-ahead in 2009.

Nobody was exactly wild about this scheme; which was very dense, very high (uniformly six to seven stories in a town that rarely rises above four), and had a lot of single aspect flats hung on the outside of a new car park. But it did include a new bus station, and it did have one or two nice features, like live-work units along the Abbey Mill stream.

Almost inevitably, the developer, Henderson Global Investment, has now come back to plead that so much has changed in the past four years that it can’t go ahead with any of these features; and it won’t be able to go ahead at all unless they are dropped.

The council is therefore being asked to alter the planning permission to dump the bus station, and all the social housing, and to insert a ‘department’ store for which there is no tenant and no demand (a similar development, the Brooks Centre, has been half full for 15 years, while the High Street now has empty units on it).

The scheme has been the primary focus of the #Winchesterdeservesbetter campaign (see below) and has attracted enough opposition to require this morning’s ‘special meeting of the planning committee’ to decamp to the main hall of the Guildhall.

A good hundred people turned up, even though it is a workday, hoping to hear from the 15 or so opponents who had registered to speak.

However, it soon became apparent that the agenda would have the effect of sucking energy out of the meeting, of diverting attention from the big picture onto small points of detail, and of keeping opponents from speaking until it was too late for them to have much influence.

So, the meeting opened with a series of presentations from council officers about specific changes to rooflines and window treatments. These, they argued, were positive from one scheme to another.

That may well be true; but making marginal improvements to a car park with flats hung on two floors is not the same as questioning whether that development is appropriate – or even asking why a building that was a bus station and small units is now a shop.

Then, there was a presentation from the council’s historical officer, lauding the return of the old streetscape and the creation of tall, thin buildings with regular windows. While modern, she argued, these are are redolent of what is found elsewhere in the town.

This may also be true; although few buildings in Winchester are seven stories high; present brick louvres to the street, or have balconies with cheap timber cladding on them. Even if they did, getting the best possible cloaking for a car park and ships is not the same as asking if that’s an appropriate development.

After that, councillors bored slowly through questions on each paragraph of the revised application; making sure that the opponents would not be heard until well the other side of lunch.

In the process, some questions were answered; almost in passing. The council’s retail officer let slip that developers no longer have to show there is a demand for the retail they are proposing; the council just has to be satisfied that it is as close to the city centre as possible.

So, Henderson may never fill the shops and cafes that are full of happy, affluent families in its sunny elevations, and it may kill the High Street if it does; but that’s not a planning issue.

A Hampshire county council official said local bus operator Stagecoach no longer wanted a bus station, and that it was ok with that as the highways authority because having bus stops out on the Broadway and Friarsgate would not upset the flow of traffic.

So poorer, more elderly bus drivers might prefer a bus station to shelters, but that’s not relevant to the council, because it’s not a planning issue (although, oddly, the free flow of non-bus-using drivers seems to be).

Finally, an expensive looking consultant from Deloitte said he’d reviewed the figures on social housing for Henderson and decided it couldn’t possibly make a reasonable profit on them. So there won’t be any social housing.

However, the developer has generously, and out of the goodness of its own heart, decided to give the council £1m for social housing instead. Asked what this would buy, another council official said it would depend on whether it was spent buying property, building it, or letting it from a housing association.

But it would have been faster to say “bugger all, or as close to it as makes no difference”. Meanwhile, the council’s solicitor ruled out of order any attempt to discuss how much Henderson would make on its private housing, or what the council could achieve by paying for social housing on the site.

Lunch was called at 12.30. The Hampshire Chronicle’s live blog noted just before the afternoon got going that “some residents due to address the committee” were “uneasy” because “they have been sitting in the Guildhall for four hours waiting to make their case” and might have to wait “hours longer.”

But that, surely, was the intention. Let the officers make the case for the development, focusing on how horrible the existing buildings are, and on the positives of the original scheme versus the new one (rather than on whether the original scheme was appropriate, or on whether something better could be attempted).

Suck up time with questions; making sure, in the same process, that they are not in any way informed by any counter argument. Let the opponents come in late, and then present their arguments as irrelevant to the detail of the plans at hand.

Vote. Go ahead (probably). Wonder in ten years (if that happens) how on earth such a big, half-empty development was ever permitted; and why only Henderson is still happy.

Update: the opponents finally got to speak late afternoon. The committee asked no questions. The members gave little speeches in support of the development. Then they voted to accept all the revisions to the plans. Next stop: judicial review.

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