Fight on, public meeting told

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A packed public hall — more and more rows of chairs were being laid out as well over a hundred residents turned out despite the pouring rain — engaged in a lively but well-mannered planning Q&A session yesterday afternoon in the Public Hall.

Local MP Stephen O'Brien and Cheshire East councillor Rachel Bailey opened the meeting with short statements with Rachel adding that she had declared a personal interest in the Gladman application at Little Heath.

AudlemOnline filmed the meeting in full — please click on the play button (right) to watch it.

Testimony

Stephen O'Brien said the huge turnout was testimony to the planning concerns locally and that Audlem was at the top of what he regards as a community. He stated that in planning the ultimate authority is with local government unless, of course, an application goes to appeal.

"There is a disconnect in planning at present" he said, which began with the simplification of the planning rules. "It is my job as MP to represent my constituents in Parliament but as I am no longer a minister I am not speaking today on behalf of the Government."

In answer to an opening question quoting the 2010 Conservative manifesto, he made it clear that both parties in the Coalition had to replace their manifestos with the Coalition agreement but suggested the meeting should not go down party political grounds as planning is about people's rights as individuals. The Localism Act had a specific purpose in that once housing need numbers were established and agreed, each community should shoulder the burden.

Catch up

As his constituency straddles two authorities, Stephen O'Brien described how both Cheshire East and Cheshire West & Chester were fighting a catch up situation since the demise of Cheshire County Council. The current problem is that more homes have to be found under the 5-Year supply and that has pushed them back almost to the drawing board.

The 2-year delay in developing agreed local figures was the result of creating new unitary authorities, he said, which has created a window of opportunity for developers before the protection of the Localism Act comes into effect.

Referendum

Mr O'Brien argued that there should be proportionate development as we have pressure on schools and other services. One local community, Tattenhall, had even gone as far to holding a local referendum on planning but was being taken to court by developers contesting that approach.

Asked why, despite promises by council leader Michael Jones, we still do not have a Local Plan, Rachel Bailey said the plan had involved bringing together the histories of three local authorities now making up Cheshire East and that the planning bar has been raised but accepted there had been delays in consultation. She promised that the local rural plan will be out for local consultation in early 2014.

Struggling

All the new authorities, she said, with the exception of Shropshire, have been struggling with their plans and even Shropshire's is being challenged by developers. There is, she said, often confusion between housing supply figures and a Local Plan: they are not the same but a Local Plan does make the Housing Land Supply more robust. Cheshire East hoped to be approving the Housing Land Supply in March 2014.

Asked what he was going to do about the planning issue, Stephen O'Brien stressed that the power of decision is at the local level albeit planning law is at the national level. He admitted that there was little that could be done overall but, in the absence of the Housing Supply and Local Plan, each planning application had to approached on its individual merits.

"We will be in a much stronger position once the 5-year housing supply is in place", he said, adding that the council had to fight each case individually and this was a battle against opportunism by developers.

Tattenhall example

Asked if Audlem should follow Tattenhall's example and hold a local referendum, the answer was a cautious "Yes" as that will state what the community wants but Tattenhall is being taken to court. "The community would be fighting developers who are putting up vast sums of money to get their plans through."

A questioner from Dodcott cum Wilkesley asked what the council is doing about education and raised the issue of post-16 year olds having to pay approaching £1,000 to travel to school. Stephen O'Brien described what he and others thought was a ridiculous planning formula where for every hundred residents brought into an area, only one is calculated to be of school age! He said communities were absolutely right to highlight the schools issue.

There was some disagreement about whether there was capacity in Nantwich's secondary schools but in many localities there is pressure on Primary school places. Rachel Bailey said she was taking the rural pupils' travel cost issue to a November council meeting but local authorities are seeing their incomes reducing following the freezing of council tax.

More pressure

A questioner from Nantwich, to a round of applause, said MPs should be putting much more pressure on Secretary of State Eric Pickles as people feel powerless. Stephen O'Brien responded that it is national policy that housing drives growth but, having worked in the construction industry, he believed that house building reflects but does not drive growth. All three parties want to build houses as part of a property owning democracy.

He had held many discussions with Eric Pickles and expressed his reservations about much that planning minister Nick Boles has said but, as an MP, he is only a voice.

Sustainable

Asked whether houses should be built where jobs are rather than in villages like Audlem, Stephen O'Brien stressed that development must be 'sustainable' — that was a key word in the National Planning Policy Framework. Affordable housing was also important.

Asked if it was worth fighting on, he urged people not to lose energy. Make sure everyone, the council, MPs, everybody knows your view. There are grounds for refusal of plans but we are fighting sophisticated developers. It is People Power v Money and Government policy that sees housing as driving growth.

Rachel Bailey added that the recent Alsager plan's refusal on the grounds of impact on countryside also gave a glimmer of hope.

Health

Health provision was raised and it was agreed, since both Audlem applications had lack of GP provision as a ground for refusal, this was a key issue. It was reported that Nantwich residents had been trying to register with the Audlem practice because Nantwich GPs' books are already full. "Get the evidence" said Stephen O'Brien, "as this is a ground for refusal."

It was pointed out that many houses locally remain unsold, even in new developments, but, against commonsense, this was not seen as a planning issue. Stephen O'Brien stressed how important affordable housing was and that he was of the opinion that every 'council' home sold on Right to Buy terms should be replaced.

"Developers are attracted to Audlem because it is a lovely lifestyle here with a very strong sense of community" the MP said after being asked why Audlem was attracting house builders' interest.

What can Audlem do?

The final question was: "What can Audlem do?". The answer was that numbers count. Present views to the council, to MPs, petition, work with the Parish Council to make the local Audlem plan compliant, even identifying the local view of where development should take place. Cheshire East says seventy new dwellings over twenty years, but where should they be in Audlem?

The meeting concluded with Stephen O'Brien acknowledging everyone's concerns and that it will be a tough fight but you must fight on. Both speakers received a round of applause.