ARAG Meeting with Fiona Bruce

ARAG Meeting with Fiona Bruce.

Background.

Since August, following several posts on the subject and at the request of a number of our members ARAG tried to arrange a meeting with Fiona Bruce (MP) and Michael Jones (Leader of Cheshire East) to determine why the ARAG proposal to bring employment and a UTC to the Alsager MMU site was blocked. Michael Jones avoided any meetings, despite requests from ARAG and attempts to arrange schedules by Fiona Bruce. ARAG met with Fiona Bruce in Congleton on Friday 5/12/2014 but Michael Jones did not attend.

ARAG told FB that minutes of the meeting would be posted but from the point of view of balance we would print anything that she wished to say without any alterations on our web site. 12 days have now elapsed so we are posting minutes agreed by the four members who attended.  An hour after this post was placed on the website, an e-mail was received from Fiona Bruce, which has been included exactly in the form it was received, at the end of this “post”.

Our notes from the meeting are provided below.

Meeting With Fiona Bruce in Congleton 5/12/2014

ARAG officers attended with Derek Fulluck, an Alsager resident who worked hard to involve and recruit businesses into the UTC project. BA Systems, Michelin and 10 local small and medium sized enterprises focussed primarily on engineering, agreed to support the project and Siemens agreed to help with advice and IT capital equipment.

ARAG went through the history of the project:

  • At meetings with Michael Jones, he suggested that ARAG should consider and look into a UTC on the MMU site.
  • Fiona Bruce (FB) had previously tried to bring a UTC to her constituency area but without success or any interest from Cheshire East. She agreed to be “Alsager UTC project Champion”.
  • At a meeting with ARAG Officers and members in February 2013 Michael Jones was asked the direct question whether the Council was involved in any on-going discussions regarding the establishment of a UTC. He replied that it was not. At a meeting with Fiona Bruce in late March 2013 we were informed that she had discovered that a project team had been working on a UTC proposal for Crewe since September 2012
  • ARAG initially had support from Staffs University and in fact, one of the project team members, Derek Longhurst, as an Emeritus Professor of the University, was asked by the ( then) University Executive to represent the institution’s interests in South Cheshire. He had also dealt with the establishment of similar organisations on a national basis in his previous career.
  • It was suggested to ARAG by Councillor David Brown, the Deputy Leader of CEC, that ARAG should seek to consult the Town Council regarding the UTC project. Accordingly ARAG representatives gave an informal presentation to Town Council members and Councillor Brown in early April. We also arranged for an ASRA representative to be involved.in order to stress the importance of preserving the site’s sports facilities.
  • In mid-April Derek Longhurst was elected to the Town Council as an Independent.
  • On 1st May 2013 at a meeting of the Cheshire East Council attended by Councillor Brown, Councillor Derek Hough took it up himself to be gratuitously dismissive about the project, suggesting to Cheshire East Council therefore that the proposal did not enjoy local support
  • But the Town Council had not discussed the proposal at this point and did not do so until 14th May 2013. At that meeting it became clear to Councillor Longhurst that, subsequent to the informal presentation in April and prior to his attending a first meeting of the Town Council, some of its members had coordinated a pre-prepared statement effectively to preclude public debate of the proposal. A motion was passed that indicated the decision about the UTC proposal should be made ‘by the education community’. This has subsequently been used by Cheshire East elected representatives as indicating a lack of ‘local’ support and, therefore, as an excuse for their decision not to support the initiative.
  • In order to combat this lack of even-handedness by our elected representatives, ARAG contacted every house in Alsager and received support from 3,000 people for the proposal to develop a UTC, Housing for the elderly, sports fields and housing.
  • FB arranged a Westminster meeting with Lord Baker and ARAG. Lord Baker heads the organisation responsible for taking on new UTCs. At that meeting, ARAG described an IT focussed UTC which would be complementary to the Crewe proposal. Lord Baker thought it was a good proposal and agreed it was complementary to the Crewe proposal. He added that we needed to add a World Class Industrial sponsor to the project team as sponsor.
  • ARAG took Lord Baker’s advice and fulfilled his requirement by finding a World Class IT organisation, very interested to sponsor the project and keen to establish an IT Development Centre on the MMU Site working closely with the UTC and the Community, through retention of the sports and leisure facilities. This would bring 300 jobs in addition to the jobs associated with the UTC. The company offered very strong support and was very committed to the project at a senior level.
  • The key issue in taking this proposal forwards was timing. The company needed to move quickly. The company demonstrated its commitment by attending a meeting in Alsager between two senior directors of the company and ARAG. FB was invited to the meeting but could not attend due to Westminster commitments. The company stated its strong commitment to establishing a Development Centre on the site and sponsoring a UTC focussed on IT.  Retention of the sports facilities, including the best buildings was central to the success of the project. 
  • ARAG informed FB and Michael Jones about the opportunity for 500 jobs in Alsager (Development Centre + UTC ) and asked for an urgent response. In particular it was important to bring all the key parties together to determine the way forwards.
  • At this point, ARAG could not get a response from either Michael Jones or FB and the request for urgent help was not answered.
  • ARAG could not understand why either party (this is still the case) would not discuss bringing such significant levels of employment to Alsager. ARAG and ARAG members tried without success to make contact with letters and e-mails.
  • The company contacted MMU and DTZ and was told that its interest in the site would not be considered.  The involvement of the Local Authority at this stage would have been crucial, as it has been in other similar cases, to the continuation of a dialogue with MMU, which might have altered this position.  That support was not forthcoming.
  • A consultant representing Lord Baker’s department came to discuss the UTC proposal and was very excited and supportive of both the proposed specialism, digital technologies and IT, and the fact that so much of the existing facilities would be retained. He subsequently reported back to us to say that he could not resolve the lack of interest from the Local Authority and confirmed that our bid was being blocked.
  • Over time, it became clear that this project would not succeed and it was therefore halted.

