Nick Boles Meeting 29/05/2014 – Sandbach Town Hall.
Nick Boles,the Minister for Housing in the Department for Communities and Local Government, came to Sandbach on Thursday 29/5/2014 to meet an invited audience of Residents’ Groups and interested councillors from across the constituency – Alsager Town Council was represented by the Independent Councillor. Fiona Bruce had set up the meeting in the Sandbach Town Hall, which she chaired herself. The subject of the meeting was planning and the impact which current planning is having on our communities.
ARAG Officers attended the meeting and we expressed our point of view strongly. There was also very robust and critical input from all of the communities represented in the room, especially from the Congleton representatives whose views are very similar to our own.
Michael Jones, Leader of Cheshire East, was present throughout the meeting and spent much of the time shaking his head at the comments made by Nick Boles.
ARAG made it clear to Nick Boles that there was a lot of anger in the Community at the way he and his National Policy Planning Framework have damaged and continue to damage our area. This point of view was strengthened and supported by other speakers. Many of them pointed out that this policy will lose conservative votes at the general election. Even people who have voted Conservative all their lives stated they will not vote Conservative at the 2015 general election because of the ridiculous planning decisions being made and facilitated by the NPPF and its interpretation by Planning Inspectors, Central Government and Cheshire East,.
The key points raised by the audience were:
The government knew when it introduced the NPPF that Local Authorities would find it impossible to produce an acceptable Local Plan in the timescale set. This is especially true of Cheshire East, a new Unitary Authority, made up of 3 former Cheshire Boroughs. One Cheshire East councillor, however, made the observation that “when setting up the new authority Cheshire East had more important things to do.”
The government knew this would result in a wave of speculative development against the wishes of the Community and provided no protection. Our area has been targeted by developers and our local and centrally elected representatives allowed this to happen.
The government knows that the NPPF will facilitate development in entirely inappropriate places if a Local Authority does not have a Local Plan or if it is unable to demonstrate a 5 year supply of housing. This, of course, is the case with Cheshire East. Our Local Plan has been recently submitted for inspection but in all probability will not be in place until mid -2015 or even 2016. Why can’t the government protect Communities from speculative, unplanned and inappropriate development in this interim period? Why has the government abandoned the Communities they serve?
This government has done nothing to increase jobs in Alsager. Cheshire East’s Chief Planning Officer has stated that Alsager is unsustainable from the points of view of employment and infrastructure. It is also an area of restraint to support regeneration activities in the Potteries. Why then is Central Government and Cheshire East targeting Alsager with a 40%-60% growth in population?
Communities throughout Cheshire East engaged in a planning process to produce Town Strategies as part of the Government funded pathways initiative. These documents were inputs to the Local Plan. It has become very clear from all the recent planning appeals that these documents carry no weight whatsoever. They are regarded as evidential documents only and will not be considered. Why can’t the government listen to the conclusions drawn by the communities and insist that these documents do carry weight? We were very surprised by Nick Boles lack of any knowledge of how town plans, for which they paid, had emerged, how local communities engaged in this process, and how they had been totally dismissed by developers, inspectors and at times by local authority officers at appeals.
Cheshire East has chosen to ignore the Town Strategies and in Alsager’s case, increased the allocation by 60% from 1,000 to 1,600. This is a top-down allocation imposed by Cheshire East in order to meet an artificial top-down number for the whole of the Authority. It ignores the wishes of the Community. Communities believed that the Town Strategy process was Localism in action and the Government and Cheshire East have demonstrated that Localism, just like the Communities, has been abandoned. In the meantime, because there is no protection from Developers; every planning application, even when outside the Local Plan, has been won by the Developers.
The point was made that this government introduced the NPPF and it clearly isn’t working. When a plan doesn’t work, you change it. Why won’t the government change the NPPF to protect the Communities it supposedly serves?
Why should a Community be punished and damaged with inappropriate housing and inadequate infrastructure simply because an Authority can’t meet its target for the whole of the Authority?
