Osborne faces Green Belt quandary to deliver Powerhousing

The fall-out from Cheshire East's new housing projection could provide vital lessons about the housing delivery needed to fuel the Northern Powerhouse, writes Simon Peake of WYG Manchester.

The borough of Cheshire East presents, in microcosm, the conflicts that could exist within the Government's planning policy. On Wednesday, the day before George Osborne's latest Northern Powerhouse speech, Cheshire East Council a­­nnounced that it would be increasing its housing projection by 7,000 units to reflect better-than-expected economic forecasts for the borough. Osborne's own Tatton constituency lies within Cheshire East.

As (Conservative) council leader Cllr Michael Jones so aptly put it: "In 2012, the sun started shining again and Cheshire East is now in the middle of a jobs boom… we need to attract more people into the borough to maintain our strong economy".

So is this good news?

Well, maybe in economic terms, but the housing issue will not be so simple.

Cheshire East's emerging Local Plan has a chequered past. The Examination period was recently put on hold following a Planning Inspector's view, published in November, that the council's forecast was 'unduly pessimistic' and that there was a 'serious mismatch between the economic strategy and the housing strategy,' [Inspector's Interim Views, 12 November 2014]. Cheshire East has still not succeeded in demonstrating that it has a sufficient five-year supply, not to mention sufficient allowance for previous under-provision, or homes to attract new residents.

Not surprisingly, housebuilders have been keen to respond to this unfulfilled demand. Using the lack of a five-year supply, they have tested the post-National Planning Policy Framework planning world, challenging Cheshire East's protectionist position through a series of high profile planning appeals and Secretary of State decisions.

Equally local residents and their elected representatives in Cheshire East are understandably keen to protect their attractive Cheshire countryside, villages and market towns. This can display itself as resistance to new housebuilding. Localism, and particularly the right of communities to adopt neighbourhood plans, is a surviving plank of the Conservative Party's 2010 manifesto. Local communities in Cheshire East now have 19 such plans in various stages of preparation. These can be seen as a local attempt to fill the policy vacuum created whilst Cheshire East stalls over its Local Plan. Whilst neighbourhood plans are required to follow local authority, and NPPF, housing policy, they can certainly make life harder for developers.

Then there is the Green Belt. In Cheshire East, most of the locations in which people most want to live, crucially those places lying within easy commuting distance of Manchester, are in the Green Belt. This is where the homes are needed to attract the new workforce. Those attractive homes close to jobs are needed to fuel George Osborne's successful Northern Powerhouse. Cheshire East has had to allocate more housing here after the Inspector's concern that not enough development was directed to these north Cheshire towns. But this is the land that local residents are most opposed to seeing developed.

Jones stated that: "We do not envisage major change to the Green Belt. We are committed to protecting our beautiful countryside and we will accommodate as much as possible of the additional new homes on brownfield sites". It is not hard to imagine how this statement will be greeted by the residents of Handforth, where Cheshire East Council has recently proposed 2,300 homes to be developed on Green Belt land owned by the council.

The challenges facing Cheshire East are considerable: It must fuel economic growth opportunities by facilitating housebuilding; whilst at the same time addressing local constituents' concerns. It needs to allocate the most sustainable – ideally brownfield – sites for development; but also identify enough sites, in the right locations, to maintain a plan-led approach. This will be tested through planning applications, appeals and Secretary of State rulings; and from site allocations, consultation responses and the Local Plan adoption process. There will be more battles ahead.

Osborne deserves significant credit for bridging many of the entrenched arguments between north and south; and between Conservative and Labour. Witness, as proof, the way he has worked with Sir Howard Bernstein to make the Manchester devolution proposal a reality. However, in order to deliver the new homes that the Northern Powerhouse needs to succeed, he might have to bridge similar deep-seated divides that lie within his own party and amongst its supporters. Those with an interest in UK housing delivery, and the Northern Powerhouse initiative, will keep a keen eye on Cheshire East, not least the Chancellor of the Exchequer himself.

  • Simon Peake is associate planner at WYG in Manchester

Your Comments

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Much of the problem of housing supply is the inability of private house builders to create places that people want to live in urban areas, and build out at a rate close to market demand. To do so is difficult, requires a long term view and means looking holistically at whole places rather than units to be sold at the highest margin and lowest risk possible. Frankly developers lack the skills and the financial incentives, if they did we wouldn’t have such a big supply problem, nor would there be the same pressure on the green belt.

By Anon

Very interesting comments both in the article and by Anon. The focus should be much more on "planning" not "development control" and we would wholeheartedly agree that good development "is difficult, requires a long term view and means looking holistically at whole places rather than units". Our experience has found that it is not just development industry that is not setup to do this, it is local authorities whose local plans are redlines allocating "housing" and "employment" not shaping places with a mix of uses, integrated into the urban fabric. We will be launching some ideas with the help of John Simpson Architects (Poundbury, Fairford Leys etc) to try to really lead on place shaping in the Northern Powerhouse – wish us luck! The TEM team (www.TattonEstate.com)

By Tatton Estate Management

what a load of rubbish the comments are!! there will be no resolution to the undersupply of housing without a significant release of green belt land around the northern towns

By loe bloggs

i agree with Anon. Let’s get real here – the jobs are in Manchester, not in Handforth Dean or even Stockport, so why the long commute? Not sustainable, and A34 has its limits. But snobbery still has a price, withness the Wallasey postcode campaign from L to CH.

By CityMan

Wallasey, as you mention it CityMan, is a much shorter commute to Liverpool than Cheshire East is to Manchester. If the Northern Powerhouse is to be balanced between the northern cities as it must be then places like Wallasey are full of beautiful villas, many fronting the river Mersey, for less than half the price of similar housing in Cheshire East. And the environment is second to none in many instances – if the ‘snobbery’ can be overcome.

By Paul Blackburn

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