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?