Background

Over the last 2 years, Alsager has been subjected to a wave of speculative planning proposals.  Cheshire East (CE) imposed an unjustified target of 1,000 houses for Alsager over the next 20 year planning period, a 20% growth and this was reflected in the Alsager Town Strategy.  The process leading to the adoption of the Alsager Town Strategy was flawed and unpopular locally but nevertheless, it was adopted.  Since agreeing that number, CE has chosen, without any justification or local agreement to increase Alsager’s quota to 1,600 in its submitted Local Plan.  The Cheshire East Local Plan only identifies where 1,250 of these houses will be built.  It isn’t clear how the gap of 350 will be filled but it does appear that CE is retrospectively including speculative development proposals such as Dunnocksfold Road and Close Lane.  The 1,250 includes the adoption of the White Moss, an entirely inappropriate site, as a Strategic Location against the wishes of the Town Council,  Residents and neighbouring Authorities.

CE has also failed to deliver an examined Local Plan or to demonstrate that it has a 5 year supply of house building land.  This failure to deliver and its implications are described below but the impact is that there is no protection from Developers who always claim, of course,  that their Greenfield development proposals are sustainable.

On occasions, CE, through its Strategic Planning Board (SPB), has approved totally inappropriate developments in Alsager but even when CE has rejected applications, the Developers appeal and Planning Inspectors overturn the CE decisions.  In the one case where an Inspector rejected the appeal, the developer took the case to judicial review and won.

For many years, Alsager has been “an area of housing restraint” to support the regeneration plans of our neighbouring authorities in Newcastle under Lyme and Stoke-on-Trent.  Even though it has been clear for several years that co-operation and liaison with these authorities would provide  strong arguments against excessive development and even alternative solutions, both CE and the Town Council, despite repeated requests from Residents, have not engaged with any enthusiasm.

In recent planning appeals, CE argued strongly that Alsager is unsustainable as a Key Service Centre.  This is because the levels of employment are far too low and some of our main roads are operating significantly above capacity.  These facts have not been taken into account when  considering planning applications, in fact CE has recently chosen to ignore any such arguments stating that the need to provide housing across the Borough overcomes any argument.  Neither CE or the Town Council were prepared to carry out a professional road survey or an environmental impact study, in fact, ARAG and residents funded their own and proved that the highway situation is unsustainable in the face of such serious additional levels of housing.

In the first 3 years of the 20 year planning period, because of CE imposed increases and CE’s inability to defend against speculative planning proposals, Alsager will have 2,000 additional planning approvals.  Over the remainder of the planning period, this number is likely to increase to 3,000, representing a 60% growth with no commitment to increasing employment or tackling our appalling roads and enhancing the wider infrastructure.  You can view a breakdown of these proposals here.

The NPPF and Cheshire East’s Local Plan

The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) has been in operation since March 2012. The NPPF sets out the government’s planning policies, replacing all previous Planning Policy Statements.

The central theme of the NPPF, is a “presumption in favour of sustainable development”.

The NPPF demands that Councils have a Local Plan in place which has been through an examination process, accepted and adopted. Furthermore, Councils must be able to demonstrate a 5 year supply of house building land.

The NPPF, having initially been drafted by a board dominated by developers and planning consultants, is very much biassed in favour of forcing development and it is the root cause of much of the inappropriate development now taking place nationally.

Cheshire East (CE) was created as a unitary authority with Borough status in April 2009. It is an amalgamation of the former boroughs of Macclesfield, Congleton and Crewe and Nantwich. When CE was created, the Congleton Borough Local Plan was up to date, and remained so until 2011. The Congleton Borough Local Plan determined which development could take place in the area. CE made an early decision not to update that plan, bringing it in line with the NPPF and instead, chose to produce a new Local Plan for the whole of the Borough.  A CE Councillor recently commented that at the time, CE had more important things to do.

