Phil Davies

Wirral hits back at Javid intervention

Jessica Middleton-Pugh

Following a letter from communities secretary Sajid Javid confirming his intention to intervene over Wirral’s lack of Local Plan, the council’s leader has responded, stating “Javid and his Tory colleagues are dead wrong… Wirral is not going to accept Whitehall bureaucrats”.

Wirral was one of 15 councils contacted by the Department for Communities & Local Government last November for an explanation as to why they had no Local Plan in place, with a threat that the Government would intervene to speed up the process.

On Friday, Javid sent a letter to Wirral Council confirming the likelihood of an intervention, due to the council’s “consistent failure” to produce the plan, and lack of “exceptional circumstances to justify why your council has made such little progress”. He said one of the next stages would be to contact the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority to request it makes a plan on Wirral’s behalf.

In response, Wirral Council leader Cllr Phil Davies said: “Sajid Javid and his Tory colleagues are dead wrong. It is for Wirral residents through Wirral Council to determine what our housing needs are and where new homes should be built. We neither welcome nor appreciate the Secretary of State’s overtly political intervention.

“I also doubt very much Steve Rotheram and our colleagues in the Liverpool City Region welcome being used as a pawn in the Government’s continued attack on local authorities. If Sajid Javid is in disagreement with us and his own civil servants about our current Local Plan schedule, he is entitled to his opinion – but Wirral is not going to accept Whitehall bureaucrats coming up and telling us we must meet the Tory central Government targets for building on our Green Belt.

“We have said repeatedly we want to see extant permissions acted upon and brownfield developments like the ones just announced at Wirral Waters actioned first. Wirral’s housing needs are not the same as Central London or the South East. We need a mix of affordable homes, first time buyer homes and housing for families and an ageing population across the borough. Wirral alone should decide how best to achieve that Tory ministers are not needed.”

Cllr George Davies, cabinet member for housing and community safety at Wirral Council, said: “We are extremely disappointed at this response from Government. Earlier this year, we set out a clear, robust plan for delivering a Local Plan which met the housing needs of our residents.

“We’ve been in regular dialogue with civil servants and we remain confident that when we meet them and they see our plans they will be more than satisfied with our progress.

“Just in the past month, we have seen announcements of new plans to build more than 1,000 new homes on brownfield sites in Birkenhead and Wallasey. We have also launched Wirral Growth Company, which will help build many more homes throughout the borough.

“We are very firmly of the view that local housing policy should be developed locally, with a clear understanding of local need. That understanding of local need cannot be found in Whitehall, and we will continue to make that case to Government ministers.”

Expert view

Merseyside Development Update

Sebastian Tibenham, Pegasus Group

Sebastian Tibenham, executive director at Pegasus Group, explores the polarised planning issues in Wirral and the implications of Javid’s decision.

Oddly, I feel sympathy and frustration towards all parties now involved in the production of the Wirral Local Plan.

Wirral is undoubtedly a difficult place to plan for. It has distinct pockets of deprivation where there is an abundance of brownfield land but this needs significant public expenditure to make it viable and it is largely controlled by one party. This is coupled with wealthy communities and settlements where affordability of new homes is a real issue and there is no land available other than Green Belt.

Senior policy planners at Wirral fully understand this dynamic and my view is that they were the most able to deliver a plan that met the needs of all Wirral residents and businesses if they had an unfettered opportunity. I fear the Secretary of State and his team of advisors might not understand these polarised issues and that impression does creep into his letter where he states Wirral is not an area of high housing pressure.

Compared to the South, this may well be the case, but I do fear that this opinion is based on the medium affordability ratios across the borough, which are directly influenced by cheap housing in one area and high wages in another. In short, the polarised issues in Wirral blur into an average state of indifference.   

Since the initial crack on the knuckles from the SoS, I had heightened faith that Wirral councillors were fully behind the new timetable that was set for the Local Plan and therefore it seemed as though we were going to get a pragmatic outcome, eventually.