Nick Boles attempted to counter all of these arguments by saying that his hands were tied. Legislation has to apply consistently across the country and therefore exceptions could not be made. He presented statistics which in his view justified high levels of housing development and also indicated that housing density in England was low. In his view, he also said that if Labour win in 2015, the situation will get worse. You may not find his comments surprising.
His main thrust was that everyone had experienced a level of pain but it wasn’t his fault.
The problem he said, lies with Cheshire East for not producing a Local Plan. Communities would be protected if robust Local Plans were in place and Neighbourhood plans were developed. He indicated his own personal support for Neighbourhood plans, stating that these could provide levels of protection. He informed the meeting that “Local Plans are good but neighbourhood plans are brilliant” . He gave an example of how one such plan had withstood rigorous testing throughout the whole planning process. What he did not comment on was that this Neighbourhood Plan had emerged from a Local Authority that had a well established strong Local Plan within which this registered plan sat and from which it did indeed emerge. This hardly reflects the situation in the Cheshire East region.
The audience clearly considered the Minister’s position to be disingenuous and bad advice, as :
Cheshire East does not have any enthusiasm for Neighbourhood Plans and in fact during the course of the meeting we were told how they had discouraged local communities from engaging in this process. The L.A. is central to the production of such a plan and without Council commitment a Neighbourhood Plan would prove to be pointless exercise.
It would take at least 2 years to produce a Neighbourhood plan, significant amounts of money (c. £40,000 for a Town the size of Alsager for which the government offers grants for ‘up to £7000)) and a lot of effort for no proven gain..
The Neighbourhood plan must be consistent with the Local Plan.so it was not at all clear to the audience what a Neighbourhood plan would contribute, especially in the light of the region’s experience of developingTown Strategies..
By the time that the Local Plan is accepted and a Neighbourhood plan has been produced, it will be too late. The damage will be complete, the local market will be saturated and the only planning will be Developer-led, as commercial interests dictate.
If the government chose to limit speculative development according to Local Authority planning department advice and emerging Local Plans, it could do so. After all, this government introduced the NPPF, it could very easily amend or abandon it. There is clearly no political will to stop speculative and inappropriate development. A view was expressed from the audience that the conservative party had accepted considerable funding from Developers and was also bent on economic growth of any kind anywhere no matter what the cost in order to win the general election in 2015. Nick Boles was invited to indicate his support for a Liberal Democrat Bill to amend the NPPF but did not respond to the offer.
Michael Jones was requested to put the last question to Nick Boles which was “ when are your Inspectors going to work and deliver a consistent message and interpretation of the NPPF in the appeals process.” This comment was in line with his usual attempt to ‘shift the blame’ away from the failures of Cheshire East Council onto Inspectors in this case.
Nick Boles gave a very confused and mixed view of the importance of the Local Plan.. During his delivery the local plan was viewed as paramount and the lack of it was the reason for our current predicament and situation. Then, when he was attempting to sell localism, he urged us to put our energies into producing Neighbourhood Plans to which, very clearly, a majority of the audience responded sceptically and negatively.
His final comment gave us the view that he was not about to change his mind regarding housing and he does not share the view that the coalition, by maintaining this policy, is destroying whole areas of countryside. Most development is taking place on greenfields with brownfields largely undeveloped.
Nick Boles, throughout the meeting, referred to housing numbers and allocations with no reference to the sustainability of communities, inadequate infrastructure or services. Indeed when this was raised by various speakers he simply ignored the question. He did not appear to understand or acknowledge the damage being done by not implementing infrastructure improvements in line with the growing demands on that infrastructure.
The simple fact for us in Alsager is that we are three to four years behind the game. We could not develop a Neighbourhood Plan before the examination and approval of the Local Plan. This is not because of anything that we in the community could have done or changed. We are powerless in this process.
Throughout the evening the old game was played yet again whereby local responsibilities have not been resolved or delivered “for understandable reasons” meaning that National politicians could not have any blame for such situations laid at their door. They must be seen to be blameless.. Local politicians put the view that they are having to comply with imposed regulations that were “not fit for purpose.