This poor decision has been the root cause of many of the problems in our area. Since 2009, Cheshire East has been unable to deliver an acceptable Local Plan and although one was submitted for inspection in May 2014, it is probable that the inspection process may take until or beyond the end of 2015. CE has also not been able to demonstrate that it has a 5 year supply of housing and this has been proved on a number of occasions when CE decisions to reject planning proposals were challenged by developers at appeals and the Inspectors ruled that CE did not have a 5 year supply, despite repeated claims to the contrary.

In the absence of a Local Plan or a 5 year supply, Inspectors, supported by the NPPF and Central Government, pass housing planning proposals whether it is appropriate for a Local Area or not. Local needs and situations are ignored and overruled because the perceived housing needs of the Borough are deemed to be of greater importance.

In Alsager’s case, this means that rather than a planned growth of around 20% in the next 20 years ( 1,000 houses ) , primarily on Brownfield sites, there will be growth up to 60%, with 40% ( 2,000 in the first 3 years of a 20 year plan ) already approved. Much of this growth, unsurprisingly will be on Greenfield sites which are more profitable for developers.

You can see the sites around Alsager and an analysis of the numbers here.

Housing development across Cheshire East is unfairly skewed towards the South, with the major employment areas, such as Macclesfield, Wilmslow and Alderley Edge , the major employment areas, being protected.

The Alsager Town Plan.

In 2011, CE initiated the production of Town Strategies for Alsager, Congleton, Middlewich and Sandbach. The Town Strategies aim to look at how towns might develop over the next 20 years. It indicates where new employment, housing and other uses may be located, along with how new infrastructure might be prioritised.

In Alsager, a Stakeholder panel was identified, the members of which attended CE led workshops. This panel selection and the whole exercise to develop the Town Strategy was not open to the public and it was carried out without open resident involvement. It appears that the housing target for Alsager of 1,000 was set by Cheshire East, rather than derived by residents and the site choices were not made by members of the Stakeholder panel. The housing allocation was not challenged or justified.

The draft version of the Alsager Town Strategy was presented at a well attended public meeting, however no copies had been circulated in advance of the meeting and there had therefore been no opportunity to examine the contents. There was a lot of Resident resistance to the housing numbers and the sites identified in the Town Strategy and subsequently, many of the locations for housing, some identified as preferred sites, were withdrawn; although they were still listed in the final document.

The Alsager Town Strategy was promoted as a “consideration in the development of the Cheshire East Local Plan” and although it was thought at the time that it would have been “a material consideration” in any planning appeal, Inspectors have made it clear that despite consultations with the Alsager Community the Town Strategy carries no weight at all. This is further evidenced by CE’s behaviour. CE has chosen unilaterally and without any subsequent justification to increase Alsager’s housing quota by at least 60% and to permit substantial housing on Alsager’s Greenfield sites. Cheshire East’s Strategic Planning Board, (SPB) which makes planning decisions, also takes no account of the Alsager Town Strategy.

Even following the adoption of the Alsager Town Strategy by the Town Council in July 2012, the document was changed anonymously to add in a commitment of 36 affordable houses per year. This is an obvious mistake, probably because it was rushed, which commits Alsager to 720 affordable homes, which at the target level of 30% implies 2,400 houses in Alsager as opposed to the imposed 1,000 target. This information was used in appeals, by developers’ barristers, to demonstrate ‘pent up demand’ in Alsager. Interestingly, we appear to be heading for around 2,400 houses in Alsager anyhow.

You can see the Alsager Town Strategy here.

The Strategic Planning Board

Planning functions in Cheshire East are dealt with by the Strategic Planning Board (SPB) and two committees, the Northern Planning Committee and the Southern Planning Committee.

These committees deal with applications which are not dealt with by the SPB and are not delegated for determination by the Head of Planning and Housing, and includes small scale major development; applications submitted by a Councillor, senior council officer or member of staff within planning; applications called-in by Councillors and applications which the Head of Planning and Housing thinks should be referred up to a committee due to the issues raised.

