The MMU Site – The Alsager College.

With over 1,250 members, ARAG is committed to appropriate and planned development of Alsager’s brownfield sites in preference to the many greenfield sites which are attracting interest from Developers. It is becoming increasingly obvious that Developers are winning planning permission for many greenfield sites around Alsager and the scale of this can be seen here. A significant number of these greenfield sites in Alsager have been approved on appeal not because they are appropriate or sustainable but because Cheshire East Council cannot demonstrate to Government Planning Inspectors that it has a five-year supply of housing land in the borough as a whole. This is a legal requirement.

The Manchester Metropolitan University site (MMU), previously known as Alsager College, is a good example of  a partially Brownfield site. MMU decided to vacate the MMU site and move its facilities to Crewe and the site has been empty since 2010 although there has been limited use of some of the playing field facilities.

The site itself is large, containing excellent sports playing fields, all weather pitches, educational buildings, halls of residence, high quality sports buildings and a dance studio.

All of these buildings, some of which are excellent facilities, were funded with public money.

The MMU site and its future has been under consideration for a long time. At a public enquiry in 2004 the Planning Inspector considered that some housing development would be appropriate and that because of problems with Alsager’s infrastructure, this should be limited to the brownfield footprint of the site and to be no more than 180 houses. This would ensure traffic usage equivalent to the former campus operation.

In 2010, the Alsager Town Council published its Town Strategy and identified that there should be 300 houses on the site. Cheshire East Council increased that allocation to 350 and since then, there have been indications from developers that housing will be from 400 to 500 houses. A planning application has not been submitted but one is anticipated in the next 2 months ( before end October 2014 ).

In 2013, ARAG mounted a campaign for mixed use of the MMU site.  The four part proposal was to:

  • Save the playing fields and sports facilities for the Community
  • Retain the best educational buildings and create a University Technical College
  • Create a Community Village appropriate for the elderly and disabled with a care and social hub.
  • Up to 300 houses to be built on the Brownfield footprint of the site.
ARAG, accompanied by Derek Longhurst, subsequently the  independent Councillor, who was also representing Staffordshire University in South Cheshire at the time,  presented its proposal to the Town Council and requested support for the project.  The Town Council decided that it  was not for them but for the “Education Community” to support  this kind of proposal.  Councillor Hough at a Strategic Planning Board meeting (SPB) publicly denigrated the proposal prior to its discussion at a Town Council meeting (15/5/2014).  This public statement bore no relevance to the items under discussion at the SPB and was entirely motivated by personal animosity.

ARAG contacted every household in Alsager and received considerable support from the Community for the proposal, with over 2,500 people registering their support. Support for the UTC was also gained at an early stage from Staffordshire University, South Cheshire College, BAe Systems (Radway), Michelin and a number of regional engineering companies. Fiona Bruce MP actively championed the project and set up a meeting with Lord Baker at Westminster to discuss the UTC proposal, with a primary focus on IT.

Lord Baker said that the proposal was relevant and a good one but it neeeded a strong industrial sponsor.

There were 3 difficulties to overcome:

  • Cheshire East Council would not support an Alsager UTC. Cheshire East had been promoting a heavy engineering college in Crewe (this proposal has now been approved for development). Cheshire East would not consider or even evaluate the Alsager proposal for a specialist IT College which was clearly complementary.
  • The proposal needed a major industrial sponsor.
  • The MMU, through its agent DTZ was working to sell the site to a developer.

ARAG approached and gained commitment from a worldwide IT organisation, which was willing to sponsor the UTC and establish an IT Development Centre with about 300 employees on the site. This Development Centre would have been established within a year and would have operated in support of the proposed UTC. The overall project could have delivered around 500 jobs to Alsager and it is important to stress that the company wanted to move forward quickly with these plans. Given the length of time that the site has remained vacant, this proposal seemed to have significant advantages for everyone and particularly for the community as a whole.

This Sponsor tried unsuccessfully to establish a dialogue with DTZ and eventually was told by the office of the MMU’s Financial Director that the University would not consider the company’s offer to buy the site, it was too late. The company was even prepared to meet with DTZ, MMU and any appointed Developer to explore options for ‘mixed use’ development of the site as outlined in the Local Plan.

ARAG was informed by both Fiona Bruce and a consultant from the Baker Dearing trust (the organisation which supports the establishment of UTCs) that the Alsager proposal was being blocked primarily by Cheshire East Council. An independent consultant from the Baker Dearing Trust visited the project team and confirmed that the proposal with its employer support was ‘very strong’ and a good basis for an Application to the Baker Dearing Trust / Department for Education.  He also advised that without Local Support, a UTC application would run into difficulty.  All the indications were that Cheshire East Council would not offer the necessary support.

Given the significance of the employment opportunities involved in the proposal, we sought the assistance of both the Leader of Cheshire East Council and Fiona Bruce MP to use their influence to engage with the Sponsor and MMU. This was not forthcoming and after 3 months of attempting to stimulate such support, we regretfully decided that we could not continue to involve the company in such a context and suspended work on the project. We are at a loss to explain why our elected regional political leaders did not even attempt to engage with the company or MMU to explore such a significant potential for our community. ARAG requested a meeting with Michael Jones, the leader of Cheshire East and Fiona Bruce to explain why this happened, but despite repeated requests, dates for a meeting have not been forthcoming and that meeting will now not take place .We are still in contact with the company and we understand that it is currently planning to pursue the project elsewhere. So, the upshot is the loss of enhanced educational opportunities and even more crucially up to 500 jobs that would have contributed significantly to the whole community of Alsager.

The Developer appointed by MMU, has been in discussions with both Cheshire East Council’s Leisure Services and the Alsager Sports and Recreation Association. It appears that some of the sports fields will be saved and handed over to the Leisure Trust established as an ‘arm’s length’ company by Cheshire East Council. It is understood that Leisure Services have been negotiating for some refurbishment of the Council’s Leisure Centre. All of the MMU buildings, including the modern indoor sports facilities, will be demolished and in excessof 400 houses will be built over the next ten years. There is also a possibility that a bespoke club house, with changing rooms and a flexible multipurpose room will be provided.  It should be noted however that the Cheshire East Local Plan states (15.199)

“The sports hall, gymnasium, changing rooms and playing fields remain in use, but will be provided in Crewe in coming years.”

ARAG representatives have raised with the Developer the issue of housing for the elderly and disabled on the site but it would appear that there are no plans currently for this aspect of the Local Plan to be implemented for commercial reasons. It is likely that such accommodation would only be developed if Cheshire East Council were to press for it during planning negotiations