The blog of the editor of the Congleton Chronicle Series. We cover east Cheshire and north Staffordshire, which are at the very top of the English Midlands Views expressed are not always official newspaper policy.

Council proves inept at defending itself from ineptness charge

If you are going to complain to the Press Complaints Commission that you have been accused of being inept by your local newspaper, the least you can do is be efficient.
Unless of course you are Cheshire East Council.
As we report this week, the Press Complaints Commission has ruled that comments made in this column that questioned the competence of two local councillors did not breach its code of standards.
The process of getting to this decision also shed interesting light on how Cheshire East works, and put the comments we made in a new light.


Back in February we had a go at Couns Peter Mason and David Brown — both now re-selected to stand in next year’s local elections — over comments they had made on our pages, in a letter and a story respectively. Before we go any further, we would like to make it clear that we have nothing personal against either man: they have both put in many years’ sterling public service.
The criticism came after we repeated our belief that some Cheshire East councillors are not up to the job: the council’s record thus far surely shows this to be the case. The two councillors felt this referred to them. We have to say that after going through a time-consuming PCC hearing we can only conclude that if the cap fits…
The original editorial opened by saying that many of the current Cheshire East councillors were not good enough and needed to go. It then turned to Coun Mason, saying that, with a year to go until the council elections, he was “clearly rattled” by Cheshire East Council’s performance. We said Coun Mason normally wrote letters in the weeks immediately before elections but had sent two the previous week.
We also criticised him for saying he was not named in the Lyme Green report. The council fought hard to redact the names of all involved in the Lyme Green fiasco, and we did not think he should go against the council’s own argument for anonymity for his own ends, which he admitted he did. Coun Mason said the column made him out to be dishonest.
We are more than happy to stress to readers that Coun Mason is as honest as they come, and we are not suggesting that he was lying when he denied being named in the Lyme Green report.
The point we were making was that Cheshire East Council argued with the Information Commissioner that it had a common-law duty of confidence to the individuals who were questioned in the Lyme Green investigation, both officers and councillors.
Coun Mason saying he was not one of those named — and council leader Coun Michael Jones expanding this and saying that no Congleton borough councillors were involved — reduced the pool of potential councillors who could be named in the report, whittling away at the common-law duty of confidence the council previously said was owed. Using the council’s own argument, this could make a future investigation harder.
This is not a complex philosophical argument but it is one Coun Mason seems unable to grasp, being worried only that we said he was a liar.
 Meanwhile, Coun Brown, the man in charge of Cheshire East’s local plan, objected to being criticised for not pushing it through hard enough.
To be honest, it is tough if Coun Brown thinks we were unfair. Cheshire East’s failure to have a local plan is one of the worst things to hit this area in many years and someone must bear responsibility.
Coun Brown is the man in charge of the local plan, and has been for some years. He is also a local councillor — what are we supposed to do? Gloss over the fact that a locally-elected councillor is leading the biggest planning/environmental disaster to hit this area for many years?
Given the rash of planning applications and the council’s failure to develop an acceptable five-year housing supply, criticism of the authority and planning is only fair.
We had always shied away from overly-direct confrontation with local councillors — but in this case there seems no other way.
Moreover, if the plan had been a roaring success, councillors would have been lining up to bask in the glory of success; when it is a failure, they are blaming planning inspectors, the Government, minister Eric Pickles and the “greedy” developers — never themselves.
Whatever: the two councillors complained that we had gone too far, and not distinguished between comment, conjecture and fact. They said the column had caused them and their families “considerable hurt and embarrassment”.


Almost from the off, Cheshire East Council lived down to its reputation as incompetent.
When the PCC writes to you, it gives you seven days to reply. We responded to the initial complaint in seven days and the council was then given seven days to respond.
One month later we emailed the PCC.
We pointed out that taking four weeks to reply to a letter proved our accusations that the council was run ineptly. We asked whether our criticism could be judged as true, given this failure to respond. Sadly not.
It eventually took Cheshire East Council five weeks to send its three-page letter.


When its response did arrive, it practically made our case for us. Here are some of the highlights.
• Apparently trying to justify its lack of a finished local plan, the council said that its plan was “in exactly the same position as four out of ten other councils that have yet to have their local plan approved by the Planning Inspectorate”. There are 336 local authorities responsible for local plans. This means that Cheshire East Council admits to being among the worst 3% of councils in the local-plan department; the bottom 1% if you use the four.
• Having accused us of doubting his honesty, Coun Mason told the PCC that the Chronicle “rarely attends” Cheshire East meetings — in reality we attend nearly all and sometimes quote him speaking. We could accuse Coun Mason of lying to mislead to the PCC, but we think he genuinely believes this — which means that not only does he only rarely notice our reporter sitting at the Press bench, writing busily in a notebook, but that he has never questioned where our reports of meetings come from. He has never accused us of making them up. Perhaps he just never reads the Chronicle.
• Despite complaining that we had said he normally only wrote letters close to elections for political reasons, Coun Mason admitted that he did, in fact, do just that. Coun Mason told the PCC that he was the local Conservative Association political officer “and wrote letters preceding elections mostly to refute what other political parties were saying”. As he says, he is very honest — but it does make you wonder why he was getting the council legal team to write to the PCC disputing an issue that he knows to be correct.
• Coun Brown robustly defended his reputation as regards planning but then appeared to show a basic misunderstanding. His response to the PCC actually appeared as a letter in the Chronicle — but because of the ongoing PCC complaint, we were forced to refrain from commenting.
In his letter, Coun Brown tried to belittle the Chronicle by saying we did not know what we were talking about and thus could not be believed, writing: “Your poor grasp of the current situation… is misleading your readership and painting a picture of failure by the council”.
He also wrote: “The local plan and the five-year housing supply are two separate documents. They are not connected. Let me say this again — they are separate and NOT connected.”
That seems definitive enough — except that the two documents are inseparable.
On the Government’s own planning portal, giving advice to councils on the National Planning Policy Framework, in a section headed “how often should a local plan be reviewed”, it says: “The National Planning Policy Framework makes clear that relevant policies for the supply of housing should not be considered up-to-date if the authority cannot demonstrate a five-year supply of deliverable housing sites.”
The two clearly are connected. The local plan cannot proceed without a five-year housing supply.
A car body and its engine are separate entities but neither is any use without the other, and when people refer to “a car” we do not always correct them with: “Bearing in mind the engine and body are two separate items and not connected”.
Worryingly, this — the five-year plan (or lack of) — is the very issue that is causing uncontrolled housing development. Coun Brown, in charge of the local plan, believes it and the plan are not connected.
As we argued to the PCC, Coun Brown’s letter was an attempt to mislead readers, denigrate the Chronicle and thus negate our (and the voters’) criticism of the council’s failings.


