Close Lane Planning Inquiry

The latest in a long round of Planning Inquiries was held in Crewe, for four days last week, relating to the first application of Muller on the site at Close Lane.  (13/1305N)

The inspector, Mrs Karen Baker made it clear from the first day that she regarded the focus of the Inquiry to be centred on four areas,

1. Effect on the Countryside,

2. Sustainability

3. Loss of agricultural land and

4. Demonstration of a 5 year supply of land.

Inevitably the evidence which followed did concentrate on these important themes.

The Council presented its evidence first, led by Richard Humphreys QC who has acted for Cheshire East on a number of previous appeals. Mr Stock, a partner from Deloitte, specialising in Planning, was the Council’s leading witness. He was clearly knowledgeable, well prepared and a confident and credible witness. His evidence and cross examination continued for well over a day.The cross examination was by Jeremy Cahill QC, acting for Muller, who as may be expected pulled no punches. It can only be hoped that his often overbearing style did nothing to impress the Inspector. Certainly it did not seem to put Mr Stock off his stride.

Anyone else speaking at an appeal, other than the two legal teams, is referred to as a Third party witnesses and there were 10 in all. A good mixture of Hon Alderman Derek Bould President of ARAG, two Haslington councillors, two Cheshire East councillors, living in Alsager, Derek Longhurst (Alsager Town Councillor) and a good range of local residents developed their arguments based on the Inquiry’s main themes. Their presentations were well coordinated and sought to avoid repetition.In some cases some cross examination followed by Mr Cahill and the witnesses were able to give as good as they got.

Throughout the Inquiry the Inspector treated the third party witnesses with the utmost respect and even gave them the opportunity to ask questions of Muller’s witnesses, not something which has been experienced in previous appeals.

The third party witnesses came away with the strong view that they had been properly heard and that their views had been taken seriously.

Without rehearsing all the third party witness presentations here,  much play was put on the impact of the loss of Countryside on the local residents. This is not merely a visual impact but a loss of amenity. Footpaths were a particular emphasis with local resident Victoria Beddow talking of her young family having enjoyed these footpaths for many years on a regular basis.The paths will of course be preserved but the impact of any development on the locale could not be denied by Mr Cahill. The inspector on her formal visit was later to find and walk the main path in question. So important was this argument that it was specifically referred to by Mr Humphreys QC in his closing statement.

Much evidence was presented on sustainability. In essence the site is simply in the wrong place and no provision ‘of an infrequent bus service’ (often serving Alsager by an indirect route) will ameliorate this. Ian White in his evidence specifically challenged Muller on the suggestion that the bus service (to which Muller propose to provide £50,000 per annum for five years) will become financially self-sufficient after that period. Muller could not provide the evidence Mr White challenged them to produce that this was the case, or indeed had been the case in any publicly funded bus service.

Muller put forward an agricultural witness on the loss of agricultural land. Their arguments were weak and we hope that the Inspector will take into account the many submissions by residents on this, coupled with her own site visit. It is pleasing to note that a number of the fields in question have recently been ploughed, giving a good indication of their potential, rather than appearing to lie fallow. We are confident that the Inspector who certainly visited that area of the site will have noted this.

As may be expected the five year supply of land, which has been the critical and fatal area in so many recent local appeals, was the subject of much debate. We can only hope that the arguments put forward this time on behalf of the Council (vehemently refuted of course by the Muller team) are not only correct in fact and law but accepted by the Inspector.

An interesting legal argument arose on the last day of the Inquiry. This related to an entry lodged at the Land Registry in respect of Yew Tree Farm which forms part of the site. A former owner who now lives in America has some protected rights. Although he now has no legal interest in the farm, the Council argues that his Unilateral Notice prevents the Section 106 planning agreement (which would be required to be completed to bind the developer to its obligation on highways works, contribution to the bus, etc) from being properly executed.

The Inspector invited both parties to submit written arguments on this within 14 days and this will further delay the ultimate decision. All of this is preparatory work on the agreement, which would be required, should permission actually be granted.

Whilst the feeling of many who attended parts of the Inquiry was that it was conducted in a very open and positive way, it’s the outcome and not the process which really matters. It is always impossible to predict which way the Inspector will go. She certainly has a detailed and complicated case to decide on. It is critical not just for us locally but in setting a precedent for other cases to follow.

We are certainly satisfied that the case for the Council was well put. The local third party witnesses added significantly to that. Indeed at the very end of the Inquiry the Inspector and even Jeremy Cahill QC thanked the third parties for the professionalism and dignity in which they had conducted themselves “we know that in a sense we are trampling over your emotions and communities. The reception we get can be very aggressive and challenging” said Mr Cahill “We have not found that here and we are very grateful”

A positive feeling at the end of four days of evidence so let’s hope now for a positive outcome.

A decision is unlikely for several months.

ARAG wishes to thank the Close Lane local resident who provided this detailed report on an appeal which was somewhat more complex than usual.