Most of the planning decisions which impact on Alsager’s significant housing development sites are dealt with by the SPB.

One of Alsager’s Cheshire East Councillors, Councillor Hough was the vice chairman of the SPB but he resigned his post in recent months over a matter of principle involving an area other than Alsager.  ARAG has attended many SPB meetings over the last 2 years, as have other Alsager residents and we make the following observations, which are supported by other residents and Councillor Hough’s statement at a recent planning appeal that “decision making at the Strategic Planning Board in recent months has been a pantomime” :

  • The behaviour of SPB members when dealing with life changing decisions is often “flippant” and regularly discourteous to members of the public.  Good examples of this are: limiting input from the public to one or two minutes and talking and laughing while  presentations are underway by members of the public.

  • Decisions are often pre-determined and made for political reasons, rather than being based on sound arguments around planning and planning policy.  The Conservative members of the SPB, led by David Brown, the deputy leader of Cheshire East,  vote as a block to accept proposals  which are clearly inappropriate and to the detriment of Alsager as a whole.

  • Decision making is very inconsistent.  There are examples of proposals being accepted in the morning with others being rejected in the afternoon which have an identical set of circumstances and reference has been made to this by Developer’s barristers at appeals .

The overall impression left from attending a session at the Strategic Planning Board is that:

  • the recommendations in Officers’ reports are often not justified by the evidence. The best example of this is the recent White Moss decision where the Officer presented a long list of arguments against the White Moss and then recommended acceptance.  At the SPB meeting, the Officer told the SPB that if they didn’t accept this proposal it would damage the credibility of the Local Plan, which is currently being examined.  Objections from members of the public being considered in that process are now pointless, as the SPB has rendered that part of the examination irrelevant.  In the SPB meeting, this claim was withdrawn by the officer when an SPB member complained about his threatening behaviour, however, all of the Conservative members voted for acceptance, including the Haslington member who linked his vote to a promise to update roads in Haslington parish.  This disgraceful decision was taken on the basis of a trade off on roads and a group Conservative vote.  The arguments presented by the public and some SPB members, which clearly demonstrated that this is wrong on many levels were ignored.

  • The SPB simply goes through the motions of consulting with the public.  Decisions appear to be pre-determined along party and regional lines and the greatest driver is often to get through the meeting agenda, rather than make a considered, objective decision based on the evidence.

The Strategic Planning  Board contains a number of experienced Councillors who knew what to expect from the NPPF, especially when a Local Plan was not in place.  Cheshire East’s inability to deliver a Local Plan or a 5 year supply of housing land, and the decision to abandon regular updating of the existing Local Plans, created a situation where Cheshire East Communities have no protection from developers.  When this is combined with the SPB’s often bizarre behaviour and inconsistent decision making, the reasons for the massive growth in Alsager’s Housing planning approvals become obvious.

The Appeals and their findings.

The fact that CE has been unable to deliver a Local Plan or demonstrate a 5 year supply of housing, has allowed developers to challenge any refusal of planning permission.  The current legislation ( NPPF) and the way in which it is interpreted by Inspectors means that there must be a presumption in favour of development.  This presumption so far has trumped any arguments against development, no matter how strong the objections are.  Developers have taken 4 CE decisions to appeal ( Sandbach Road North, Hassall Road, Close Lane and Dunnocksfold Road ) The Inspectors accepted the appeal on 3 of these, and in so doing gave planning permission.  The Sandbach Road North proposal was rejected but the developer took this to judicial review and the decision was overruled on a point of law.  That appeal will now be re-run.  Interestingly, ( or typically ) the developer has submitted a new planning application for the site, presumably to add to the confusion.

A number of common points were established during these appeals and used by the Developer’s barristers.:

  • CE is unable to demonstrate a 5 year supply of housing.

  • The Policies which CE attempted to adopt from the Congleton Borough Local Plan were not valid and out of date.  CE could not provide evidence that a coherent decision had been taken not to use and update the Congleton Borough Local Plan.

