Local Plan Examination
All local Planning Authorities such as Cheshire East Council have been required by government planning legislation (the NPPF – the National Planning Policy Framework) – passed by the coalition government of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats – to produce a Local Plan that addresses house-building and economic growth for the period 2010-2030.. All Local Planning Authorities were also required to demonstrate that they had allocated a five –year supply of housing land. Cheshire East Council has failed to demonstrate the latter despite it numerous claims to have done so. This has had catastrophic impact on Alsager in particular as it has meant that Development companies have been able to win appeals not because the site, usually Greenfield, is appropriate but because the Council is unable to identify the requisite supply in the Borough as a whole for houses that will meet future need and economic growth over the planning period until 2030.
Last year the Council had submitted a Local Plan that was meant to determine the locations and overall framework of development in the borough for the next fifteen years. This Local Plan has to be subjected to an Examination by the government’s Inspectorate and this process of examination was started in October 2014 but suspended in November when the Examination Inspector reached the conclusion that the Local Plan was ‘unsound’ as it stood. The Examination was suspended and has recently resumed so that the Inspector can assess whether the further work on the Plan undertaken by the Council is adequate to allow the Examination to proceed. The earliest date now by which we can expect an adopted Local Plan appears to be December 2016.
On Friday, 23 October the Inspector chaired an all-day session to explore the complexities of housing requirement. ARAG wished to ensure that Alsager residents were represented and the session was attended on our behalf, and that of residents, by Professor Derek Longhurst. During the day-long session he raised the following issues:
- The mismatch between housing development and economic strategy, especially jobs growth, with significant levels of housing being allocated to the South of the borough while employers and the proximity of Manchester suggested evidentially that more development should be in the north of the borough.
- Lack of employment opportunities in a town like Alsager which has potentially the highest percentage increase of housing in the borough
- The impact on infrastructure in terms of sustainable development and the failure of the Council to address the issue of out-commuting on an inadequate highways infrastructure as well as on one of the most congested sections of the M6 and A500.
- The allocation of employment land is an inadequate policy initiative in that, for example, Developers can cite the unsuccessful marketing of the Twyfords site for years to employers.
- The increased housing requirement in the Local Plan is undeliverable, increasing from 27000 to 36000 in the plan period; the Local Plan is essentially aspirational rather than realistic or deliverable. There were a lot of similar comments from other witnesses in the session
- The Plan privileged economic growth at all costs including environmental impacts especially in relation to transport and carbon emissions.
- There was much debate about the ‘north-south’ divide with witnesses arguing that the Council had averaged its data leading to a lowest common denominator set of outcomes. The Council admitted that it had not addressed the North/South sub-markets and had taken a borough-wide approach but this was strongly challenged by witnesses with reference to the relationship between North Cheshire and South Manchester with such initiatives as Airport City. In response Adrian Fisher disputed the idea that North Cheshire is distinctive.
- On Affordable housing Derek focused on the distinction between policy and implementation and the failure to deliver existing objectives let alone those of the Local Plan. Developers demonstrated time and again that they are primarily committed to the construction of 4/5 bedroom houses driven by profit margins on such housing.
- He also sought to focus attention on the issue of provision of accommodation suitable for elderly persons , arguing that this should be both integral to the Local Plan and a matter for a specific policy initiative given the Council’s currently superficial approach to this housing requirement in Alsager for example. There was support from other witnesses for the Council to develop its specific policy and to require such appropriate accommodation to form part of some of the bigger strategic sites in the Local Plan such as the MMU site. Derek’s view is that this would not apply to White Moss as it would not seem appropriate to locate elderly persons’ accommodation on a site where air quality may be an issue.
- The Inspector indicated some concern about whether the Council had done any significant analysis of its current supply of housing requirements for the elderly.
- Witnesses expressed concern that the Council had not produced up-to-date figures so that progress could be realistically assessed now in relation to its aspirational objectives.
- On the Greenbelt the Inspector pointed out that while 43% of the borough was Greenbelt, National Parkland or SSIs, 57% was not so constrained. Adrian Fisher compared Alsager and Poynton, the latter with almost no development in comparison to Alsager’s housing Levels despite the employment opportunities in the North.
- Derek asked whether the historical ‘area of restraint’ was now a dead concept, in practice, and there was no immediate answer from Cheshire East. It was suggested that this would now be addressed under Spatial Distribution rather than ‘Duty to Co-operate’, the item under which it was raised on Friday. The Inspector did comment on the unusually high number of Appeals in the Cheshire East Council region, most of them successful as we know all too well in Alsager.
ARAG will keep you informed about any further important information or issues which ‘come to light’ during this series of Local Plan Hearings, scheduled to be completed by Friday 30th October 2015.