Alsager Chronicle Articles Nov. 27th 2014

Neighbourhood plan could be back on cards.” – Alsager “relatively unscathed” by Local Plan failure  -  Alsager Chronicle Nov. 27th 2014

Town Councillors are to reconsider the possibility of establishing a Neighbourhood Plan as a last line of defence against speculative housing development. You can read about Neighbourhood Plans here and here ( last section – “the rush to a neighbourhood plan”)

In the recent Alsager Chronicle articles referred to above, both Cllr S.Jones and Cllr Hough have promoted the need for us, as a town, to proceed with the development of a Neighbourhood Plan as an interim solution to not having a Local Plan or 5 year housing supply. Cllr S.Jones said “the Town Council has a duty to protect residents from unwanted development” and Cllr Hough has made the claim that a Neighbourhood Plan could be produced in 6 weeks. This conflicts with information received from Fiona Bruce’s office stating that Neighbourhood Plans typically take 2 years from start to acceptance. To tell residents that a Neighbourhood Plan is a legal document which gives protection against developers is utter nonsense.

All of this appears to have come about because Michael Jones, the Leader of Cheshire East Council, is reportedly telling everyone that Neighbourhood Plans are the answer to all our planning problems. In our opinion this is all simply a distraction aimed at taking our minds off Cheshire East Council’s failure to produce a viable Local Plan and demonstrate a five year supply of housing. Cheshire East should understand why they have failed so spectacularly and should remedy that situation as a matter of urgency. A robust operational and inspected Local Plan offers the only real protection.

At appeals, Planning Inspectors have wholly agreed with the evidence provided by ARAG but have repeatedly stated that “this lack of a five year supply trumps everything”. A Neighbourhood Plan would not have any effect on this situation and the two years it is likely to take to produce such a plan and take it to referendum would give ample opportunity for developers to continue with their exploitation of these weaknesses and further their ambitions. Furthermore, any plan must be able to withstand the inevitable vigorous challenges from Developers. In other words, in order to offer any hope of protection, a Neighbourhood Plan must be more credible and carry more weight than the currently submitted Cheshire East Local Plan. It is doubtful that a fast-track Neighbourhood Plan, even one that takes more than 6 weeks to produce, would be sufficiently robust to withstand such a sustained challenge.

Cheshire East Council is now saying it will be preparing an “accelerated programme” to help Town Councils . This is particularly interesting because funding from Government has stopped and in a letter received from the Communities and Local Government Minister’s department, the point is made that they will not now engage in any new expressions of interest regarding Neighbourhood Plan projects until at least May 2015.

The Alsager Town Council opposed the production of a plan which would have included a traffic survey and demonstrated negotiations with neighbouring authorities such as Newcastle u Lyme and Stoke. Residents will remember that ARAG put two proposals to the Town Council in July 2013 for such activities to take place.

At a Town Council meeting, Fiona Bruce M.P. made the point that “this is the evidence I need when talking to ministers about Alsager and the problems we face”. The Town Council voted, with one exception, that this would not be an appropriate use of funds. Faced with this response our residents funded a traffic survey.

Sadly Alsager Town Councillors, with one or two exceptions, have in the past two years demonstrated their level of interest in planning matters in Alsager and the immediate neighbourhood by their non-attendance at planning appeals and public enquiries.

As a result of the research we have undertaken and advice we have sought from independent planning consultants over the past two years we feel that it would make no sense to say that Neighbourhood Plans have no value. We do however need to recognise the impact the scale of currently approved developments ( at least 2,000 houses in the first 3 years of a 20 year plan) will have upon services in our town and the sustainability of such growth. There is already considerable development just outside our Town boundary for which Alsager is the key Service Centre. A Neighbourhood Plan which only considers development within Alsager’s Town boundary would have no influence on such developments. Surely this should mean working closely with the four or five parishes which surround the town. How long would it take to develop such complex partnerships? A good example of this is the newly received planning application for Silver Birches, Close Lane (74 houses, 14/5114C), which is clearly Alsager but it is within the Haslington parish.

Cheshire East Council would also have to approve Neighbourhood Plans which in turn have to be consistent with the Local Plan. In the absence of such a plan how can this possibly work? How will Cheshire East overcome the absence of a 5 year housing supply?

Neighbourhood Plans that have been agreed formally sit well within the context of their Local Plans and some provide detail agreed by the community which supports the Local Plan framework and principles. However if time is taken to read these plans, it will be seen that they contain a number of common themes which do not apply to Alsager and its particular situation.

Given the already reported rise in the Town Council Budget/Precept, how is this going to be funded?

  • What is the estimated cost?
  • Where is the budget line?
  • How will the professional services be funded and by whom?

Rushing into making more costly decisions and setting in motion a process that, according to evidence provided by Fiona Bruce’s office, could take up to two years to complete; in our opinion needs very careful consideration. Particularly as those who would wish to take ownership of such a process may well have their minds focused on May 2015 and the outcome of an election. It is the responsibility of those currently in power that there has been a failure to achieve a viable and compliant Local Plan and a demonstrable 5 year housing supply. A Local Plan would have provided the protection we need and deserve.

We find it disturbing that one local councillor, commenting on the Local Plan failure – Alsager Chronicle Nov. 27th, said “There is still hope for Alsager and I think the town will come through relatively unscathed this time” which suggests a worrying level of complacency and a refusal to accept the past failures that have led to the devastating level of speculative development that has already been passed.

We consider the Neighbourhood Plan proposal to be a deliberate distraction from the most important activity, which is to establish a robust Local Plan and a demonstrable 5 year supply of housing. If our current Cheshire East Councillors succeed in overturning the Town Council’s decision not to engage with a Neighbourhood Plan, as we anticipate they will, it needs to be sufficiently robust to withstand legal challenges at appeals and it needs to cover Alsager’s catchment area as a Key Service Centre and by definition deal with all developments on and around our Town Boundary.