Councillors aside, we have often wondered why Cheshire East has had such a troubled life. We have suggested poor management systems from the start, blaming the original shadow council.
Being a bit cheeky, when the council lodged the complaint with the PCC, we sent in a Freedom of Information request for all emails sent by Couns Brown, Mason and Domleo (praised in the original column and not making a complaint), council leader Michael Jones, the council chief executive and the council legal department.
We were told that no emails had been sent.
This can only mean that everything to do with the PCC complaint was discussed verbally or in handwritten/typed notes.
Emails can be troublesome but they also mean that everyone is clear about what is being done and who is going to do it.
If the lack of emails over this one issue reflects the culture at Cheshire East, then perhaps it is no wonder that things go wrong. Officers might be working with no written instructions and only their memories to guide them. In our criticism of Cheshire East, perhaps we have missed the obvious — things go wrong because not enough is written down.


To close, it seems that — local plan aside — Cheshire East has been drama-free for some time. Given the Government-imposed cutbacks, hard decisions have to be made and some of these may not be popular.
But perhaps the council is now turning a corner: the Labour Party this week has praised the council for its careful budgeting, saying it had “appreciated the importance of financial discipline and is following its own budgets”.
As regards planning: Coun Brown has assured the PCC that the local plan is on course for a smooth completion. He wrote (we are using extracts): “The local plan… will be finished in 2014. We expect it to be finalised this year. This will be followed by site allocations in the autumn. (The) assertion that it (will take from) 2008 until 2015 to develop the local plan is plain wrong.”
Fantastic! An end to the builder-led developments is in sight.
If Coun Brown is correct, we will write a column praising his and his department’s hard work.
If he is wrong…

Signs of the times

A reader last week wrote in to complain that I had cut a joke out of his letter. It was humour along the lines that Scotsmen are mean, the Welsh love their sheep and the Irish are all thick. It wasn’t offensive per se but such humour seems dated and unnecessary, which was why I cut it, but there’s also the chance it might have offended someone.

Muttering (as much as one can in an email) about political correctness, our correspondent complained sadly: “It’s a sign of the times.”

I emailed back and said yes, it was, but so was the fact that he’d emailed it using a computer across and interconnected network of other computers, probably from a smart phone or tablet.
Other “signs of the times” include hip replacements as the norm, vastly improved life expectancy, satellite television, increased leisure time, solar panels and the lack of a feudal system.
Things change, all the time, mostly for the good. You can’t pick and choose.

It’s human nature to think that everything that came before is good and the future can only be worse; people have probably been thinking like this since the dawn of time. (“Fire? No good will come of it, it’s downhill from here if you ask me”. “Clothes? Unnatural and heretical! Earth Mother would have given us fur like the monkeys if She didn’t think skin was enough.”)

Sadly, some things never do change. I recently came across the Greek law-maker Solon, who tried to legislate against political, economic, and moral decline in Athens, and is often credited with having laid the foundations for Athenian democracy, which of course means he pretty well invented it.

I wasn’t reading a book on democracy (the above was from Wikipedia and all new to me) but a book on spiders, which included Solon because he said: “Laws are like spiders’ webs which, if anything small falls into them they ensnare it, but large things break through and escape.”

He lived from 638BC to 558 BC, so 2,600 years ago people were muttering things like “one law for the rich and one for the rest of us” and “we’re not really all in together”, though in those days they were thetes (manual labourers) and not Daily Mirror readers moaning that rich people get treated differently or hand-wringing Guardian readers.

At roughly the same time, one Siddhartha Gautama was offering advice to politicians on how to run a happy country, and, again, little has changed.

Gautama lived sometime between 600 and 400BC (Wikipedia is uncertain on the matter) and is better known as Shakyamuni or simply the Buddha. His advice was for kings but would equally stand for governments and it’s enlightening to realise that what people moaned about in 500BC was remarkably similar to tabloid headlines today.

According to Buddha, governments should (and refraining from any sarcastic comments about our MPs — you can fill in your own):

● be generous and charitable, and give away wealth not crave it;

● have a high moral character, and not destroy life, cheat, steal, lie, deceive others, commit adultery or drink alcohol;

● sacrifice everything for the good of the people, including personal comfort;

● be honest and act with integrity, and never deceive the people;

● be kind and gentle, and possess a genial temperament;

● lead a simple life and be austere in habits, and not indulge in luxury;

● avoid hatred and ill-will, and not bear grudges against anyone;

● preach non-violence, ie not hurt anyone and promote peace, actively avoiding war;

● endure hardship and insults with equanimity; and

● not oppose the will of the people and act in harmony with the people.

It’s a list that’s still relevant and should be issued to anyone standing as an MP.

