Scheming plots or just bad planning?

I’ve got a friend who is big on “agendas”. Not the bundled piles of documents for meetings, which can be a little dull, but the reasons “behind” news stories.

He pauses the news on the telly and ask his (long-suffering) wife what the real agenda is. It’s a healthy approach, though should be used with caution: all editors of local papers are probably accused of “having an agenda” on a regular basis, and this is rarely true. The only agenda we have is to fill all that white space we have at the start of the week.

I thought of him when news came through that the appeal to build 300 houses on Padgbury Lane in Congleton had been won by the developer.

It’s easy to come up with agendas. As one Facebook friend put it: “Developers making millions under a Tory-led council and Government — who would have thought it?” They’re not necessarily true.

This column has in the past even suggested that the planning shambles we are enduring is a Labour-stitch up — a Labour minister agreed to the creation of Cheshire East with the support of no-one at all. She was possibly aware that the new authority would have no local plan, and developers would cause great annoyance to voters in Tory-held leafy Cheshire.

Most likely is that none of it is down to an agenda, merely a series of bad decisions, and people lacking in hindsight.

There’s the planning system itself of course. It’s allegedly a quasi-legal system but it seems to ignore dishonesty. Developers can persuade people who don’t live in an area to write in support of a plan, and councillors must take these letters into account, instead of throwing them in the bin.

We’ve seen developers counting traffic on a Monday when the schools were off, compiling misleading figures to submit as evidence. Again, planning law doesn’t laugh this out of court, but accepts it as valid evidence.

But still: human failings knock all these into a cocked hat.

I’m not going to rake up old issues but Cheshire East Council still has no local plan. It was created in shadow form in 2008, officially established in April 2009 and, the way things are going, will not have a local plan until 2016 at the earliest.

Deputy leader Dave Brown must rue the day he wrote to the Chronicle in early 2014 saying the local plan was “progressing very well” and promising that it would be finished in 2014, which represented just over four years (he ignored the council’s shadow year) and not the seven that we had hinted at. Now, even taking 2009 as a start date, it looks like seven years of anyone’s reckoning will be up before the plan is in force.

In Coun Brown’s defence, it’s clear the Government is not making it easy: not only did it create an unwanted new authority, it changed the planning rules. The country needs new homes and we’re going to get them.

Local plan aside, Cheshire East failed to support neighbourhood plans when they were first mooted. I have no idea why. We carried stories at the time saying parishes had received no support for neighbourhood plans, despite the fact that the council had a statutory duty to do so.

MP Fiona Bruce has raised the issue in Parliament, pointing out that the Government provided funding for neighbourhood plans for Sandbach, Congleton, Alsager and Middlewich but the funding was used to create town plans, which did not carry as much weight.

As Mrs Bruce said: “Had they been produced, these four towns could have been substantially protected from unwanted, planning applications…since neighbourhood plans, unlike town plans, carry strategic weight in the planning process, as everyone now knows.”

She said this before the elections so perhaps she exaggerated for tactical purposes; Labour’s Dr Darren Price, who stood against Mrs Bruce, is a planning boffin and said that neighbourhood plans carried little weight without a local plan being in force.

Mrs Bruce’s comments are supported on our letters page this week by Julie Brown, however, who says “the only mechanism to resist inappropriate development” would have been a neighbourhood plan.

Mrs Brown said Congleton Town Council was “in the privileged position” to have a plan funded by central Government early on but used the funding it received under the Neighbourhood Plan Frontrunner Project to produce a “toothless” town strategy. She doesn’t say whether this was because Cheshire East Council forced it into a town plan.

The unplanned developments that have been approved within Congleton town are a consequence of this poor decision-making, Mrs Brown believes. She’s right, but it’s that and no more: a series of poor decisions, coupled with changes in Government policy.

Is there any lesson to be learned? Not really. Even councillors are human and hindsight is marvellous. And council leader Michael Jones and Dave Brown have the elections to point to — they were re-elected, so people must have some faith in them.

But Staffordshire Moorlands District Council and its subsidiary local councils, who are at the stage Cheshire East Council was in 2009, could perhaps be warned and take more care.

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