It is hard to ignore that the stalemate and impasse incurred on the production of the Wirral Local Plan prior to the SoS’s earlier warning was clearly a product of professional planning judgement clashing head on with vocal public and political opinion. The clash was typically over whether Green Belt land should be released to deliver new homes in Wirral. I believe the answer to that question within the Council was increasingly accepted as being a ‘yes’. 

However, the delays incurred were simply too long and unacceptable so I have great sympathy as to why the SoS has felt he has had to step in. The question now is how will the SoS address the charged issue Wirral Council has been struggling to deal with?

To date, central Government has publicly defended the protection of the Green Belt and are about to put ‘newish’ tests in place for this through the revised National Planning Policy Framework. All the while, the Government has also been quite content for Local Authorities to take the punches in the face when it comes to Green Belt release. The responsibility now seemingly lies with the SoS unless Steve Rotheram is willing to stick his hand up. I’d be surprised if Rotheram volunteered at this stage unless there was a clear incentive to do so from Government.

Assuming the SoS is tasked with advancing the plan, it isn’t entirely clear at this stage as to how the SoS will undertake this task. All I hope for is that a true independent examination is undertaken by a suitably qualified and knowledgeable Local Plan inspector and that they get a genuine opportunity to determine that it will meet the needs of all communities and residents in the Wirral. To date, inspector Pike has done a fantastic job of steering Knowsley and Sefton Councils through this quagmire and I would certainly endorse his appointment for this task.

Your Comments

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Well then, you should have made a plan. There’s no point moaning about the right to define your own destiny, if you can’t be arsed to define your own destiny.

By Deebee

“Wirral’s housing needs are not the same as Central London or the South East”Has anyone suggested that they are the same?

This sounds like the Cllr Davis wants to make this a Red vs Blue issue to deflect from the fact that the Council that he is responsible for leading has not done its job properly for some time.

By Mis-Manager

The question surely has to be Mr Davies why has it taken you so long to define what your local housing need is? The process has been going on since about 2012, if it takes that long maybe their is some incompetence along the way and as such you need to be encouraged.

By Bday

Seems like a bit of cynical attempt to deflect from his council’s shortcomings by tapping into some anti-Westminster feeling. Surely he and the council he leads have had ample opportunity to address these issues?

By ladsladslads

Cllr Davies doesn’t seem to be aware that his Council have assessed their housing needs (published last year), and even including the Wirral Waters developments, still amount to less than a 3 year supply.

This is not about politics, it’s about his Council’s consistent incompetence and inability to supply the housing Wirral residents desperately need.

Forget about flagship golf courses, swanky resorts and setting up growth companies to maximize Council profits – do your job and get the basics right first before thinking about your legacy.

I say this as an ardent Labour supporter.

By NWPlanner

What an absolute embarrassment Cllr Davies and his colleagues are. Trying desperately to defend the indefensible. Wirral Council have failed and now they must face the music. This should have happened years ago.

By Alan

Wirral Council’s excuses don’t stand up to scrutiny. Cllr Phil Davies doesn’t seem to accept that, on his watch, the council has failed yet again to competently meet a statutory duty. Did the recent serious failings in adult and children’s social services not concentrate minds at all? On the basis of the most recently published housing land supply figures and after the Government’s application of its new standardised housing need methodology, it has been demonstrated that Wirral has identified more housing land than it objectively needs. I question the need for any Green Belt release, not because I oppose it in principle but because there is no obvious impediment to building out the Wirral Waters site or other strategic sites, such as the Mollington Link/Transco site in central Birkenhead. I welcome Government intervention but would remind the Secretary of State that he indicated that, where Local Plan interventions would take place, the plan would be written “in consultation with local people”. How can that happen with the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority, which is not directly elected? There are also serious issues to address in relation to support for neighbourhood planning on Wirral, which has five designated neighbourhood areas. Eligibility for enhanced Neighbourhood Planning Grant on the basis of economic deprivation has been removed and, with Local Plan intervention, who will be responsible for supporting the five neighbourhood forums? Will the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority agree to write Wirral’s Local Plan? If not, what further consequences will there be for the people and businesses of Wirral? Some council officers (past and present) and businesses seem to prefer chaos because it gives them free rein but the existing uncertainly is bad for business. Let’s just hope that this situation doesn’t spook the investors behind the Wirral Growth Company/Muse Developments and scupper yet another glitzy development opportunity!

