District Council Update for 2012

Our January meeting is set aside for a representative of the District Council to talk to us. This year the newly appointed Cabinet portfolio holder for Development Services, C'llr Alan White, joined us at short notice as a substitute for Council Leader Mike Wilcox, to share his thoughts on Lichfield's development challenges.

Predictably, the session encompassed a wide range of topics, not the least of which was an update on the Council's progress towards the completion of the Local Development Framework Core Strategy, the blueprint for development in the District. Crucial to its completion, is work being undertaken by consultants on behalf of Lichfield, Cannock, Tamworth and North Warwickshire Councils on the number of homes required in each District. This work, Alan said, has just been completed and hopefully would soon be in the public domain. It, and work on the scale of demand for employment land, which is also being undertaken by consultants, was a cornerstone of the Core Strategy. He was also aware that the Government's National Planning Policy Framework document should adopted in April. Its presumption in favour of allowing proposals for "sustainable development" if no up to date local plans were in place, was spurring the Council on to complete the Core Strategy and thus ensure that there was no development "free for all" in Lichfield. Although Lichfield's existing Local Plan was now out of date, it was still a live document and he hoped that it would "hold the line" in the short term, in the face of anticipated planning applications for substantial housing developments.

Much discussion took place on the proposed Friarsgate development. He, like many, welcomed the removal of the hotel and felt the overall scheme worked better in its revised form. The audience, however, remained concerned over the traffic implications of the scheme. Despite reassurances from the County Council, many remain sceptical over the ability of Birmingham Road to cope with the traffic generated. The scale, location and operation of the bus station was also questioned, together with the apparent absence of parking areas for tourist coaches, at a time when the City looks to developing its tourism potential. He promised to take our points back to the planners at both District and County for consideration. There was, he felt, a need for a fresh look at Lichfield's traffic patterns. Continuing in a transport vein, it was also pointed out to him that initiatives to upgrade Trent Valley Station (surely one of the most unappealing stations on the West Coast Main Line) appear to have stalled. London Midland Trains and Network Rail appear disinterested; it was down to the Council to resuscitate the debate.

Despite concerns over the number of vacant shops in the City Centre, he felt that prospects were good. At 9%, our vacancy rate is lower than average; there was interest in the vacant T J Hughes premises; the Friarsgate scheme has 50% of the units pre let (close to the target for financial institution funding to be triggered). The scheme would ensure that Lichfield could stem the drain of shoppers attracted to retail outlets nearby and build on its reputation as a city with specialist shopping. But the traders- especially the independent traders- had to realise that trading conditions were changing with the growth of Sunday and online shopping and act accordingly. Many shoppers visit Lichfield on Sundays, only to find a significant proportion of the independent shops closed.

A lively debate ensued on City Centre pedestrianisation. Many in the audience agreed that the shopping environment could be improved significantly by the removal of more traffic, especially blue badge holders, who could still conveniently access City centre facilities from suitably located blue badge parking on the City centre fringe. Space precludes discussion of all the topics covered in ninety minutes. We touched on the practicalities of providing affordable housing and the role and use of developer contributions to fund the District's social and physical infrastructure.

Alan White, at the time of the meeting, had been portfolio holder for just 19 days. Yet his breadth of knowledge on a wide range of topics impressed. He is a man of firm, reasoned views. His openness at the meeting was impressive and his frank approach most welcome. He clearly has a love of the City and an enthusiasm to challenge the accepted ways of doing things. We should wish him well in the complex and constrained minefield of local government.

Roger Hockney
January 2012