FB stated that she had been very upset at the suggestion that she had not supported the project and blocked the proposal and as the history shows she helped the project, especially by arranging the Lord Baker Meeting. ARAG pointed out that ARAG had not said that FB had blocked the proposal. ARAG had always agreed that she had supported the project until a major success was announced. The issue is that when urgent support was requested, with time of the essence, it was not forthcoming. FB said that she had made it clear that ARAG could always attend one of her surgeries and she had been waiting for ARAG to do that.

FB said that she had supported ARAG and the UTC project strongly in her statement to Cheshire East, which was circulated to ARAG and a number of residents in letters, as evidence of her support for the UTC. These letters were sent several months after the initial call for urgent support and after many letters from residents. ARAG pointed out that in this 5 page document, there were only 5 words on education with no reference to a UTC. We reported feedback to ARAG that residents were angry that she felt that this letter consitituted any kind of support. Cheshire East ignored the request.

ARAG had contacted FB’s offices, written letters and sent e-mails. Promises of a telephone conversation asking for a telephone conversation and a meeting were not fulfilled.

In the meeting we had to agree with FB that we have a different interpretation of “urgent support”.

ARAG made the point that we had been informed from several sources that the project had been blocked politically. FB informed ARAG that Michael Jones had personally blocked the project and that he would ensure planning permission would not be given. This is consistent with other feedback from the Baker Dearing consultant and another leading Cheshire East councillor. FB stated that she had tried to change that position but there was nothing she could do.

FB assumed that the reason for doing this was to ensure that nothing harmed the Crewe UTC proposal. As the Alsager proposal was complementary to Crewe, it was difficult to understand why the prospect of 500 jobs and a UTC could not even be discussed.

Another point made by FB was that the project was not supported by the Town Council or the Head of the School, who she had consulted that morning. ARAG made the point that the objections raised by various parties were exactly the kind of things to be resolved during project initiation discussions, not after the event. The fact that people did not voice and discuss their reservations constructively, is very disappointing. ARAG finds it unlikely that the Head Teacher of Alsager School would wish to be placed in the position of effectively holding a veto over a project that could have generated 500 jobs in Alsager?

At no point in the 90 minute meeting did FB discuss jobs in Alsager.

ARAG asked why she, as our MP, could not try to use her influence with people like the Employment Secretary. FB said that she had no power to do this because everything now related to “localism” . We conveyed to her very strongly that our proposal was a great example of localism devised by local members of the community and supported by 3,000 residents. Her response was what was meant by localism is giving powers to Michael Jones.

ARAG then made the point that this whole saga is just another example of the way Alsager has been treated:

  • An objective assessment of housing need in Alsager would be in the region of 750 houses on Brownfield sites for the next 20 years.
  • Cheshire East imposed a quota of 1,000 on the Town Strategy exercise.
  • With a flawed consultation process and no justification, Cheshire East chose to ignore the Town Council and Residents, increasing that number to 1,600 in its Local Plan.
  • Cheshire East has also decided that objections can be ignored and has for example approved housing development on the White Moss. This is a good example of “it happens because it’s Alsager “. At a recent regional Strategic Planning Board meeting, a Sandbach proposal was rejected because residents had a right to a quality of life which could not be met by living so close to the motorway, with the noise and levels of pollution. The White Moss decision ignored this argument, even though the noise and pollution is probably much worse, because the Borough’s need for housing numbers outweighs everything, including health in Alsager.
  • With the lost appeals, Cheshire East’s insistence on the housing numbers in the South of the Borough and Cheshire East’s decisions, backed up with the failure to produce a Local Plan and demonstrate a 5 year supply, we can now expect significantly more than 2,500 houses in Alsager over the next 17 years.

FB said that she was as angry as ARAG about the situation on housing in our area and she had spoken out and written letters about that. It is the most frequently reported issue in her mailbag. She said that this has been brought about because of the lack of a Local Plan and there was nothing that Central Government could do about it.

ARAG made the following points:

  • The draft NPPF was produced for the government by an advisory group consisting of developers and planning consultants, so it is hardly surprising that there is a presumption in favour of development. This presumption is at the core of what has gone wrong in planning.
  • The government knew in advance that the NPPF would cause the uncontrolled development it has, it’s on the record.
  • Supportive words from politicians don’t help. Our town will expand by 60%, without any significant infrastructure improvement. We don’t need sympathy, we need effective and responsible action. We consider that this considerable impact on Alsager has been deliberate. If government wanted to stop this, it could. It did after all create the legislation which is driving this appalling situation.

E-mail from Fiona Bruce.

I welcomed meeting ARAG again recently, and the opportunity to confirm to you that at no time have I withdrawn my support for a UTC at Alsager – however, it became clear to me over time, as I believe it now has to ARAG – that Cheshire East Council were determined to see a UTC at Crewe and were therefore offering no support for an Alsager UTC, without which the project was simply not going to proceed. ARAG may be curtailing its activities but I am not giving up the fight for our local communities , despite feeling desperately disappointed in both the national regulations and with the failure of Cheshire East Council to finalise a Local Plan . The main hope for Alsager now lies in a swift Neighbourhood Plan and I have written this week to Alsager Town Council accordingly , copy letter attached , as well as speaking to the Housing Minister to ask him to speed through the process Do not underestimate the frustration I feel at this whole situation

Fiona Bruce MP