Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Observations on Edward Timpson's Cheshire East intervention

Regular readers will know that I have taken an interest in the perfect planning storm that has been brewing in Cheshire East. I felt strangely compelled, therefore, to comment upon today's intervention by Crewe & Nantwich MP Edward Timpson in the Crewe Chronicle.

Question: Planning in Cheshire East has become the biggest political football in recent times. Labour blames deliberate government policy via the National Planning Policy Framework; Cheshire East Council blame the Planning Inspectorate; Ukip say Cheshire East and the Government are both complicit in turning South Cheshire into a dumping zone for houses because it is a ‘soft target’. Who is to blame?

EDWARD TIMPSON: I’m not really interested in the blame game. The fact is, we need more houses nationwide – not just in Cheshire – but we must make sure they are appropriately located. The Government doesn’t say they have to be in this village or that one. So that’s a nonsense. Developers decide on the locations they want to build in and make a pitch for them in the planning process. If they don’t get what they want, they appeal. The problem I am highlighting currently is the inconsistency in the results of these appeals to the Planning Inspectorate, which is an independent body that behaves as judge and jury in planning appeals, and keeps changing the target number of houses that Cheshire East council has to allow.

If Mr Timpson wanted to make sure that development was located 'appropriately' he would perhaps have highlighted in this first answer the importance of getting a local plan in place, but instead he chooses to 'highlight the problem' (not blame though, definitely not blame...) raised by the leader of the council in a recent open letter to the Planning Inspectorate (PINS) about how the housing land requirement in the borough is calculated. More below...

Q: Other unitary authorities that have formed around the same time as Cheshire East have had their Local Plans ratified and had them implemented. Why in your view has it taken so long for Cheshire East Council to form a plan?

ET: It’s not about the type of local authority – much as I opposed the formation of Cheshire East in the first place. We have Hazel Blears and the last Labour Government to thank for that one. The problem is that one day the Planning Inspectorate says we need this many houses in the Cheshire East area; another day a different figure. Sometimes two different figures on the same day! How the council is meant to plan in these circumstances I do not know.

Mr Timpson is right to say that Cheshire East's unitary status has had no influence on the Council's inability to adopt a local plan. It is for the council to identify through an objective assessment of need how many new homes the local plan should provide. In the absence of an up-to-date local plan, and an objective assessment of need, the five year supply calculation that it is at the heart of many recent appeals has to based on either an emerging, untested requirement, or an -out-of-date requirement (more below...). 

In relation to the current 'circumstances',  it is worth noting that the local plan process to date has included the following consultations:
  • Core Strategy Issues and Options Paper (November / December 2010)
  • Place Shaping Consultation (Summer / Autumn 2011)
  • Rural Issues Consultation (October / November 2011) 
  • Minerals Issues Discussion Paper (March 2012) 
  • Town Strategy Phase 1 Consultations (March 2012) (Alsager, Congleton, Middlewich and Sandbach)
  • Revised Local Plan Sustainability Appraisal Scoping Report (March / April 2012) 
  • Wilmslow Vision Consultation (Town Strategy Phase 2 Consultation) (April / May 2012) 
  • Town Strategy Phase 3 Consultations (September 2012) Crewe, Macclesfield, Nantwich, Knutsford, Poynton, and Handforth 
  • Development Strategy and Policy Principles (January / February 2013) 
  • Possible Additional Sites Consultation (May 2013) 
  • Pre-Submission Core Strategy (November / December 2013) 
  • Local Plan Strategy Document (March / April 2014)

 The appeal decisions that the leader of the council believes to be inconsistent are:

Date of Appeal Decision
Development Location
Buffer Used
5 year Supply Figure
Hind Heath Road, Sandbach
Not stated
Not stated
Moorfields, Willaston
Not  stated
Not stated
Close Lane, Alsager
Audlem Road, Nantwich
1260 -1350
Newcastle Road, Hough
Not stated
Not stated
Dunnocksfold Road, Alsager
Elworth Hall Farm, Sandbach
Not stated

The local plan was submitted to the Secretary of State for examination on 20 May 2014, after only one of the appeal decisions in question. The housing requirement adopted by different inspectors in recent appeals then has clearly had absolutely no influence on the local plan process to date. 
Q: Are we in South Cheshire a hostage to fortune? Has the delay in forming a local plan meant that an unprotected Cheshire East has been caught in the surge of house-building by a construction industry that has helped propel the economy out of recession?