What is Britishness?

Much as it goes against the grain to say that a politician is correct, PM David Cameron does have a point when he says this country should be “far more muscular” in promoting its values and institutions.

Anyone who has travelled widely will know that in many countries you adhere to social norms or face a muscular response, whether it’s covering up in Muslim lands or going easy on the cussing (and not complaining about dry taverns) in the US Bible belt.

Similarly, people coming over here should adhere to our values – even if it does involve getting blind drunk and spewing up on the pavement before starting a fight and showing why the French call us Les F~~~ Offs.

Because while we agree with Mr Cameron that newcomers to this country should adopt our customs, it’s a bit harder to say what those customs should be, though clearly cynicism must be high up on the list.

Banning the burka is one people often call for — but what then happens to all those hoodie-wearing disaffected middle class youths on the front line of Mossley or Sandbach Heath, who suddenly find themselves kettled by the anti-terrorist squad?

Being positive (itself a bit un-British), and leaving cynicism aside, one leading British trait is a lack of faith in our leaders.

While we do have the occasional great leader who people look up to — most recently the Duke of Wellington — most of the time we think our leaders are idiots and we could do better.

This sadly extends to many other authority figures: we’d bet teachers are more widely respected by their students’ families in other parts of Europe (or in the Muslim world) than over here. While the latter is not good, a healthy and polite disrespect for authority is something we admire.

Our patriotism is of the kind that starts family fights: we moan about the country all the time, at least until a foreigner has a go; then we get defensive, rather like the way families who hate each other will unite against a common enemy.

But our patriotism is nothing like America, say: play the Star Spangled Banner at a public event over there and many people will stand up. Play the national anthem over here and most people will shuffle about awkwardly until it stops.

This lack of respect for authority has a positive side: English people on the whole are tolerant, mainly because to be intolerant is almost like taking a lead, and we don’t much like leaders.

We’re also fair-minded and polite, and like to back the underdog. (Admittedly it’s been argued that our politeness is merely a mask for the centuries of inbred aggression bubbling away under the surface).
Make even the simplest comment on football and you’ll be readily accepted into most male company.
So there’s some ideas for Mr Cameron — fairness, tolerance, the questioning of authority and the rules of football. He’s also in favour of democracy (as long as it’s first past the post, of course), so the list is shaping up nicely.

In another area, Mr Cameron sadly seems a little confused in his thinking.

The other week he was saying we were a Christian country and should not be ashamed to live by Christian ethics and culture.

He only made that comment because England is less Christian than it was — so if he wants to teach Britishness he should surely be teaching values removed from religion?

Evolution has been mentioned (at one Birmingham school, teachers allegedly told pupils they didn’t believe in it) but a fair few Christians don’t believe in it, either, so what sort of Christianity does he favour?

Christian commentators often complain about a national decline in morals but that surely reflects a rise in behaviour that could be called British? It’s all very confusing for a politician looking for soundbites.

We’d suggest to Mr C that he quietly abandons his pro- Christian stance (even though we agreed with it at the time). Safer routes would be Humanism (emphasise the value of humans) or Buddhism (no God, and all about respect).

So there you go, Prime Minster: instil Britishness by teaching Buddhism, democracy and association football.  And adopt the practice of throwing shoes at Prime Ministers, as a goodwill gesture to migrants who favour that sort of thing.


Satanism is alive and kicking

David Cameron recently caused a row by saying that Britain is a Christian country “and we should not be afraid to say so”.

Admittedly he himself practises a watered down version of Christianity — one in which you don’t have to make much effort — but the furore his comments provoked was interesting.

Mr Cameron was speaking in Oxford on the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible and called for a revival of traditional Christian values to counter Britain’s “moral collapse”.

It’s difficult see why anyone would object to this being called a Christian country — we are — or why people would object to us living by Christian values (which pre-date Christianity). But, as happens nowadays, his comments were a red flag to those who object to belief of any kind. Except their own belief in the stupidity of belief, of course.

One of life’s mysteries is how evangelical atheists can be, shouting down believers. Why would anyone want to do that? And can’t they see the irony? If someone’s faith makes them happy, leave them be.

One point for Mr C there, then: whatever your belief, you should be tolerant of others. A bit more Christian tolerance would benefit everyone.

And instead of the PM’s “moral collapse,” many people would argue that we live in a more enlightened age, in which people are no longer bound by state-imposed dogma, our rulers no longer restricting the citizenry by propagating fear of a great wizard in the sky.
One only has to look at Facebook or read the tabloid news to see how many people feel and think: you should indulge rather than abstain; believe in the reality of life rather than spiritual pipe dreams; go for rationality rather than superstition; be responsible only for people who are nice to you, and kind only to those who are kind to you.

If people cross you, get revenge: Christian forgiveness is thin on the ground both on social media and the tabloid press, and there’s a strong belief in vengeance instead of turning the other cheek.

If you find yourself nodding in agreement with all this, congratulations: you’re eligible to join the Church of Satan, for the beliefs outlined above are actually those of that august body.

(Just to make it clear: the Church of Satan does not worship or believe in Satan or any other gods: “Satanism begins with atheism,” it says).
But Satanism is all about pleasing yourself and doing what suits you, so it’s got to be of some concern that many in Britain seem to be following this path, and proud of it.

As G K Chesterton famously said: “When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing — they believe in anything.”

People might scoff at Christians but those same people are quite happy to believe in any number of miracle cures, quackery, the fact that aliens exist and “they” are covering up or that the Illuminati control the world. People on social media will pretty well believe anything that’s put in front of them, except that there’s a God.

Of course, rational atheists don’t automatically reject Christian values and should act according to Christian standards, which on the whole are essential rules for society. But many people in Britain today aren’t rational and instead believe that they are the centre of their world and sod the rest. Tolerance is not seen as a virtue.

