Tories have to fight election with failed local plan

NOTE: this appeared in the Chron last week, days before Coun Brown stepped down from the CEC Cabinet.

Wooden spoons. They’re very symbolic. They’re a prize for coming last, Wikipedia reporting that this practice started at Cambridge as a booby prize, awarded to the student who got the lowest exam marks but still earned a third-class degree.

They’re also good for eating humble pie, which is what Congleton councillor Dave Brown has now got to eat, having spent some months promising us that the Cheshire East Council local plan, of which he is in charge, was a peachy document that would be signed off in the autumn.

As we found out last week, it’s not so peachy. It’s not going to be signed off and it’s not very good; in fact it’s no good at all, because it can’t be used.

In reality, Coun Brown wouldn’t get the wooden spoon at Cambridge, because he wouldn’t even get a third. The wooden spoon is the award for scraping in with the lowest possible measure of success.

Coun Brown, on the other hand, has failed.

Before we go into a few detailed moans, the failings of Cheshire East Council’s planning department are perhaps best summed in Coun Brown’s response to the plan’s failure.

Planning inspector Stephen J Pratt made it quite clear what he thought of the plan: if the council tried to pursue it in its current form he would rule it unsound, due to its shortcomings. The minimum period for its suspension is six months.

And how did Coun Brown respond? With meaningless corporate gobbledegook. No apology, no admission to dropping a clanger, no sign of contrition that developers can continue to dictate policy while the council flounders.

“We must justify our decisions with work on our objectively-assessed need and economic evidence,” said Coun Brown, a comment that makes no sense.

Mr Pratt has not just questioned the council’s decisions: he’s questioned the facts that the council has used to make them.

The most astounding omission that Mr Pratt highlighted was the lack of an assessment for housing for older people, and those with special needs.

On its own website — ITS OWN WEBSITE! — Cheshire East writes: “Our borough has the fastest growing ageing population in the North West; by 2033 more than 45% of our population will be over 50 years of age.”

Yet it’s failed to properly include this group in its local plan.

Mr Pratt wrote: “The council has started to include C2-type accommodation within the housing supply figures, but this is not matched by any up-to-date assessment of need.” (C2 is provision of residential accommodation and care to people in need of care).

The council also made a dog’s dinner of its economic predictions.

Its prediction for jobs growth — used in deciding how many houses it needs to build — was 0.2% a year. Mr Pratt poInted out that this was below the growth rate during the recession, which was 0.7%, below official employment forecasts (0.6-0.9%), and below the latest projections of regional business groups, who go for 0.8%.

Part of the problem is that Cheshire East — perhaps deciding to selectively take note of its own statement about the fast-growing ageing population — has assumed that some of the growth in jobs (pessimistic as it is) will come from the over-60s, depressing the need for housing for new workers.

“It is difficult to find evidence for the likely impact of this change,” said Mr Pratt.

Remember that Coun Brown’s response to the criticism was: “We must justify our decisions.”

The Government inspector is saying that the facts upon which the decisions are made cannot be justified. We could go on.

The plan’s failure must be set against the council’s robust defence of it.

Earlier this year, Coun Brown tried to belittle the Chronicle by saying we did not know what we were talking about and 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 had a go at us for saying the plan would not be finished this year.

“The local plan… will be finished in 2014. (The) assertion that it (will take from) 2008 until 2015 to develop the local plan is plain wrong.”

Admittedly we were perhaps wrong about that: the plan looks likely to be delayed at least six months, which takes us into May 2015. Then the public hearing has to resume — maybe our 2015 was optimistic?

Obviously, all this delay means that the local elections will be fought with the local plan unfinished.

It’s the biggest disaster to hit the area for decades and local Tories — both at Cheshire East Council and in Parliament — are going to have to fight the election with this hanging over them.

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