This report features three topics related to the landscape and the town of Church Stretton; They are:
Part I Urban Development in the Shropshire Hills AONB
Part II The Climate Change Crisis
Part III Organisations Working to Conserve and Enhance the Environment
There are two significant threats: one is the risk that the climate crisis, which is now almost universally accepted, will cause dramatic and irreversible changes to the landscape and its fauna and flora; the other is that the scale of continuing urban development will damage the balance between the town, the farmland and the surrounding hills of the Shropshire Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. But it is not all doom and gloom because the third topic discusses the organisations which are working to preserve and improve the town and its surrounding countryside.
Part I. URBAN DEVELOPMENT IN THE SHROPSHIRE HILLS AREA OF OUTSTANDING NATURAL BEAUTY
2. The Landscape Setting of Church Stretton
Church Stretton is the only market town within the Shropshire Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). These are areas of the highest scenic quality, and, in landscape terms, enjoy equal status with National Parks. The primary purpose of the AONB designation is the conservation of the natural beauty of the landscape.
3. The Shropshire Hills AONB is a living landscape encompassing a wide variety of character and a range of settlements. The key components are the hills, farmed countryside, woodlands, rivers and river valleys. Other special features include geology, wildlife, historical and archaeological assets, tranquillity, culture and opportunities for enjoyment. The most significant features of the landscape surrounding Church Stretton are the impressive moorland hill of the Long Mynd, and to the east the wooded or grassy volcanic hills of Caer Caradoc, Hazler and Ragleth. The CLP carried out a survey of residents to find out what were people’s priorities for action. By far the biggest response to this question concerned Countryside and Nature e.g. Shropshire Hills AONB, woodland and wildlife: these were mentioned 322 times, 41% of all the comments made; people feel strongly that it is important to protect the hills on both sides of the Stretton Valley, the woodlands and nature reserves and the green countryside separating Little Stretton and All Stretton villages from Church Stretton.
4. The Conservation Area
A substantial part of Church Stretton is designated as a Conservation Area; Conservation Areas are defined in the National Planning Policy framework (NPPF) as “areas of special architectural or historic interest, the character or appearance of which it is desirable to preserve or enhance” The original designation covered the historical town centre and an area to the west of the Shrewsbury Road, originally developed in the Edwardian era: the Conservation Area was extended in 2013 to include areas, originally of Edwardian development, on the east side of the A49 trunk road.
5. The Problem of Urban Development
Historically Church Stretton has experienced two periods of significant growth. The first was its expansion as a holiday resort in Victorian and Edwardian times following the arrival of the railway; the second was the modern development after the Second World War which has continued steadily up to the present time. This second period of development has seen the town expand to the north and south along the central valley floor; expansion to the west has been limited because of the topography and the SSSI designation of the Long Mynd which is mainly in the ownership of the National Trust and this has pushed development on to the slopes of the eastern hills
6. The growth has been more or less continuous expanding out from the town centre and from 1945 to 2010 the population more than doubled from 2000 to about 4,200.Some significant thrusts into the open countryside of the AONB can be noted. Amongst them are:
The 1960s development of bungalows on the east side of the Ludlow Road, alongside Brockhurst Wood.
In the 1970s the Battlefield estate was built on the NE side of the town, below Helmeth Wood.
There was also a significant development to the east side of the town on the steep lower slopes of Ragleth Hill in the Ragleth, Chelmick and Hazler areas.
In the 1980s and 90s a narrow strip of rough grazing to the south, lying between the A49 and the railway was built as Swains Meadow and Street Meadow.
Recently small social housing estates have been built on open country exception sites in the valley centre at Ley Gardens, off Churchill Road and to the NW at the junction of Watling Street North, Helmeth Road and Cwms Lane.
7. Garden Infill
In recent years there has been a significant amount of windfall development in the town; windfall comprises planning applications to build on brownfield sites and to build mainly individual dwellings in large gardens. Garden infill takes place throughout the town but has been especially prevalent in the Edwardian areas on the east side of the A49, for example, in Sandford Avenue, Hazler Road and Clive Avenue, where the original houses had large gardens. The scale of change can be illustrated by the example of Clive Avenue; there are 78 houses in the Avenue, 28 of them have been built in the 30 years since 1990 and another 7 are under construction or have planning permission.
8. The amount of garden infill has resulted in significant changes to the urban landscape of the Conservation Area; because of the density of development these roads no longer have a distinctive rural feel about them, there are fewer mature trees because of felling and limited opportunity to replace them in the smaller gardens.
9. Planning Regulations
The current planning regulations are based on a top down system so that the local planning authority (LPA) has extensive control over the number of houses to be built and their location. A rolling Local Plan ensures that the LPA has a five year supply of allocated housing sites. The current Local Plan for Shropshire, which extends to 2026, is being rolled forward to 2038. The housing target for the county is around 30,000 homes and 200 of these are scheduled for Church Stretton; of the 200,17 had been built by the end of 2019, 62 had planning permission, 51 are estimated to arise as windfall and the remaining 70 will be on an Allocated Site. Shropshire Council has proposed that the Allocated Site should be at Snatchfield Farm and this is under public consultation until 30 September 2020. There was overwhelming opposition to Snatchfield when it was put forward at an earlier consultative stage and the Town Council is seeking an alternative site which would be more acceptable to the community and less harmful to the landscape of the AONB.