Take the criminal justice system. Centuries of case law and experience mean we have a legal system that works pretty well but the social media is packed with people who not only believe they know more than the judge and jury who heard the case, but also that no crime should ever be forgotten. There is no redemption in cyberspace. The bible might well mention something about taking an eye for an eye, but it also preaches forgiveness.

There’s a lot of anti-Islam feeling in this country. Part of this is based on the belief that the radical minority speak for the majority but part of it is surely that Muslims believe in God and live their lives according to their religious beliefs. Living proudly in a secular society many people find this hard to stomach: how much closer to the stone age must those Muslims be if they still believe in something as primitive as a God! And they go to pray on a regular basis! How embarrassing!

Never mind that studies show that happiness is related to something similar to gathering together to worship: people who forge bonds and share a support network with others over mutually shared and meaningful interests are generally happier.

Mr Cameron is right: we are a Christian country and we should act as if we are.

And if you want a really good conspiracy theory: Facebook is the repository of comments with which Satanists would agree. What if it’s all true and Satan is winning the war…?

Local plan: putting the record straight

After criticism in the Chronicle, Councillor Dave Brown, deputy leader of Cheshire East Council, replies on behalf of the council. Note: this is Dave Brown writing, not me.


I refer to your lengthy editorial in the Thursday, 17th April, edition lambasting the council — unfairly may I say — over its local plan and the five-year housing supply. I am extremely disappointed that your poor grasp of the current situation concerning the local plan and the five-year housing supply is misleading your readership and painting a picture of failure by the council.

Let me begin, therefore, by putting the record straight and making a very basic distinction between the local plan and the five-year housing supply for the benefit of yourself and your readers.

The local plan and the five-year housing supply are two separate documents.They are not connected.

Let me say this again — they are separate and NOT connected.

The final Local Plan consultation has just finished and will go to the Planning Inspectorate later this year to be ratified. Indeed Eric Pickles has praised us for our work to-date.The local plan is — and always has been — progressing very well.

Therefore your reference to Cheshire East as being in the “twilight zone” with its local plan is just plain wrong. There is, and never has been, any doubt over our position with the local plan core strategies and we expect it to be finalised this year.This will be followed by site allocations in the autumn.

Your assertion that it has taken since 2008 until 2015 to develop the local plan again is plain wrong. We have been tasked with creating the local plan since 2009 and it will be finished in 2014, which represents just over four years and not the seven which your newspaper is intimating.

On another but related matter, Congleton Borough Council did not fail to produce its local plan at all and it was never in disarray and never failed to produce its housing targets. Again, just plain wrong!

You may remember that local government reorganisation took place in 2009, which meant that none of the boroughs could have completed their plans prior to their abolition in 2009. In any event Congleton’s local plan did not expire until 2011, as did Macclesfield’s and Crewe’s local plan.

The newly-formed Cheshire East Council, which had split from the West, then had to grapple with a completely new geography in 2009. Despite this, Cheshire East forged ahead with its local plan and has, in actual fact, progressed ahead of other local authorities.

Therefore the local plan, thanks to the incredible work by officers, has not been affected by local government reorganisation in the slightest. From the research I have undertaken, there is not a single local authority in the country that has managed to create a local plan in under four years. As I say, ours will be ratified this autumn so that represents under five years.

Let me now turn to your comments about the Planning Inspector’s decision on 94 homes at Elworth Hall Farm in Sandbach.

Once again, I will reaffirm that the five-year housing supply is a separate matter that we are liaising with the Planning Inspectorate over. The five-year housing supply assessment is currently the subject of evidence gathering by council officers to establish a five-year housing supply position.

So why did the Planning Inspector interpret NPPG and publicly announce the authority does not have a five-year housing supply? Very simple, because the appeal was heard at a time when not all of the relevant information was available.

Furthermore, assessments depend on different calculations — and each inspector will interpret these differently. The goal posts are continually shifting and Cheshire East is not the only council affected. We continue to campaign for clear guidelines to work to.

The decision at Elworth Hall Farm in Sandbach will not automatically impact on future planning appeal decisions and each planning appeal will be judged on its own merits. We are angry and disappointed that an individual planning inspector has deigned to judge our position with scepticism — but we continue to challenge this most robustly.

It is one inspector’s interpretation of national planning policy guidance that is creating the current uncertainty around the authority’s five-year housing supply. Let me be clear about this – we are not at the mercy of developers.

We will — and always have — fought and challenged developers who seek to build on our beautiful countryside with unwanted and unsustainable developments and during this period we will continue to do so.

And I take great issue with your comments about “inept decisions” from councillors throughout the years that has led us to the five-year housing supply uncertainty. This is just not true.

Are you forgetting that a government-imposed moratorium was only lifted in 2008, by which time the recession had well and truly kicked-in and housing developments all over the country lay empty? The housing market is now recovering thanks only to the efforts of George Osborne who is successfully stimulating the market again.

In terms of where we go with the authority’s five-year housing supply is now the subject of much discussion. The five-year supply is based on countless variables and is only ever a snapshot of a moment in time.

The inspector’s snapshot was based on data from December 31st 2013. Since then the authority has approved hundreds of homes in recent months. Our job now is to bring the Planning Inspectorate up to March 31st 2014.

It would now help no end if the local newspaper would kindly refrain from misleading its residents so that we can get on with the important job of protecting our beautiful borough.

Some answers are needed on the local plan

The truth is out there . . . but quite where, no-one really knows.

We refer, of course, to the latest debacle in the Twilight Zone that is Cheshire East Council’s local plan.
After the council proudly proclaimed that it had sorted out its five-year supply of housing — although at the second time of asking — a Government inspector has now allowed 90-plus houses to be built at Elworth Hall Farm, Sandbach, and told the council that it misled itself. It has no five year plan.

