Shropshire Council: Year of opportunity beckons for leader who wants change

She has only been leader of Shropshire Council for six months but Lezley Picton is looking to a major year ahead with the authority facing some of its biggest opportunities – and challenges.

Councillor Lezley Picton, leader of Shropshire Council.
Councillor Lezley Picton, leader of Shropshire Council.

Councillor Picton became the authority’s first female leader following May’s Covid-delayed local elections.

It came following a shock defeat for her predecessor, Peter Nutting, and in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic.

In a candid assessment of her tenure so far, Councillor Picton said she was pleased with progress on a number of issues, but wanted quicker change.

She said: “I think I expected to be able to make more progress more quickly but I think we have made progress. I liken it to turning round an oil tanker in the Suez Canal. Some of the things I expected to solve more quickly than I have.

“But the ambition to turn around the highways department, to a great degree a lot of that has been done.”

The pothole-busting Roadmaster in action

One of the major challenges was making good on a pledge to fix the county’s pothole-ridden highways.

In a marathon effort, first driven by the former cabinet member for highways Steve Charmley and continued by Dean Carroll, a backlog of more than 11,000 pothole repairs has been completed.

Although there is more work to be done, the council leader said she was pleased at the efforts so far – which have been reflected in the public’s experience using the county roads.

She said: “They have done incredibly well. A lot of the credit goes to Steve Charmley, he started that tranche of work, now picked up by Dean Carroll, and we are making some real headroads into it.”

While she has been focussed on fixing bumps in the road, the next 12 months will see the council wrestling with a series of major issues.

Shropshire Council looks set to leave its Shirehall HQ

They include a potential move from its Shirehall home in Shrewsbury to new premises, getting its local plan completed, continuing with Shrewsbury’s North West Relief Road, finishing a major overhaul of Oswestry’s Mile End junctions ahead of starting on the new innovation park, and deciding on the potential re-development of Shrewsbury’s town centre.

The North West Relief Road will be the biggest infrastructure project in the council’s history and has attracted significant and vocal opposition.

While she was not leader when the council took the decision to proceed with the project, Councillor Picton was a cabinet member, and said she stands square behind the plan.

She said: “I did not make the decision to support it as a cabinet member lightly and I have not changed my views about it since.”

Artist's impression of the North West Relief Road over the river Severn at Shelton

Councillor Picton added that it had the opportunity to bring more money into Shrewsbury, allowing the council to spend more elsewhere in the county.

She said: “People say it is Shrewsbury-centric but because Shrewsbury is the county town it has the ability to draw in investment, and if other people are investing in Shrewsbury that gives us the opportunity to invest in our other market towns and to use money elsewhere.”

While the council works on one major roads project, the issue of Shrewsbury’s town centre roads continues to be the subject of much discussion, but Councillor Picton revealed that the idea of pedestrianising the town centre is extremely unlikely.

She said: “With the best will in the world I do not think we will ever pedestrianise Shrewsbury and I don’t think we should but we can certainly keep reducing the traffic that goes through the town.”

She added: “We are looking at reducing the traffic in the town centre. I am very clear in my head that a huge amount of traffic – and this is not about the North West Relief Road – that comes across the English and Welsh bridges does not need to go through the town, it is just people see it as a quick route.

“Without a doubt there will be ways we will look to reduce traffic through the town centre but with the best will in the world we cannot reduce it completely.”

The Mile End junction in Oswestry looks likely to be completed on time – no mean feat for a major highways project – and Councillor Picton said it would be hugely beneficial for Oswestry, and the thousands of vehicles using the junction.

She said: “The extension to the business park is really important to the future of Oswestry. I have always said my long-term vision for Shropshire is healthy people and a healthy economy, and the Mile End work is helping with the Oswestry part of that.”

Shropshire’s local plan, which sets out where more than 30,000 homes will be built across the county in the coming years is also set for its next major hurdles, with Councillor Picton hoping it will be signed off by the end of the year – although it could roll into 2023.

The plan is currently with inspectors and will go to a public inquiry later this year.

Councillor Picton was clear that the authority would not bend on demands from Black Country councils to build homes on Green Belt land near Tong, saying: “They are not building on our green belt and I have been very clear about that.”

In terms of the future of Shrewsbury’s town centre, the council leader said a plan to demolish the Riverside Centre would hopefully be agreed in spring, paving the way for the next stage.

She said there had been considerable interest from companies wishing to develop the site in partnership but that the council would remain a major part of whatever happens, with the authority wanting to retain its control over what happens with the area – one of the reasons it bought the town’s shopping centres.

While the council staff will have a host of major issues to work through throughout 2022, Councillor Picton said they deserved recognition for the way that had worked to support the county through the pandemic.

She said: “I am incredibly proud of the staff across the piece, not just in Shirehall. How some staff stepped up to change jobs – overnight in some cases.

“I have had so many letters thanking the council for the work they did in during the pandemic and in some ways that is what we are about, we are there when you need us.”

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