10. Problems with Allocated Sites
Because there has already been a significant expansion of the town, as outlined above, the designation of Allocated Sites is highly contentious, partly because there are usually objections from people living in the neighbourhood of the proposed site and partly because they are seen to be damaging to the landscape of the AONB.
11. Because of the constraints of the topography of Church Stretton and its surrounding hills Shropshire Council is finding it increasingly difficult to identify and then establish suitable and sustainable Allocated Sites. In the current Local Plan, usually referred to by its acronym of SAMDev, which was adopted in 2015, the following attempts to designate Allocated Sites have failed:
Seven previous planning applications for this site have been rejected, including an appeal heard by an independent inspector. Again there was strong local opposition to it in the SAMDev consultation and Shropshire Council withdrew it.
New House Farm:
There was very strong local objection mainly because the application, if successful, would have signified a new direction of travel for development close to Church Stretton and could open the way to extensive future development on the western flank of Caer Caradoc. Shropshire Council withdrew it.
The Academy Playing Field alongside Shrewsbury Road:
This site in the valley centre was generally recognised as being less damaging to the landscape than Snatchfield or New House Farm and it was designated as an Allocated Site. More detailed examination showed that it was not suitable mainly because of the risk of pollution to the adjacent boreholes of Montgomery Water Company. Recently the Academy and its developer withdrew their planning applications; Shropshire Council de-allocated it and did not seek an alternative site.
Land SW of Gaerstone Farm:
This site at the top of Sandford Avenue, just below Helmeth Wood was proposed by Shropshire Council, along with Snatchfield as one of the two Allocated Sites in the current stage of the Local Plan review. Like Snatchfeld it was regarded by many objectors as unsuitable and it was withdrawn by Shropshire Council.
12. As a result of the de-allocation of the Academy playing field and the withdrawal of the Gaerstone site the target for house building in Church Stretton was reduced from 250 to 200 (see paragraph 9).
13. What New Housing Does Church Stretton Need?
The Town Council launched a survey of housing needs early in 2020. The response rate was good with 964 households replying, of whom 372 were thinking of moving. Of the 372 thinking of moving 240 would like to live elsewhere in Church Stretton or in a nearby village. Some 73% of those who completed the survey owned their property outright and a further 12% with a mortgage, so only 15% were renting. 42% live in a detached property and 67% said it had 3 or more bedrooms. These statistics are the markers of a reasonably well-off rural community which reflects the general knowledge that Church Sretton is a popular retirement community which attracts people from the south of England where property is usually of higher value. Of the 372 thinking of moving, 40 want to move in the next year and 76 in the next 5 to 10 years. Many of those thinking of moving are house owners wishing to downsize as they grow older. Significant numbers wanted Affordable homes:
82 want affordable housing to buy
69 want affordable housing to rent
48 want sheltered accommodation
10 want specially adapted homes
There is clearly a demand for more affordable housing to be provided but the present housing plans are unlikely to meet this need. If 70 allocated site houses are built, 20%, say 14, would be designated as affordable. Probably all individual windfall houses will be market price properties but there might be a trickle of affordable homes if brownfield sites produce developments of more than 5 homes. But the most that can be reasonably expected is about 20 altogether.
14. An Alternative Plan for the Shropshire Hills AONB
We can only speculate on the outcome of Shropshire Council’s Local Plan Review; the proposals are currently out for an informal consultation, which will be followed, early next year by a formal consultation before the plan is submitted for scrutiny by an independent inspector and then adopted by the Council, probably in 2022. Snatchfield could be confirmed as an Allocated Site or another major site around the town might be substituted for Snatchfield. Another possibility is that a site or sites elsewhere in the County could be allocated in order to preserve the landscape of the AONB. But if a site is allocated within the AONB this will be a continuation of the past spread of urbanisation within a protected area and a clear indicator that this is likely to continue in the next review. What is needed is a different system for assessing planning needs in the AONB. The AONB Management Board has proposed to Shropshire Council that the Shropshire Hills should be withdrawn from the County plan and a separate plan developed which would be tailored to specific needs but which would also preserve the principle of protecting and enhancing the AONB. There is a precedent for this proposed change. Several years ago when a County Plan was being developed for Lancashire major housing estates were proposed for the Arnside and Silverdale AONB which is a coastal area just north of Morecombe. The landscape is redolent of a mini Lake District and there were vigorous local protests at the proposed development. At the stage when the plan was being examined by the independent inspector it was agreed to withdraw the AONB from the wider plan and to seek smaller sites for housing development. This was done and the plan adopted; it is known as a Development Plan Document (DPD) for the Arnside & Silverdale AONB. In 2019 it received the North West Winner award in the Spatial Planning category of the Royal Town Planning Institute Regional Awards for Planning Excellence.
15. RECOMMENDATION: The CLP should support the initiative of the AONB Management Board and urge Shropshire Council and Wrekin and Telford Council to explore the scope for a specific plan (DPD) for the Shropshire Hills AONB.