This means we are again at the mercy of developers, and back to square one.

As far as we can tell from the inspector’s report, he dismissed Cheshire East’s five year plan on three grounds: the council’s lead-in times for houses to be built was over-ambitious; 40% of the projected houses did not have planning permission and might never be built; and the fact that the council had included retirement homes, which it says will house 360 people. He also pointed out that the council had not consulted builders, as was the norm, and that it had changed its assumptions from its 2012 assessment.

The first question must be over the help Cheshire East was given by Government minister Eric Pickles, who sent in experts to advise the council on its plan. If the council followed the experts’ advice, it should have legal recourse against the Government and it will be the Government that is to blame.

If the council did not follow the experts’ advice, heads should roll. Council leader Michael Jones has pretty well staked his reputation on the plan being complete, and Congleton’s Dave Brown is in charge of it.
But whoever is to blame, we have now got to suffer at the hands of developers well into next year — and the free-for-all will continue.
Working out where it all went wrong is hard, however.


Collectively, we all may be partially to blame. Both Congleton Borough Council and Cheshire East Council failed to deliver their targets for housing: Congleton borough in 2006-07 and 2007-08 and Cheshire East since 2008-09, the planning inspector said.

It seems logical to assume that, in part, this was because people objected to houses being built over the years. The rejection of each small plan added up to the dire situation today. True, there was also a Government-imposed moratorium on building.

But part of the problem must also be inept decisions by councillors — and possibly others.


We say that because Congleton borough’s local plan was in disarray — and, as far as we can ascertain, that was because plans for an industrial estate in Congleton were shoe-horned in at the last minute. But it is possible the problems began before then.

In 2001, following the Liberal Democrats’ well-publicised departure from power, the Congleton Conservatives threw out large chunks of the local plan.

“Planning officers could only sit and watch as many sites they had recommended were scrapped,” we reported at the time.

A housing allocation at Rookery Bridge, Sandbach, was deleted after comments from Coun Neville Price. Housing allocations next to Congleton and Sandbach railway stations were also deleted.

Some could see problems. Coun Bill Owen warned his colleagues about departing from the county plan.

Was this savaging of the local plan all those years ago the start of the problems, as Tories sought to establish control over the Lib Dems?
In 2007, the Sandy Lane business park in Congleton was backed by CBC, despite parish councillors accusing the borough of using “underhand tactics” to get the proposal pushed through. Coun John Wray described the plan as a blot on the landscape — but the 90-acre Sandy Lane site was added to the updated local plan after a Holmes Chapel site was rejected following local opposition there.

Sandbach’s Coun Barry Moran backed the Sandy Lane scheme, saying its inclusion had followed “the due process”.
But in 2008, the same council then threw out Sandy Lane, leaving Congleton borough without an enforceable local plan. The plan had been due to go to the Government for approval in 2008.

The-then leader of CBC, Roland Domleo, warned: “We have responsibilities and all of these projects come at a cost.” How right he was — but possibly not in the way he intended.

At the time, we were told by a leading councillor that the lack of a local plan meant a potential free-for-all for developers, a fact which must have been known by senior Tories at Congleton, a number of whom – Couns Domleo, Brown, Gordon Baxendale and Peter Mason — were on the shadow Cheshire East authority in 2008.

They must have known that Congleton Borough had no enforceable local plan, and the dangers that this brought. The developers’ free-for-all had been predicted to us, though it is doubtful anyone could have foreseen how bad it was going to be.

As far as we aware, local plans take around four years to prepare. In theory they are rolling plans and one should always be in force. But nobody has explained to us how Cheshire East and Coun Brown have taken since 2008 on the local plan and still not completed it — if it goes for approval in 2015, that will mean it has been seven years in the making. It should, at the latest, have been finished more than a year ago.


We are not original in making these criticisms.

Last year, we reported how Coun David Brickhill had attacked the council, quoting the shortfall in new houses. He said the total number of developments for Congleton was only 30% of its total, in Alsager 50%, but in Shavington 160%.
He pointed out that Coun Brown had been in charge of the local plan since 2008.

Coun Brickhill said: “I think this whole local-plan business is being run extremely badly, and that is why we are in this position today.” We had no letters contradicting his comments, and no complaints. Some blame must also rest with Wesley Fitzgerald, who was the leader of the council: the buck stops at the top. He, of course, is the 2014-15 Mayor of Cheshire East.


It is possible councillors will be spluttering at all this — but the fact is we just don’t know why we are in this mess because nobody ever admits to mistakes.

And if we don’t know, we can only speculate — though we are speculating via our news stories at the time.

So we would like to pose some questions we — and probably many readers — would like answering.

We would like to hear from those involved; we do not have to print your names.

Please note we do not want letters from councillors and former councillors just exonerating themselves or their party.
Mistakes and errors of judgement have been made — even with the best of intentions — and someone must have made them.

These questions might help explain how we got to where we are:

• Why were schemes dumped wholesale from the local plan once the Lib Dems lost power?

• Where did the Sandy Lane business park idea come from?

• Who put it in the local plan at the last minute?

• If it was so crucial, why was it pulled?

• Did this cause the Congleton borough local plan to lapse? If not, what did?

• Why will it take Cheshire East Council seven years to develop a local plan, a process that normally should take only four?

• What actions were taken when Cheshire East Council was formed, in the knowledge that CBC had no local plan and that this area was, at the least, open to developers?

• Did Cheshire East Council follow the experts’ advice over the five-year plan? If so, is legal action being taken?

Are we being rushed into a by-pass?

Two figures have been in my mind this week.