  • The Alsager Town Strategy carries no weight.

  • The Alsager Town Strategy and its flawed analysis of affordable housing need were used to demonstrate that there is “pent up” demand for housing in Alsager

  • Alsager itself is unsustainable as a Key Service centre both from the point of view of highways and employment.  Several of Alsager’s Roads are operating above their capacity and the local employment opportunities are significantly below the minimum  expected from a Key Service Centre.

  • The 1,000 houses defined in the Alsager Town Plan was defined by CE and never challenged or justified by the group which produced the Town Strategy.

  • Very inconsistent decisions have been made by CE’s Strategic Planning Board.  Councillor Hough described the recent politically based decision making of the SPB as a “pantomime”

Missed opportunities .

Alsager will go through an unprecedented growth in the coming years.  3 years into a 20 year plan, it is clear there will be at least 2,000 new houses and it is obvious this could rise dramatically.  The driving force now is not any form of planning, it is whether or not the developers feel they can make a profit from the current applications which have been passed or by acquiring permission for even more Greenfield sites.  Alsager has been badly let down by its elected representatives.  Central Government has encouraged uncontrolled development through the NPPF and its refusal to help Authorities unable to generate their Local Plans.  Our Local Authority has been unable to produce a coherent and acceptable Local Plan and our Town Strategy has been more of a help to developers than to the Alsager Community.

A number of opportunities to control this situation have been missed:

  1. CE refused to take existing operational Local Plans, instead deciding to scrap them and start from fresh.  This process is incomplete after 3 years and at the current rate of progress could go on into 2016.  This means a further 18 months without any protection.

  2. The Town Council, encouraged by Cheshire East and led by Officers, decided to produce a Town Strategy which has no weight in the planning process, rather than a Neighbourhood Plan, a legal document, which could have provided strong protection from speculative development.

  3. ARAG asked the Town Council to carry out an environmental impact assessment of Alsager the new developments and in particular to look at highways.  The MP Fiona Bruce strongly supported that proposal.  The Town Council refused on the grounds of cost.  ARAG eventually commissioned its own professional survey (£2,000), with local resident financial support, which clearly demonstrated the severity of the problem.  If the Town Council had reacted quickly enough, when this was proposed,  this evidence could have been used much sooner in planning decision meetings and appeals.

  4. In the NPPF, there is a requirement for Authorities to consult with neighbouring Authorities.  Newcastle Under Lyme and Stoke On Trent Authorities are driving a regeneration program in their areas and because of that, our area has been considered an area of restraint.  ARAG suggested to the Town Council that strong links should be established with the neighbouring Authorities in order to get their support in resisting unwanted development.  ARAG had already received significant correspondence from these Authorities on the subject.  This proposal was ignored and the opportunity lost.

  5. The neighbouring Authorities have large amounts of Brownfield land which could be used to deliver housing.  Cheshire East could have tried to have some of its allocation transferred to Stoke On Trent and in this way the pressure on our area could have been reduced.  This principle has been used by CE when it decided to accept 500 from High Peak’s allocation, which is surprising when CE itself is unable to demonstrate a 5 year supply.

  6. ARAG proposed a mixed use development for the MMU site, which is detailed here.  A significant part of this proposal was the development of a University Technical College.  ARAG found a global industrial sponsor, prepared to also establish an IT development centre on the site.  This dual proposal would have brought 500 jobs to Alsager but CE would not support the proposal  or engage with ARAG to secure the jobs.

The Rush to a Neighbourhood Plan

The Localism act of 2011 introduced neighbourhood plans.

You can read about the Localism act here:

and Neighbourhood plans here: 

The fundamental point about all of this legislation ( the NPPF and Localism ) is that housing development will take place.  The definition of a Neighbourhood Plan is:

“Neighbourhood planning will allow communities, both residents, employees

and business, to come together through a local parish council or

neighbourhood forum and say where they think new houses, businesses and

shops should go – and what they should look like. “ 

In other words, they define where the community wants to build, not where it doesn’t want to build and the Local Plan takes precedence.  A Neighbourhood Plan must be authorised by the Local Authority and it must be consistent with the Local Plan.

