Local Plan Examination: Update
The formal adoption of a Local Plan by Cheshire East Council is of much greater significance for the future of development in Alsager than any Neighbourhood Plan. This is a legal matter and beyond question. Anyone who contends otherwise has not done their homework and is promoting a Neighbourhood Plan for their own ends rather than those of the community.
Let us be quite clear: a Neighbourhood Plan cannot stop already-approved development – at most all it could achieve is drawing attention to infrastructural issues related to cumulative development and perhaps influence some developers to improve the qualitative nature of their house-building. Both of these objectives can be pursued in other ways without the expense and distractions of a Neighbourhood Plan. Moreover, a Neighbourhood Plan must conform to the strategic policies of the Local Plan and if these are still open to challenge and debate – as they are in the Cheshire East region – there seems little point in expending valuable time and resources on a Neighbourhood Plan.
This is why ARAG (Alsager Residents Action Group) sought to represent Alsager residents at four of the sessions in which the Government’s Inspector, Stephen Pratt, considered the additional work of Cheshire East Council following the suspension of the original Local Plan Examination last November on the grounds that he considered the submitted Local Plan to be ‘unsound’. He now has to consider whether he judges that the additional work undertaken by the Council has sufficiently addressed his concerns in order to resume the Examination during 2016. He plans to publish his judgements on these matters by mid-December.
This means that, even if the Inspector judges that there is sufficient evidence now to proceed with the Examination, the earliest date at which the Local Plan could be adopted is December 2016 and, more likely, at some point in 2017. Since there were significant challenges to the Council’s additional work, the outcome of the last week’s hearings is far from certain.
It should be noted that other communities were regularly represented by elected representatives of their Town Councils, especially Poynton, Knutsford and Wilmslow with Councillors in attendance at every session. This was not the case for Alsager. There was evidence that Town Councillors from other communities had collaborated in making their cases in a coordinated way. (We should note that Councillor Hough did put in an appearance for one morning session, in his capacity as a Cheshire East Councillor.)
There was one consistent theme on which there was unanimity amongst Developers, their QCs, Town Councils, community and interest groups – there had been no attempt at public consultation during the eleven months of the Examination suspension period and it is possible that this has led to the extremely high number of representations both in terms of correspondence and during these most recent Hearings by the Inspector. It was clear, therefore, that not a great deal of common ground had been established.
What were the issues?
This Report should be read in conjunction with the report previously published on the ARAG website regarding the first week of the Hearings and in particular the session on Housing Requirement.
The Inspector’s Interim Findings in November 2014 had highlighted the following issues:
- A mismatch between economic strategy/Jobs growth and housing strategy
- A failure to review the Green Belt especially in the North of the Borough
- A failure to consider sufficiently the development needs of the northern settlements
There were other issues but it can be reasonably argued that these three are of particular significance for the southern towns, especially Alsager and Sandbach which both have the highest housing development increases by far within the borough.
Review of the Green Belt: (Tuesday 27th October; 10.00 am – Macclesfield Town Hall)
The purpose of this Hearing was to review the Cheshire East’s proposed changes to their Green Belt Policy, intended to address the Inspector’s concerns regarding the disproportionate allocation of housing between the North and South of the Borough.
Derek Bould attended to express concern about the possible un-intended consequences resulting from these proposed policy changes.
Currently there are two areas of Green Belt, the significantly largest one being in the North with a much smaller ribbon of Green Belt in the South. The Northern Green Belt effectively surrounds Knutsford, Wilmslow, Poynton and much of Macclesfield. The Southern Green Belt is to the south of Alsager, Scholar Green and Congleton and forms part of a much larger Green Belt across the northern area of Staffordshire.
Cheshire East proposes that these two main areas of Green Belt are sub-divided into a total of 401 smaller parcels and each parcel is effectively scored on the ‘contribution’ it makes to the Green Belt as a whole. In their summary of changes to their Local Plan submission, Cheshire East say “Lesser contribution parcels clustered around Macclesfield and Wilmslow in the North and Scholar Green further south.”