One was the £250m a year that the NHS would save if people took just one in 10 trips on a bicycle instead of a car.

The other is the £102.1m cost of the most expensive route for Congleton’s proposed by-pass. (We were supposed to call it a link road, but we’ve had enough of that. It’s a by-pass).

Clearly £250m is a big number, big enough for the story to appear in most of the national newspapers. The number’s an estimate of what the NHS would save if people were just a tiny bit fitter — exercise can fend off not just heart attacks but cancer and other nasty things.

And if £250m is a big number on a national scale (though small against the NHS’s total budget of £109bn) then £102m is massive when it’s being spent to by-pass a small town at the top of the English Midlands.

Thinking about it, it started to cross my mind that perhaps it’s a case of the solution being found first, and then the problems that need that solution being turned up afterwards.

A road is a big, long-term thing, and it’s a lot of money.

At this point it should be stressed that I used to live off West Road, on West End Cottages, until not so long ago. Never mind rush hour, the traffic is bad at 9am on a Sunday morning. It’s clear that Congleton needs a solution to its traffic problem and if, after looking at the alternatives, it’s got to be a by-pass, then fair enough.

It should also be stressed that Back Lane industrial estate equally clearly needs some relief, and, again, it may well be that only a by-pass will be the solution.

However, it seems that nothing else is being discussed, except by Eaton residents who keep raising the £10m traffic scheme that was apparently discussed at some point, that would just mean amending the current roads and not building a new one.

For example, I’m pretty sure I read a report some time ago that a lot of drivers heading for south Manchester leave the M6 to cut through Congleton, because the existing roads are too slow / busy / annoying / whatever.

Because there IS an existing road system to by-pass Congleton: it’s called the M6, the M56 and the A556, which presumably is meant to take traffic in and out of the south Manchester area.

Has anyone studied what percentage of traffic uses Congleton as a short cut? Maybe part of a less destructive — and cheaper — solution would be to either encourage that traffic to use the existing roads, or discourage it from using the A34 as a rat run.

Towns in Europe have slowed traffic down by planting trees at the sides of roads and building chicanes. Would making Congleton too annoying to drive through cause a reduction in traffic? (Admittedly,  I can see the flaw there — Congleton is already really annoying to drive through but people still do it).

And what percentage of traffic in Congleton is local? People driving into the town centre or across town to see friends and family? Long before Mr Johnson had his Boris Bikes, the redoubtable Margaret Williamson suggested a fleet of bicycles (and tricycles for the less steady) for Congleton.

Park them in the town centre and at other spots, collect one as needed and cycle home. She even suggested supplying baskets for carrying and flags for visibility.

It might seem a bit wacky, but £100m would buy a fleet of bikes for everyone in Congleton, plus pay for all the cycle lanes, secure lock-ups and bike traffic lights, with change left over to widen Back Lane and support free parking for 50 years.

Once we’ve seen off the rat-runners by using chicanes and trees, and encouraged locals to cycle with free bikes, how much traffic would that leave? Does anyone know?

And in the print version of this article I failed to mention school traffic. Doh! Everyone knows that traffic is much less in school holidays. That’s partly because people go away, so it’s not schools closing that reduce traffic, it’s that people are not working, but even so: reduce/remove school traffic and how much need would there be for a by-pass?

As I say, I concede that a by-pass may be the ultimate answer — and Congleton has wanted one for a long time — but I don’t want the solution to suggest the problems. We should look at the problems, then think of solutions to fit.

Twenty years ago, a by-pass would have been a no-brainer but today, with our awareness of green energy, pollution, global warming, the cost of petrol, growing obesity and falling levels of fitness, surely we at least need to consider the alternatives.

Councillors can’t have it both ways

Elections for seats on Cheshire East Council are still 12 months away but our local councillors seem to be planning for its arrival.

I hope all the political parties takes a practical view when it comes to selecting candidates for the 2015 elections. The Chronicle, and I suspect the electorate, will not be impressed if the same old faces line up to appeal for votes after four years of racking up failure after failure.

I’m actually a bit worried what we’ll do: newspapers don’t usually take sides in elections  but Cheshire East’s track record thus far proves that the current lot are just not good enough.

A few have probably survived from the old urban district days, and certainly most were on the old, smaller councillors, where being keen was enough. Cheshire East is a big organisation and needs more skills than just “being keen”.

So it’s not that the councillors are terrible; they’re just not equipped to deal with the more demanding role.

The proof of all this is the failures that embattled Cheshire East has faced over the last years. All of them would have been avoided if the council had been better run, most of them if councillors had generally been of a higher calibre. We want new faces, people with transferable skills from the private sector, not people whose only skill is having been a party member for 30 years.

I think council leader Michael Jones is able and charismatic. He might shoot his mouth off and give us entertaining quotes but under the bluster he’s getting things done.

Closer to home, Congleton’s Peter Mason is clearly rattled. He normally only writes letters to us in the weeks immediately before elections but he sent two last week, the second of which appears this week.

Last week, he said he was never involved in the Lyme Green fiasco (he preferred the word “project”) and was not mentioned in the report. He praised the council for its ability to reduce waste and for its openness.

As readers this week pointed out, Coun Mason has been a Cabinet member throughout the life of Cheshire East and, when parking charges were introduced, adhered to the policy of corporate responsibility.

As for his claims that Cheshire East is open: he can claim innocence over Lyme Green only because the council has refused to name names.

While I actually find the reasons for withholding the names given by the Information Commissioner to be reasonable, Cabinet members like Coun Mason can’t have it both ways — if the names are secret, he can’t say he’s not one of them.

And what if ALL the Cabinet members said they were not named? Would there  be a strong public interest reason in going back to the Commissioner to find out who’s telling the truth?

Cheshire East deputy leader Coun Dave Brown is also not going without a fight.

