Cheshire East - vital lessons for the Northern Powerhouse

Simon Peake, WYG associate planner

The fall-out from Cheshire East’s new housing projection could provide vital lessons about the housing delivery not least for the Chancellor himself, says WYG associate planner Simon Peake.

The Borough of Cheshire East presents, in microcosm, the conflicts that could exist within the Government’s planning policy.

Last Wednesday, the day before George Osborne’s latest Northern Powerhouse speech, Cheshire East Council announced that it would be increasing its housing projection by 7000 units to reflect better-than-expected economic forecasts for the borough. Osborne’s own Tatton constituency lies within Cheshire East.

"To deliver the new homes that the Northern Powerhouse needs to succeed, George Osborne might have to bridge deep-seated divides that lie within his own party.  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."

As (Conservative) Council leader 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 (NPPF) 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, are 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.

Councillor Michael 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 2300 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.

George 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.