By Philip Barton MCD BA(Hons) MRTPI

Smoke screen to cover for an incompetent administration. Trying to politicise the issue scores double minus points.

By Pedant

WBC have consistently buried their head in the sand over this and simply not performed in the role in which they are handsomely paid. There is no excuse for this, and whilst this is a last resort it is still long overdue.

By L_Ballard

Nonsense from Wirral – all the locals want is a minimum level of competence from the Council, and no more golf courses!

By Re-Clad

“dead wrong….”

Oh dear. Communications team might need intervention too.

By English teacher

He used “Tory” far too many times in his comments and is blatantly trying mask his and the local council’s inability and incompetency surrounding the matter by simply just blaming the Tory government. I wonder how many will be deceived by this, my guess is quite a few in the Wirral will be, but to the outsiders you look like a fool Davis.

By Anonymous

More bullying and inteference from central government. When will they realise that people are sick of being dictated to and rather than having one-size-ifits-all targets imposed from above as well as starving authorities of adequate resource, central Government instead get out of the way and give LAs the tools and resources to get on and actually do the job on behalf of their citizens, including giving them freedoms to acquire land and develop more housing themselves rather than relying on volume house builders.

On this score I’m fully behind the Council’s response: – butt-out central Gov and stop trying to micro manage everything from Westminster.

By Sick of Westminster interferrence

It is a sign on our times that there is no co-operation only confrontation in the Public/Government sector. The British public in desperate need of good quality housing have to suffer the consequences.

By P Mitcham

A blatantly cynical and political response from Wirral Council which fails to explain why they’ve had years to come up with a credible plan and have then failed to do so. Nor do I agree with the “expert’s view” above. It’s irrelevant whether Wirral has “desirable” and “less desirable” areas; the whole point of “planning” is to direct activity to where it’s most needed, rather than to where it’s most profitable. Allowing inner-city Birkenhead to rot whilst concreting over the rural parts of the Wirral would be an act of irreversible stupidity for which future generations would curse you.

By Anonymous

A plan is a really good thing to have – but only if it is the RIGHT PLAN! And that is a big issue for the Wirral at the present time. In fact there are many councils and parishes that are regretting having put a plan together in haste only to find that their hands are tied by it and that they then have to go through a lot of trouble to navigate there way to permitting the correct development opportunities. History may well show that Wirral Council were actually very astute in avoiding being pushed into this too quickly… only time will tell.

By thinking forward

Sajid Javid is very keen on promoting ‘localism’, the idea that local people can take control of things that happen in their own area rather than central government making the decisions. Those of us engaged with trying to protect Greenbelt know that the ‘localism’ touted by Javid didn’t really work when it came to asking for a call-in about losing Wirral Greenbelt to a new fire station.

The quote by Cllr Davies “Wirral is not going to accept Whitehall bureaucrats coming up and telling us we must meet the Tory central government targets for building on our Green Belt.” is about as disingenuous as it gets, considering he has his own target for building a golf/housing/hotel/retail complex on Wirral Greenbelt, despite the growing opposition. Maybe Cllr Davies can understand now why people get a little bit angry when they’re ignored, a bit like the Secretary Of State when he jumped on these 15 councils for ignoring to produce the Local Plan they had a legal duty to produce.

I believe that Cllr Davies has become so cocooned in the pursuit of his own regeneration agenda and it’s slickly delivered PR spin, that he somehow believes that his agenda is so important it can take priority over the basic requirements of adhering to local government obligations set out in legislation. Just like many of the ‘best practices’ ignored by Wirral Council in many areas of public consultation, the leadership have set out their stall to push ahead with their agendas and have treated their electorate and some of the more time consuming local authority obligations as inconveniences which can be overlooked in return for delivering a plethora of fantastical and controversial Master Plans. The reality is, sound basic housekeeping is the foundation of credible management, something Wirral Council are shamefully devoid of displaying.

By thedrumdoctor