He told a meeting that residents could sign an e-petition against the Government’s building policy; despite being a Conservative himself he said developers were “raping and pillaging” the town and said the Government policy “gets up my nose”.

“I feel strongly about this,”  he told the meeting – but not strongly enough, while deputy leader or on the Cabinet, to push through a local plan before developers had the chance to rape and pillage.

He got a bit technical talking about the Liverpool vs the Sedgefield method for estimating housing demand and claims that the Government moved the goalposts.

But the fact would appear to remain that if Cheshire East had had a robust local plan in the first place, the goalposts would have been set in concrete and immovable.

While a number of other councils are in the same boat, others are not, so the goal post moving is not universal. Coun Brown was on the old Congleton Borough Council, which also made a hash of its local plan.

Meanwhile Couns Roland Domleo — former leader of the old borough — and Gordon Baxendale have taken a firmer tone.

In another letter to the Chronicle, they come over all practical in regards to what they call the Cheshire East link road. They skilfully manage to distance themselves from Cheshire East in a more positive way, by looking to the future.

The letter is quite impressive, but Coun Domleo was leader of the plan-less Congleton borough before it merged with Cheshire East, and has been on the Cabinet and served as deputy leader of the new authority.

He was also involved in one of my more embarrassing moments in recent years. Chatting to him during the period when heads rolled post-Lyme Green, I said that the Chronicle should really find out which idiot appointed some of the sacked people in the first place.

There was a heavy silence before Coun Domleo admitted that he’d been on the selection committee that recruited new officers. Ah. If it wasn’t Roland and I didn’t think he was a decent man, we’d have run a story.

I’ve also got some sympathy there — I’ve recruited some stinkers in my time, they all interviewed well. But still.

In fairness to all councillors, I suspect a lot of the authority’s problems were due to poor leadership from the start of Cheshire East Council’s life and the council leader (Wesley Fitzgerald) and the chief exec (Erica Wenzel) from those early days have both gone.

But Peter Mason, Roland Domleo and Dave Brown were all happy to trumpet that they were ON the Cabinet when appointed, saying it would give the old Congleton borough a voice. They can’t now turn round and say that, well, that wasn’t quite right and they actually didn’t do much at all but now it will all be different.

I just hope that the candidates selected for the 2015 elections have better hustings speeches than “It wasn’t me and I don’t agree with the Party in whose name I’m standing either”.

That way surely lies another four years of disasters.

And actually, for Tories who are saying that the Government has annoyed them, there’s an easy answer – leave the Tory Party and stand as an independent. Somehow I can’t see that happening.

Why the Daily Mail is bad for the newspaper industry

Someone wrote in a while back asking if — and why — we (ie me) had it in for the Daily Mail. Lacking evidence, I backtracked a little; I don’t want to be upsetting the customers after all.

But now some facts have appeared, confirming my prejudice, which demonstrate that my opinions are, in fact, rational. It’s like reputable garages trying to distance themselves from their peers who invent work that needs to be done, and then overcharge.

Brian Cathcart, a professor of journalism and founder of the Hacked Off campaign, recently unearthed the numbers of breaches of the Press Complaints Commission code, and which companies were the most frequent offenders.

Heading the list at 1,214 complaints was the Daily Mail, with almost double the complaints made against the Sun (638), which attracted twice as many complaints as the paper at number three, the  Daily Telegraph (300).

If you read the Daily Mail, you are perhaps not sure of how it goes about things. So here is an example.

On 31st December last year it carried a story claiming that buses and planes to the UK from Bulgaria and Romania were sold out as, it implied, Johnny Foreigner flocked over to claim benefits.

Its headline was “Sold out! Flights and buses full as Romanians and Bulgarians head for the UK”.

But when Jon Danzig, formerly an investigative journalist at the BBC, looked into this, he found out that it was, more or less, made up.

For example, the Daily Mail claimed that Wizz Air had doubled flights from Bulgaria and Romania to the UK — but the airline said this was not true. Moreover, seats were available every day from Sofia and Bucharest to London. British Airways made the point that the festive period is naturally busy anyway.

In its response to Mr Danzig, the Daily Mail hinted that it took the truth as a variable, saying: “The article did not suggest that easyJet traffic had increased, only that airlines were almost booked out, which easyJet is.”

So it has told the truth – that easyJet was booked out – but implied that this was because of a sudden influx of Romanians and Bulgarians, rather than just that easyJet was always booked up.

The Daily Mail also “spoke” to a manager at a Bulgarian bus company, Balkan Horn, who “said” that “many people wanted to travel to England . . . everything is booked up”.

But when contacted by Mr Danzig, Balkan Horn denied a reporter had spoken to the company. And even if this had been the case, it would not have said everything was booked up — because it was not.

All this may seem petty complaining from a small weekly paper that is of little relevance. But it is not petty complaining.

First, the editor of the Daily Mail, Paul Dacre, was influential in the Press Complaints Commission. One of the three directors of the company that owns the PCC’s planned successor, IPSO, is Peter Wright, of the Daily Mail

Thus far the Chronicle has not signed up to the new Press regulation body, IPSO, because I figure that it is being run by the same people who ran the old PCC, and they have a vested interest in nothing changing. For example, it is unlikely to ban paparazzi photos because they are a staple of the Daily Mail website. It seems to me that, after all the argy-bargy and Leveson, everything will go back to being just as it was. But I can’t be unreasonable in expecting newspapers to be discouraged from making stuff up, and when they do make it up, being forced to run a prominent apology, can I?

And secondly, the made-up, right-wing stories of the Daily Mail, are, thanks to its website, a constant source of material for racists on Facebook and other social media. Barely an hour goes by without some Daily Mail story or another, which knocks foreigners, appearing on the Chronicle Facebook page, all seized upon by racists. Yet there is a good chance that these stories are either made up, or, at best, not very accurate.

