The planning inspector overseeing Cheshire East’s draft Local Plan set the tone on the first day of resumed hearings yesterday, saying that while he still had “outstanding concerns” about the borough’s development blueprint, “we live in an imperfect world and we need to be pragmatic”.
The inquiry into the Local Plan first began in August 2014, and after a few weeks of examination was put on hold by inspector Stephen Pratt to allow for more work and evidence gathering, after he became concerned over the plan’s legal compliance.
The plan initially proposed a minimum of 27,000 houses between 2010 and 2030, averaging 1,350 homes a year. During the work of the past two years, the council has increased the number of dwellings proposed by 33% to 36,000. The requirement for new jobs has gone up from 13,900 to 31,400 on 930-acres of land.
Taking place in Congleton Town Hall, the first day of the 12-week inquiry opened the floor to discuss the consultation process, Cheshire East’s duty to co-operate with neighbouring authorities, whether the plan should include a date for an early review, and if the plan period should be extended to 2032.
Cheshire East’s consultation methods and level of engagement with other boroughs drew heavy criticism, especially from representatives of town and parish councils. Particularly vocal were Paul Goodman from Handforth Parish Council, and Peter Yates, former chief planner at Macclesfield Council.
However, Pratt was generally encouraging, and while he acknowledged that “work still needs to be done, and in an ideal world this work would have been done a lot sooner”, he pushed for specific suggestions for action rather than only fielding complaints.
Problems with Cheshire East’s consultation on the proposed changes included its lack of mail-outs to the wider public, no record-keeping of people attending the exhibitions, late deposition of documents, and difficult language in letters to parish councils. One councillor questioned how many of the 20,000 comments received had actually been taken on board, and said: “How can the public have any faith in this council if all the suggestions, good or bad, are ignored?”
Cheshire East’s legal representative was Christopher Katkowski QC, who defended Cheshire East’s consultation methods and told critics not to “foolishly mis-characterise the council’s position”.
The council’s overall strategy for growth was also considered. While the need for more housing was supported, attendees criticised the scale of proposed growth across the borough, and said that it was being used to justify taking large parcels of land out of the green belt. One local councillor said Cheshire East was “losing its sense of moderation.”
Regarding the duty to co-operate, which looks at Cheshire East’s engagement with neighbouring planning authorities, work is ongoing with Stockport Council regarding cross-boundary infrastructure projects, and the council said it was also monitoring progress on Greater Manchester’s Spatial Framework.
The inquiry is scheduled to last until 21 October.