Local plan ‘success’ is no cause for celebration

A bit like a football team losing 98 games on the trot before finally seeing a victory, the fact that Cheshire East Council’s local plan has received official approval hardly merits a celebration.

The council has been in existence for about nine years — 98 months as a functioning council — and has not managed to get its plan finished until now. Cheshire West and Chester Council, created the same day, finished its plan two and a half years ago.

Planning inspector Stephen Pratt, who ruled the plan not fit for purpose in 2014, has now given it a clean bill of health, not that developers won’t try and overturn it.

At least the council didn’t try and make its long-awaited approval sound like a success, its Press release merely saying the end of the weary trail was “good news for Cheshire East” and “a major step forward”.

What the Press release didn’t contain was an apology or explanation for the near decade-long inability to produce a plan.

There was no apology for all the fruitless planning battles residents have fought, no apology for the stress these battles caused, and no apology for the land that’s been lost to developers taking advantage of the council’s incompetence.

That it was incompetence is clear. For example, when he rejected the plan in 2014, one flaw outlined by the inspector was the lack of an assessment for housing for older people.

Yet on its own website, Cheshire East said that the borough had the fastest growing ageing population in the North West; by 2033 more than 45% of the Cheshire East population will be over 50. The council knew the old people were there, but failed to include them in its plan.

Quite why the council was so bad has never really been explained, but we think we’ve come up with one explanation.

It is generally admitted that when Cheshire County Council (rated excellent) was abolished and the county divided into two, most of the staff who made Cheshire excellent went to work for Cheshire West and Chester. They lived in the Chester area, it was the obvious thing to do.

As county council staff, they were used to thinking strategically and planning ahead.

Cheshire East meanwhile, got the staff Cheshire West did not want, those who lived this side of the county and former local borough staff. Perhaps this division of talent meant that Cheshire East, as an entity, did not have the ability to forward plan because the staff with the strategic experience were all in Chester. It just couldn’t get its collective head round the local plan, or indeed planning ahead as a thing.

There is some evidence for this: at its birth, when Cheshire East Council should have been hitting the ground running, it appointed Wesley Fitzgerald as leader. At the time, we were told it was his reward for years of loyal local government service, but such sentiment had no place in a council that needed to get a move on, and smacks of a decision made in the present. No thought of what work there was to be done. Critics complained of his divisive style and the fact that he ruled rather than led.

Perhaps no one person was to blame; it was just that Cheshire East was not up to the job thanks to circumstance (and Hazel Blears, don’t forget the Labour minister who forced the change that nobody wanted upon us).

Certainly, the old Congleton borough council had struggled with its local plan. An industrial site at Sandy Lane was dropped in at the last minute and, in the face of public opposition, withdrawn at an even laster minute (if Trump can have bigly, we can have laster), leaving the council plan in a mess. Luckily, Ms Blears stepped in and saved councillors by abolishing the borough.

Still, that’s all history now. The council has a plan approved and it’s just a matter of getting it formally approved but even now, with its seal of approval, it should finally carry weight with planning inspectors.

The only fly in the ointment is that five-year housing supply, without which developers can argue that all sites are needed.

Despite signing off the plan, Mr Pratt says Cheshire East Council acknowledges that, at present, “it is unlikely to be able to demonstrate a five-year supply of housing land”. It is hoped that this issue should be resolved — though it depends on builders building the houses for which they have planning permission — and that when the plan is adopted the council will have a robust policy in place.

Hopefully that’s it. Sorted. We hope so, we never want to write about it again. At least until the next one comes along; as this one is two years late, that should be any time now…


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