ET: It is difficult for the council to meet a target for a housing supply as part of that plan, when, as a result of appeals by opportunist developers, the Planning Inspectorate changes the target. The council has ended up in a vicious cycle not of its own making. The Planning Inspectorate is fiercely independent. Independent to the point of stupidity. It seems its own inspectors don’t even read the outcomes of each others’ cases, and so they contradict each other. It is this contradiction that the council cannot work with, and that developers are taking advantage of. Whilst house building may help the economy, it must do so in a sustainable way and considered way.

There is a viscous cycle here, but it could be said to be one of the council's making. Senior political figures  claimed, with much fanfare, a deliverable five year supply of housing land, which was dismissed by the impartial inspectors at PINS. Senior political figures again claimed, with as much fanfare, a deliverable five year supply of housing land, which was again dismissed by the impartial inspectors at PINS. With a nod to Albert Einstein, it is not PINS that has been doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results...

Q: Can Cheshire East Council demonstrate a five-year housing supply, and, if not, how out of control is this issue? Are we going to keep on losing appeals?

ET: Cheshire East needs to have judicially reviewed in the High Court the inconsistencies in the decisions of the Planning Inspectorate about the housing supply, and to prove that it cannot work with them. A top planning barrister has described the Planning Inspectorate as being ‘all over the place’ with respect to the Cheshire East appeals. Some inspectors have come back saying the council needs to provide 1,150 homes a year for five years. Others have then come back in the same round of appeals saying 1,350 a year. That’s a difference of 1,000 houses over five years! I hope the public will see from that figure the level of the inconsistency we’re talking about. To say the inspectors are moving the goalposts in an understatement.

The difference between 1,150 and 1,350 homes a year is the difference in weight being afforded to the emerging core strategy and the former Regional Spatial Strategy, which, though revoked, includes the last robustly assessed housing requirement for the respective former boroughs that now comprise Cheshire East. Any inconsistency between the use of these figures is probably attributed to the fact that circumstances dictating the weight to be afforded changed during the period within which the appeal inquiries were held. That said, given that the submitted core strategy includes the 1,350 figure, it is a little peculiar that the council does not simply accept this for the purposes of calculating it's requirement. Given that the inspector examining the core strategy has already questioned the validity of this figure, Cheshire East would be advised to use the time, cost and energy that Mr Timpson advocates using to review these perceived inconsistencies in the High Court to instead prepare to defend the 1,350 figure, which the development community will be arguing is actually too low.

Q: A judicial review is under way to scrutinise decisions made by the Planning Inspectorate. Could you explain what this process is? How long it takes? And whether the appeal rulings against Cheshire East Council could be overturned? Could housing applications be stopped in their tracks?

ET: Judicial review is a type of court proceeding in which a judge reviews the lawfulness of a decision or action made by a public body. In other words, judicial reviews are a challenge to the way in which a decision has been made, rather than the rights and wrongs of the conclusion reached. You’d have to ask the council about the specifics, as it’s their legal case. However, I will say this: this is the only way out of this problem that I can see.

The problem, as Mr Timpson is likely to define it, is that Cheshire East is refusing planning applications for new homes for being contrary to an emerging local plan (though interestingly applications that are consistent with it are being approved) and because a five year supply means that they are not needed, only to see appeals upheld because inspectors are affording less weight to the emerging local plan and not accepting that a five year supply is in place. In these circumstances, the presumption of sustainable development, as defined by the NPPF, is engaged. There are, therefore two better ways to resolve this problem than more judicial reviews (notwithstanding the fact that the Council's track record in seeking judicial review is not good...) and they are to adopt a local plan and provide a five year supply of deliverable housing land.

Q: As our constituency MP how much of your time is being taken up by this and how concerned about the problem are you?

