A vow by the leader of Cheshire East Council to oppose speculative housing development on "green gap" land near Crewe has led to questions about his role in the ongoing public consultation into the authority's local plan.
Cheshire East has still to produce its local plan in line with the requirements of the National Planning Policy Framework, which came into force in March 2012. The local authority is mid-way through a public consultation exercise into residential land supply identified in its draft local plan published in February. Comments for the latest round of consultation must be submitted by Thursday 30 May.
Paul Williams, a director at Mosaic Town Planning, said the situation in Cheshire East is different to that faced by other local authorities still working to meet their local planning requirements as the Conservative council's leader, Cllr Michael Jones, chose to make his views clear during the consultation process.
Williams added: "Cllr Jones has spoken out during the consultation period, a time when he would be expected to maintain a neutral stance on an issue which will become the subject of an objective and open debate.
"I think this puts the council in a difficult situation.
"It should be asking whether the council leader should be involved in making decisions when he has already expressed his opinion before consultation has concluded."
Williams, who advises house builders, said developers would have legitimate grounds to appeal against any unfavourable decisions made involving the council's leader.
The Cheshire East Council leader revealed his opposition to schemes forming part of the local plan development consultation exercise during a parish council meeting in Wistaston, near Crewe.
A number of developers have proposed building houses on greenfield land previously designated as unsuitable for new homes in order to protect the visible borders of villages in the area.
Three developers, Muller Property, Gladman Properties, and Dolphin Land & Development Consultancy, are targeting open land off Church Lane, Middlewich Road and Wistaston Green Road.
Speaking after the parish council meeting, Cllr Jones said: "Wistaston is under siege from several developers, two of whom are even speculating on the same piece of land.
"Naturally, residents are outraged by this. They want their village to remain a village and retain its identity.
"They do not want to lose the green fields that separate them from neighbouring parishes. They want to retain their green gaps.
"I am very concerned that their quality of life has been affected so badly in the last couple of weeks.
"Most fortunately, with so many residents present at the meeting, they were able to hear me offer them my strongest support and I was able to get the message over to them that these speculative plans are unplanned, unsustainable and unwanted."
Muller and Gladman are understood to be the developers interested in the same plot of land.
Another residential planning consultant, who asked not to be named, said he understands the frustration facing many councils following the March 2012 implementation of the NPPF, which required local authorities to develop local plans including a list of five years' supply of deliverable housing sites.
He said councils wanted to make their own decisions about the areas they represent but were having their decisions overturned by planning inspectors in the absence of local plans and housing supply provision. He raised concerns about councillors making promises which appear to suggest that decisions are being made in advance of the due consultation and debate.
He said: "My private view is that the council leadership needs to be very careful about making any representation when going through the process of due consultation on a local plan.
"They need to show that they have properly debated them.
"I don't think it's very helpful during a robust planning consultation exercise to suddenly go off piste."
Cheshire East Council's local plan is expected to be completed by the end of the summer.
Cllr Jones has previously written to residents urging them to campaign against speculative developments forming part of the consultation exercise.
Contacted by Place North West, Cllr Jones insisted that he plays no part in the development of the local plan for East Cheshire beyond his ability to vote at various stages of the process as a ward councillor.
He said that the council has a 7.1 year supply of land for residential purposes.
He said the council would be in a position to fight any challenges from developers suggesting that the council is still to demonstrate a five year land supply.
He said delays in the adoption of a new local plan are a result of the Labour government's decision to merge three local authorities to form Cheshire East, providing insufficient time for the council to hit the March 2012 deadline set by the NPPF.
He said: "What I am doing is called democracy. I have an opinion and I will tell the whole truth. I work with developers too. This is not about just bashing one industrial sector.
"It's about the developers who march into an area intent on land banking without a care for the community or the villages that they will destroy. Land banking is immoral."
- Follow this link to access the Cheshire East Council Local Plan consultation website.