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.”
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.