ET: I am extremely concerned. I love our area and want to make sure any development of it is planned carefully. A lot of people come to see me about planning, and they are surprised to learn that I, as a local Member of Parliament, have no legal power to do anything about it.
My objections carry just as much legal weight as those of Chronicle readers. However, the amount of time, resource and effort it consumes is huge. I have two members of staff whose lives have been consumed by planning matters spend a lot of time supporting local planning action groups have started petitions against certain applications in Westminster, I meet with the Planning Minister to discuss our problems, and have even brought him to the constituency to talk to local action groups have arranged for a former senior planning inspector to advise the council. The Planning Minister, as a politician, can’t interfere with individual Planning Inspectorate cases either, however I have written to him in the strongest terms about the inspectors’ inconsistencies, and the damage that they are doing. I have also informed him that legal action will be taken as a result.

As above, if Mr Timpson wants to make sure any development is planned carefully than his advise to the council should be to get a sound local plan in place as soon as possible.

Q: You have given your support to many residents’ action groups, who object to housing applications. How are angry are they? Who do they blame? What reassurance if any are you giving them?

ET: Action Groups are understandably concerned. In my experience their energy and passion is directed at protecting their communities and I admire that. I am doing everything within my power to support them, and representing their cases to the council, Department for Communities and Local Government and the Planning Inspectorate. I know they appreciate this, and they don’t blame me, because they are involved in the issue and understand it. But I think a lot of people think their local MP should be able to wave a magic wand and sort this out. Planning doesn’t work like that. It is incredibly complex, and entirely the responsibility of the local council. It is one of the key reasons you elect local councillors, along with having your bins collected! But the local council is being messed around.
I have even heard of local councillors telling their constituents that ‘Edward Timpson can call in this application and sort it out’ after it has been decided. No I can’t. I have absolutely zero power to do so. That’s ridiculous, and they should either know better or stop trying to pass the buck. Likewise, making speeches and grand gestures is not going to help either. This is now a localised legal problem, and it needs to be tackled in an appropriate way by the council. So I stick to what I can do – lend my name in support, write a lot of letters, and keep the pressure on Cheshire East Council to get this situation sorted out once and for all.

Does Mr Timpson's intervention itself constitute a grand pre-general election gesture? Does his call for a judicial review constitute the waving of a magic wand? Who's to say, but he does at least recognise that planning is incredibly complex. Hopefully that message, and his recognition of the need for new homes in Cheshire, are the ones that he communicates to all of the action groups that he meets.

Q: The Chronicle has had a lot of letters pointing out that towns north of the borough don’t have anywhere near as many housing applications as South Cheshire. Have we become a dumping ground or do we have to accept Crewe is an industrial hub and in the interests of economic growth have to take on a higher housing allocation?

ET: I don’t think it’s that. People want to live in Cheshire, and we can all understand that. We do too! Most of the available, cheaper, attractive land is in South Cheshire. There is a market for it, and developers are taking advantage of that and the current uncertainty in the planning system provided by the Planning Inspectorate. It’s what they do. I am constantly pressing for brownfield sites to be used first though: that is to say land that has previously been developed. Twelve homes on a brownfield site can save an acre of undeveloped land, and there are plenty of opportunities in Crewe and Nantwich for brownfield homes.

The brownfield point. What political intervention would be complete without it. What Mr Timpson does not mention, and perhaps something that he should also alert his local action groups to, is that the core strategy anticipates 7,000 new homes in Crewe over the plan period. The plan though does not endorse the view that there are 'plenty' of opportunities for brownfield development. Paragraph 15.17 states that:  

In addition to the Local Plan Strategy Sites and Strategic Locations identified, there is an
allowance within the Crewe urban area for the development and delivery of brownfield and windfall sites. It is expected that these will deliver in the order of 250 homes.

Q: Developers have been accused of being speculative and attempting to bank land for future sale? Do you agree with this?

ET: Again, it’s what they do. Land with planning permission sells for a higher price than the same land without. Also it makes sense to buy now, as the price of the land will only rise in the future in a desirable area. I just hope that Cheshire East Council ensures the area remains desirable through careful planning and holding the Planning Inspectorate to account in the courts.

I would agree that careful planning would now be a sensible course of action for the council to take. Seeking to holding PIBS to account in the courts I would respectfully suggest would not be.

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