Cleaning up in Walsall

‘New’ jobs might be created, but at what cost? wonders The Mushroom

News this week that the Black Country Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) has been awarded business enterprise zones by the government raises hopes for the creation of new jobs.

Local politicians, business leaders, local journalists and the odd sock puppet have emptied the press officer ‘superlative’ bag in their reactions to the announcement. ‘Fantastic’, ‘brilliant’, etc –  and in a week when unemployment, inflation, train fares, gas and electricity prices, crime and disorder were all up and retail sales and share prices were down; well, we could all do with some good news.

The advantage of an enterprise zone applied to the old Imperial Metal Industries (IMI) 35-acre site in Darlaston, Walsall – for many years the home of a copper refining foundry – are, we are told, the creation of up to 4000 jobs: Through discounts on business rates, tax breaks, new superfast broadband and simplified planning rules.

Critics say that enterprise zones are nothing new. Having first been tried by the Thatcher Government in the ‘80s they were later deemed to have failed because, rather than create new jobs, they simply imported jobs that would have been located elsewhere anyway. When the special advantages on the zones ended businesses just upped stakes and the jobs disappeared.

Therefore, aside from broadband, what is new about regeneration zones are the simplified planning rules. They take the shape of Local Development Orders (LDOs).

First introduced by the Labour Government in 2004 they proved so potentially controversial they were hardly used. Not surprising given that, once granted, they effectively take away the right of local people to oppose any proposed development through the normal planning process. Despite this, earlier this year, in its guidance on enterprise zones, the coalition government made it very clear that zone status will require the use of LDOs and the curtailing of local people’s rights to oppose any proposed developments.

In the Department for Communities and Local Government’s prospectus it states; “Local planning authorities will need to start to establish local development orders, once the specific sites are agreed, to create a simplified planning zone.”

In the case of Walsall, the use of an LDO is tempting given that the council, working with a private sector partner, intends to carry out opencast coal mining on what it describes as one of the most contaminated sites in Western Europe.

The Government’s intention to reform planning regulations has met with serious concerns from many –  and from some unusual quarters – about the erosion of residents’ rights. These concerns have been summed up by Shaun Spiers, Chief Executive of the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England.

Responding to an extraordinary outburst by Planning minister Bob Neill who described opposition to the reforms as ‘a carefully choreographed smear campaign by Left-wingers based within the national headquarters of pressure groups’, Spiers said: “CPRE shares the Government’s aspirations for a more localised and less complex planning system. But it has got its proposals badly wrong. They will not result in economic growth, just more countryside erosion and less say for local communities, in towns and cities as well as in the countryside. Ministers are making a bad mistake in putting economic interests before people or the environment.”

Another concern comes because of the speed at which LDOs are expected to be agreed and implemented.

Local planning authorities are expected to drawn up a LDO, put it out to public consultation and then submit it to the Secretary of State for final approval. The Government wants it to be fast tracked and says this can be done in as little as two months. Such a limited timescale means residents have very little time to organise any effective opposition to the granting of an order.

These concerns are particularly apposite in Walsall’s case. Walsall council only admitted to its plan for an opencast mine after it was confronted by evidence by the local regional paper, the Birmingham Post.

In its defence the council says coal mining on the site is merely a by-product of cleaning up the land and preparing it for redevelopment. It claims it has kept residents who only live a matter of a few yards from the site aware of its reclamation plans. But prior to the Birmingham Post story, press releases and public statements made – by Walsall council, the owners of the land, the regional regeneration body Advantage West Midlands and the private sector partner, Parkhill Estates Ltd –  carefully omitted any mention of open cast mining.

In addition, Advantage West Midlands, have refused a Freedom of Information request to reveal the levels of contamination on the site because, it claims, to do so would harm the possible sale of the land to Parkhill Estates and thereby harm the public purse. Though, in refusing the request, it failed to mention the fact that it bought the site for only £1 in 2007.  Again, when the enterprise zones were announced, amongst the hyperbole from local politicians and business leaders there was no mention of open cast mining.

Walsall council has said it has yet to decide whether it will apply for a LDO but there is clearly an expectation by the Government that it will.

If the council do go down that route it can choose if it wants to incorporate any proposal for an open cast mine in the order or, instead, deal with such a proposal within normal planning regulations thereby giving greater opportunities to local residents to have their say.

Given Walsall’s track record so far, residents next to the site have a lot to fear.

This is an edited version of an article first published on the The Mushroom website.