The public examination into Cheshire East Council’s local plan seems to going better than it did the last time an inspector got his hands on it.
The Planning Inspectorate’s Stephen Pratt described the latest hearings as a “useful discussion”, which is an improvement on walking away with his head in his hands, as he did last time.
But given that Cheshire East’s specialist subject on Mastermind would not be planning, council watchers are probably getting a little worried.
As we report this week, the soundness of that all-important local plan has again been brought into question, this time amid fears that Congleton link road is still not definite.
The basic problem is that developers were meant to help pay for it. The link road will (note the optimistic “will”) enclose land around the West Heath area, which would then be built on, the developers’ payments helping the council fund the road.
Obviously this depends on Cheshire East having a local plan, because only when a plan is in place can developers be directed to the right spot, and have money for the road extracted from them.
Without a local plan — as we are now — developers can build where they want, and if it’s the other end of town, they can’t be asked to contribute to the link road.
So: no local plan, no link road funding, but without the link road there’s no local plan.
It’s the epitome of a Catch 22 situation — the local plan focuses on developing the north of the town to fund the link road but “if you don’t get the developments, you don’t get the road,” as Mr Pratt put it.
The end result is a £3.4m funding gap for the new link road. Cheshire East says it has got this covered, and can pay for the road without developers; if that is the case, one wonders why the council is risking the local plan failing yet again when it has the money to pay for the link road. No doubt there’s a complicated answer.
Still, never fear: Congleton’s Coun Dave Brown, who successfully led the local plan for some years, is now in charge of the link road.
Also giving cause for concern is the five-year supply of housing. We’re sure we’ve seen somewhere that a senior figure at Cheshire East Council has said it is now impossible for the council to ever finalise a five-year supply, which is worrying; without a five-year supply there can be no local plan.
We reported last week that Liberal Democrat Coun Rod Fletcher believes that housing supply targets for the borough are “impossible to achieve” and should be reduced, Coun Fletcher saying developers could not build the number of houses needed to meet Government targets. He accused the Government of “moving the goal posts” and said that the regulations have “got the council in a right mess,” which is certainly something we could agree with.
This seems plausible enough — there is a shortage of housing after all — except for the fact that neighbouring Cheshire West and Chester managed to get its local plan and five-year supply of housing signed off nearly two years ago.
It’s possible there’s a warp in the space-time continuum running through Allostock and Byley, which means Government directives that reach Cheshire East are diverted to Betelgeuse and never reach Chester, but this seems unlikely.
It’s more likely that Cheshire East has just got itself in a hole and can’t get out.
MP Fiona Bruce told us this week that the local plan (or lack thereof) had caused her more work than any other single matter since she was elected in 2010. She cited a quote from former housing and planning minister Brandon Lewis, who said Cheshire East was “an example of somewhere local people were quite right to be frustrated and irritated” and that when the Government sent up a planning expert, Cheshire East did not listen to his advice. It would not be surprising if it was that failure to listen and not Government goalpost-moving that was to blame for the failure of the local plan.
Still, we, like most people in this area, hope Cheshire East’s current incarnation of the plan is good enough to stand scrutiny and that we are on the way to being able to control developers.
But if not, the time has surely come when responsibility should be taken away from Cheshire East.
As Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell nearly said: “To lose one local plan may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness.”