The Inspector is looking to increase housing in the North but now we find that Cheshire East are identifying ‘parcels’ which are part of the Southern Green Belt.
If Fanny’s Croft were to be considered to be a parcel that makes a lesser contribution, to the Southern Green Belt, then this new policy could be used by developers to gain planning permission; remembering that Cheshire East still does not have a ‘5 year Supply of Available Housing Land’.
Councillors from the northern towns are obviously aware of this loophole because a number of them made the point that the South Cheshire Green Belt is only a small part of a much larger green belt area throughout North Staffordshire. Implying that losing part of our green belt would only have a small effect on the overall size of the green belt area.
They are happy to give up Green Belt as long as it is our Green Belt in the South.
Spatial Distribution of Development: (Thursday, 29th October 10.00am- Macclesfield Town Hall)
The issue of spatial distribution of house-building is a key concern for Alsager. Unfortunately, the repeated failure of Cheshire East Council to deliver a five-year supply of housing land has led to the loss of numerous Greenfield sites to Developers over the last two years. Currently there are 18 potential house-building sites within or on the boundary of Alsager (e.g. White Moss; Close Lane) and there are signs that this could grow to about 25 sites with planning permission in the near future likely to be granted for additional developments proposed on Dunnocksfold and Close Lane as well as Hall Drive.
Neither the Local Plan nor a Neighbourhood Plan will make any difference to this situation. Indeed, the Inspector commented in one session last week that even if there were to be an adopted Local Plan in December 2016, in January there could be a successful Appeal upheld for yet more development if the Council still cannot demonstrate a five-year supply. Furthermore, most of the speculative development in Alsager has now been absorbed into the Local Plan which means that we don’t have a Resident’s Plan for our town; instead we have Developer’s Plans forced upon us and eagerly accommodated by Cheshire East.
Turning to the bigger picture, it is now clear that there is a significant imbalance between the northern and southern settlements in terms of projected house-building. More than 20,000 houses are scheduled for development in South Cheshire during the Local Plan period until 2030 and less than half that in the north including Macclesfield. Much of the Council’s rationale for this imbalance has been the constraint of the northern green belt and obviously representatives of Knutsford, Wilmslow and Poynton have played on this to defend their communities from further development. The problem is that jobs growth is largely in the North of the borough.
To give a flavour of the debate in this session, Alsager representatives (Derek Bould and Derek Longhurst) argued the case that the current strategy was unsustainable in terms of infrastructure, especially employment, and would exacerbate out-commuting which in turn created significant issues of highways infrastructure. The Council seemed to be planning for the possible development of HS2 – not as yet at all certain – but not for the actual on-going development of Airport City in the Poynton area. The response from a Wilmslow Councillor was that the Airport City jobs would be low wage jobs which meant that such people would not be ‘able to afford Wilmslow house prices’. One obvious answer might be, therefore, that this constitutes a very good case for building affordable homes in the Northern settlements?
Much of the debate in this session focused upon the methodology employed by the Council and its consultants to arrive at the Local Plan spatial distribution proposals. They had examined the evidence for five different options and then chosen Option 6 which appeared to be a blend of options 3, 4 and 5. This has led to a small swing of 7% increase in house-building for the northern settlements. To give Alsager residents some idea of what this means in practice, the overall increase in house-building for the three settlements of Poynton, Wilmslow and Knutsford is about 50% of what is scheduled for Alsager alone. It was argued, for instance, by the Poynton Councillor that there was no justification for its increase in allocation from 200 houses to 650 houses – an increase of 200%. As Alsager and Poynton are broadly similar in size, I am sure that many Alsager residents would willingly swap as Alsager has the highest percentage increase in the region followed closely by Sandbach.
