After our recent contretemps with local Cheshire East councillors — we criticised them, they said it was unfair and reported us, the Press Complaints Commission agreed that we had the right to say so — we’ve been giving the local plan enquiry a wide berth.
We concede that the Government is making it hard for councils to refuse plans, and goalposts may have been moved, but Cheshire East Council appears to be making it easy for developers to win appeals.
(Incidentally, we have no sympathy whatsoever with local Tories blaming the national Tory Party and calling it names. They have two choices: go along with party policy and suck up the criticism or leave. There’s always Independence if they don’t fancy the Lib Dems or UKIP).
The point should be made: we want the local plan to go through. We don’t want to see local beauty spots being lost forever. We would welcome being forced to eat a large helping of humble pie if it meant the area was protected. Humble pie for breakfast, dinner and tea: bring it on.
Sadly, we rather fear this will not be the case.
During the handling of his complaint to the Press Complaints Commission, Coun Dave Brown — the man who would be force-feeding us the humble pie, as the local plan is his — assured the PCC that the Cheshire plan was on course for a smooth completion.
He wrote: “The local plan… will be finished in 2014. We expect it to be finalised this year.” In a letter to the Chronicle he wrote: “The plan will be ratified this autumn”.
He added: “Ours has been reviewed by central government inspectors to ensure that it is robust and meets all statutory guidelines.”
Bearing all this in mind, it’s concerning that the local plan inquiry, as we report this week, has now been adjourned.
Reference is made by the inspector chairing the inquiry to an “unexpectedly large volume” of submissions. Could we cynically assume this is from developers trying to slow the proceedings?
Despite developers saying that the lack of a plan costs them more in appeals, and so a settled plan suits them, it’s also true that, without a plan, they gain access to extra sites — ones they would not normally get permission for — and make more money. The agreed sites will be built on anyway.
But more ominously, the planning inspector referred to submissions about the “legal compliance and soundness” of the submitted local plan. This does not sound good.
The inspector said he had made the Planning Inspectorate aware of these legal submissions and might “consider whether it may be appropriate to advise the council of his interim views on the legal compliance and soundness of the submitted plan.”
This sounds to us as if the inspector thinks it might be likely that the plan is not legally sound as it is now, and will have to go back to the council.
Planning news website Place North West predicts that the plan could be suspended for six months to allow the council to publish modifications and consult on them. That’s six months before the inquiry starts again.
We know of at least one suggested legal hurdle: Stockport council, in a letter, previously complained that Cheshire East had not consulted it fully and had gone about things the wrong way round, picking a site for development and then finding reasons for this.
Coun Brown, despite having assured the PCC that the plan would be finished in the autumn, and mocking the Chronicle for suggesting a 2015 completion date, issued a statement saying he was happy with the delay.
He called it “a strong positive” for the council that “developers are throwing everything they can into this”.
But presumably, when Coun Brown wrote that the plan would be finished this autumn and that it had been “reviewed by central government inspectors to ensure that it is robust”, this flurry of objections would have been taken into account?
The fact that Coun Brown adds: “I support the fact that many local people have responded and I don’t want their hard work to be lost in the sea of developer hearing statements” suggest the reassurances coming from the council are PR spin: surely if the enquiry has been suspended because of legal submissions and may be suspended, local people’s voice have already been lost.
The legal objections won’t be coming from members of the public.
We’re going to stop there and withhold judgement.
Coun Brown promised an autumn completion date and we’re only just into the autumn so we’ll give him some more time.
One thing’s for sure: some humble pie is going to be consumed. Whether it’s by the Chronicle or Coun Brown, only time will tell.