When the Alsager community accidentally discovered that a Town Strategy was being developed, ARAG asked the question, “are there any alternatives?”.   Although the formal answer given at that point was no, it is quite clearly the case that a Neighbourhood plan was the best option and that if this path had been chosen much of the damage to Alsager which has taken place could have been avoided.

Cheshire East, encouraged by planning ministers is now (in our opinion 2 years too late) promoting the development of Neighbourhood plans.  ( Any suggestions from parish councils, community groups previously had been actively discouraged by CE) There are even financial incentives for councils to deliver new housing under the auspices of Neighbourhood planning.  This change of heart by CE is very late in the day and in Alsager’s case, it will do no good at all for the speculative developments which have already been approved.  Furthermore, the Local Plan process appears to have stalled, which means a long delay in achieving  an operational Local Plan.

In Alsager’s case, a Neighbourhood plan would have to identify new sites, which seems pointless as we have already achieved our housing quota.  An argument could be made for a Neighbourhood plan which covers the catchment area of Alsager as a Key Service Centre, which could include areas such as Church Lawton, Rode Heath, Barthomley and Haslington but that would involve protracted negotiation, the whole process would take years, it would be very expensive and it would have to identify where new development will take place.

Many local councils and some local community groups throughout the country displayed an interest in engaging with the Neighbourhood Planning process. Many of these were abandoned at the point when residents were called upon to nominate particular sites. Following a request for information which ARAG sought from Mr E Pickles, MP Minister for Communities and Localism, we have been informed that funding for any new applications does not exist and they are not willing to receive any further expressions of interest until at least May 2015.)

Conclusions

  1. CE’s failure to deliver a competent Local Plan or demonstrate a 5 year supply of housing is the main reason why Developers can justify new housing in entirely inappropriate areas.

  2. The NPPF reinforces the government’s determination to build new houses anywhere.  It was drafted by developers and introduces the presumption for sustainable development.  Sustainable has become a much abused word, everything presented by Developers is claimed to be sustainable.

  3. The Localism act and neighbourhood plans allow Communities to suggest where new development should take place.  It does not allow Communities to control where development may not take place.

  4. The Planning Inspectorate and Central Government’s interpretation of the current legislation is that if a Council is unable to demonstrate a 5 year supply of housing or a Local Plan, then all other objections are superseded by the presumption in favour of development.  This position is taken whether the development is inappropriate or not.

  5. A Local Plan, in fact any plan, only has relevance if it is rigorously implemented.  The Strategic Planning Board has demonstrated tremendously inconsistent decision making in recent years.  This behaviour is exacerbated by inadequate and inconsistent reports from CE officers.  This behaviour has often undermined CE’s position in appeals.

  6. The Alsager Town Strategy worked against Alsager in the recent planning appeals.  It carries no weight in planning decisions and should have been a Neighbourhood Plan, a legal document which can then be enforced.

  7. The spatial distribution of housing in the CE Local Plan places the bulk of the housing in the South and protects the North, focussing mainly on employment initiatives.  It isn’t known whether this is because of agreement with neighbouring authorities or political or leadership decisions made in Cheshire East but it is an unfair balance and  to the detriment of our area.

  8. The SPB makes inconsistent decisions, which, because of voting behaviour and patterns  often appear to be pre-determined.  There also appears to be political intervention at the highest level ( e.g. White Moss ).  With a few notable exceptions, SPB members appear to adopt a light hearted and flippant attitude.

  9. In most cases, Inspectors and the SPB agree with the arguments being presented against particular developments but this is all deemed irrelevant because of the lack of a Local Plan and a 5 year supply.

4 thoughts on “Background

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