Derek Bould made the following points about spatial distribution, with respect to Alsager:
- Infrastructure – in their ‘Spatial Distribution Update Report’, Cheshire East’s consultants (AECOM) clearly state “The spatial distribution focuses development into those areas that are best supported by infrastructure, services and facilities (ie the Principal Towns and Key service Centres).”
How can Alsager, which is identified in the Local Plan as a Key Service Centre, possibly satisfy this stated aim when our Infrastructure is already totally inadequate; without another 2000 houses which are now in their ‘Plan’.
Similarly, in Cheshire East’s own statement on ’Spatial Distribution of Development’ it says “A critical factor in determining which locations would be well-placed to accommodate development was the ability to secure infrastructure improvement schemes that would mitigate the effects of development,……Where transport schemes have already been proposed to achieve this, further development is therefore easier to justify.” (It goes on to give the Middlewhich Bypass and Congleton Link Road as examples.)
Alsager doesn’t have a Bypass, doesn’t have one planned or even any significant proposals included in Cheshire East’s Infrastructure Support Plan.
Alsager’s Infrastructure simply cannot accommodate the housing development already approved in our town by Cheshire East Planners.
- Employment – as already referred to above, Cheshire East’s response to the Inspector’s comments about the lack of housing in the North of the Plan area, is a proposed swing of 7% from South to North. Increasing the North’s share from 23% to 25% of the total housing allocation. (But at the same time the proposed total housing is to increase from 27,000 to 36,000 so our share does not reduce in actual numbers, it increases.)
In the same paragraph they go on to say “In terms of additional employment land put forward in the suggested revisions (to the Local Plan) the proposed split is 66% directed to the North with 17% directed to the South”.
So the North has 25% of the Housing and 66% of the Employment Land while the South has 57% of the Housing and 17% of the Employment Land.
Yes, that’s right, they get the jobs but not the houses and we get the Houses and not the jobs.
Derek Longhurst had raised questions concerning the historical policy of an ‘area of restraint’ in relation to Alsager deriving from the days of Congleton Borough Council and sought to clarify whether this was now a ‘dead’ concept. Adrian Fisher confirmed that it was. He suggested that Stoke and Newcastle Councils had not objected to any of the Local Plan allocations and cited the reduction of White Moss from 1000 to 350 houses – although for how long such a reduction will actually be enforced is anyone’s guess.
Further Issues: (Friday, 30th October – 10.00am -6.00 pm- Macclesfield Town Hall)
Rafe Wakelin and Derek Longhurst attended the final day’s session on behalf of the Alsager community. It was rather notable that none of our Borough Councillors or Town Councillors saw fit to attend this session as Alsager Highways Infrastructure was a central item on the Inspector’s Agenda.
Derek Longhurst indicated that he had attended all eight of the Appeals related to Alsager sites and at none of them had the Council produced any highways analysis or evidence. This had been left to residents and the ARAG representatives. Furthermore the Council’s Infrastructure Delivery Plan underpinning the Local Plan was totally inadequate concerning Alsager. All it referenced were 2-3 junctions that might be over-capacity at some point in the future. Since 2013 he has been asking for the kind of ‘strategic step’ described by Mr Fisher in relation to what was being developed in Congleton but had met with a lack of interest from the Council despite the clear evidence of the cumulative impact of the numerous developments being imposed on Alsager.
Eventually the Council had commissioned a Highways Study for Alsager but this was flawed as it was entirely a desk-based study and restricted once again to analysing solely junction capacity. As the consultants who undertook this analysis commented themselves, this analysis did not take account of traffic flows and corridors. Moreover, the Report takes a somewhat cavalier attitude towards the issues constituted by the two Level Crossings in the Town arguing that queuing will be increased but that the Level Crossings will remain adequate. The Report does confirm, however, what Alsager residents have been telling the Council for two years: the highways infrastructure is inadequate to meet the level of development projected for Alsager.