The funny thing is that a lot of the time, the right wingers are lamenting the loss of British “culture”, usually laying the blame at the door of Muslims. But the right wingers must have a pretty poor view of Britishness if they assume that it is so wishy washy it can disappear so quickly.

Other nations will proclaim, proudly, that their nationhood runs indelibly through their hearts, like writing in sticks of rock. Right wingers over here seem to think Britishness is no more sturdy than a child’s stick-on tattoo.

As for blaming Muslims: Not so long ago I went to the excellent food store, Pak, in Stoke, to stock up. Rashly, I collected only a hand basket, ending up in a long queue, sweating profusely with a toddler on one arm and a heavy basket on the other.

Seeing my plight, as if by magic, the lines to the checkout disappeared as people beckoned me to the front of the queue, and helped with the heavy load. They were lovely.

If courteousness, politeness, helpfulness and friendliness are part of Britishness, the Muslim customers of Pak have a lot to teach some of our home-grown right wingers.

** John Danzig’s article is here: http://eu-rope.ideasoneurope.eu/2014/01/09/buses-planes-bulgarians-romanians-and-the-daily-mail-an-update/

What the Dickens!

Back in the year 1857, life wasn’t so good as it is now.

For example, according to manchestergalleries.org, Manchester in 1857 had no sewerage system or clean water supply, resulting in a high death rate thanks to diseases such as cholera and dysentery. I recently wrote about the infant death rate in Congleton; overcrowding meant infections such as tuberculosis spread rapidly and consequently life was hazardous; it was often short and grim for the poor.

Life expectancy in Manchester was 26, the lowest of any UK city; in Congleton it would be a bit higher, bearing in mind that both figures are skewed by horrendously high infant death rates. The average Mancunian would live only to 43, but we’d guess that if you made it past the teenage years you’d probably live into your 50s or beyond; 10% of children died before their fifth birthday.

Back in Manchester, up to 250 people would share a privvy, a pit in the ground used as a toilet. Only 32% of Manchester’s five to 14-year-olds went to school, the fourth lowest percentage in the country. In Congleton they at least fined people who sent their nippers out to work.

At work, the average person was expected to work around 56 hours a week, and health and safety did not exist. Boys would be doing men’s jobs, and dying doing them.

Even in the kitchen, it wasn’t safe: until 1875 there was little in the way of control on food quality. Bakers added alum and chalk to the flour, while plaster of Paris, pipe clay and even sawdust could be added to increase the weight of loaves. People were poor and hungry, and just wanted filling with food.

Brewers often added mixtures of bitter substances, some containing poisons such as strychnine, to improve the taste of the beer and save on hops. A court case in Congleton in 1914 showed this still went on.

So you get it: life 150 years ago was brutal and hard, unless you lived in Downton Abbey.

And we’re all glad we’ve left all that behind, right? Wrong.

The year also saw Mr Charles Dickens publish Little Dorrit, a tale about a poor girl living in the pauper’s prison, during which story he described life in London in general. I’m currently listening to it on Audible (owned by those tax-dodging rascals Amazon, but a wonderful thing).

And here goes Dickens, talking about Bleeding Hearts Yard, one of the locations outside the debtors’ house that he used.
He’s reflecting on the average working man’s attitude towards foreigners, and obviously did not approve, mocking as he did the narrow minded stupidity of the yard’s simple residents.

He wrote: “It was uphill work for a foreigner, lame or sound, to make his way with the Bleeding Hearts.
“In the first place, they were vaguely persuaded that every foreigner had a knife about him; in the second, they held it to be a sound constitutional national axiom that he ought to go home to his own country.
“They never thought of inquiring how many of their own countrymen would be returned upon their hands from diverse parts of the world if the principle were generally recognised; they considered it particularly and peculiarly British.
“They entertained other objections to having foreigners in the yard. They believed that foreigners were always badly off; though they were as ill off themselves as they could desire to be, that did not diminish the force of the objection.
“They believed that foreigners were dragooned and bayoneted; though they certainly got their own skulls promptly fractured if they showed any ill-humour, it was with a blunt instrument, and that didn’t count.
“They believed that foreigners were always immoral; though they had an occasional assize at home, and now and then a divorce case or so, that had nothing to do with it.
“They believed that foreigners had no independent spirit, as never being escorted to the poll in droves by Lord Decimus Tite Barnacle, with colours flying and the tune of Rule Britannia playing.
Not to be tedious, they had many other beliefs of a similar kind.”

Do parts of that sound familiar?

Yup, depressingly similar to the current debate on immigration, where some politicians try to win votes by proclaiming that we don’t want foreigners over here, while not mentioning what would happen if Europe in turn sent all its British ex-pats home.

There’s the tabloid newspapers peddling hateful myths about foreigners, into whose heads pop no other ideas but criminal, ignoring the fact that we have home-grown shoplifters, doorstep callers who regard pensioners as fair game and men who can burn five of their children to death to make a point.

The Bleeding Heart yarders eventually tolerate the Dickens’ foreigner, when it becomes apparent he’s not got a knife or immoral habits — “tolerate” as in “treat like a baby”, conversing in staccato sentences and shouting loudly so he can understand them. Sound familiar?

It’s sad that everything that was part of the harsh daily life in 1857, from deaths by dysentery to sending small boys up chimneys, has been improved upon.

But when it comes to tolerance, some parts of the nation’s psyche have not moved on at all. With the grey, dreary influence of UKIP forcing immigration to the fore as the next General Election approaches, it’s clear that our leaders, of whatever party, have no intention of changing this.

Post Navigation


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 9,336 other followers