Derek also pointed out that the A500 had not been included in the Council’s analysis of Highways Infrastructure in relation to cross-boundary traffic issues. It was confirmed that there had been no analysis of the southern highways in relation to development and all of the focus had been on the northern highways in the borough. When it was argued that the A500 was owned by the Highways Authority, Derek pointed out that the Highways Authority was not building the 20.000 houses in South Cheshire which would suggest that Cheshire East Council cannot deny its responsibilities.
A further Alsager-specific matter also arose in relation to the future development of the MMU site. A question had been raised by another witness relating to the Council’s Sports Strategy and whether it would be adopted and published before the Local Plan was adopted. This provided the opportunity to raise the issue of ‘mixed use’ on the MMU site and the preservation of both indoor and outdoor sports facilities. Derek argued that the Council should see this as a priority within the Local Plan as opposed to an approach which was focused on building a further 435 houses on the site, especially given all of the other development now scheduled for Alsager. There is a danger that important sports facilities could be lost as the Council desperately seeks to build 36,000 houses in the plan period at the expense of everything else including the environment.
Rafe Wakelin commented on the wide-ranging critical views that had been expressed during the Local Plan Hearings and made the important point that the Planning Department at Cheshire East Council was not well-resourced. He expressed his appreciation for the hard work that had been undertaken by the Local Plan Officers. It was certainly remarkable that the elected Leadership of Cheshire East Council, including the portfolio holder, were not in evidence in terms of attendance at the Hearings. Many of the decisions that have most impacted on Alsager as a community have been the responsibility of the elected members rather than the Council Officers directly involved in preparing the Local Plan.
It should be noted that there was a very strong critical statement from Stockport Council during the session regarding the Local Plan development by Cheshire East Council – a statement that Adrian Fisher described as ‘very disappointing’ in the context of the work that had been undertaken between officers of the two councils.
The Inspector asked the Council to think about
- The scope and nature of public consultation – the lack of such systematic consultation during the suspension period had been a consistent theme raised by all representatives
- The selection of strategic sites and how the evidence for them is now of some age and needs to be updated
- The timetable for further development of the Examination would need to be reviewed – the Inspector indicated that he now anticipated that it would be mid-December rather than mid-November before he could give his views on all of the evidence that had been placed before him
Adrian Fisher summing up for the Council argued that
- The borough had a complex geography which made plan-making complex
- The purpose of the present procedure was to consider whether the additional work undertaken by the Council had adequately addressed the interim judgements of the Inspector published in November 2014.
- The overwhelming objective is to get a Local Plan in place and this was in the public interest at large
- Much of the debate and views expressed during the Hearings had focused upon the northern settlements whereas the central and southern settlements were crying out for a Local Plan ( This may be because of the wish of the Development Industry to create development in the northern settlements and the defence of those settlements and the green belt by local representatives and interest groups)
Summary by Stephen Pratt – the Local Plan Inspector
In his final summing up the Inspector made the following points:
- When he had developed his back-of-the-envelope timetable he did not know how much common ground there would be and it was now clear that there were ‘still outstanding issues and challenges’ – in other words still limited common ground in relation to the Local Plan
- He would have to consider all of the views he had heard carefully before reaching his interim judgements
- He will be reviewing and assessing whether the additional work undertaken by the Council adequately addresses the issues he had defined last year. He indicated that it was difficult to reach final judgements when there had been no public consultation and there was evidence still to be produced
- Decisions still had to be taken on the selection of further strategic sites
- He would not wish to prejudge or pre-empt views that might be expressed in public consultation
- He also noted that a significant meeting about Affordable Housing was yet to take place so there would be a delay in his interim judgements from mid-November to mid- December which suggested that public consultation may be delayed until the New Year. (During sessions several delegates had asked the Council not to hold the public consultation during the Christmas and New Year period)
- The Inspector indicated that he would accept no further evidence or correspondence as this round of Hearings is now closed.