Lowerhouse Development Approved
The Northern Area Planning Committee Meeting held at Macclesfield Town Hall on Wednesday 7 January voted 9 to 5 to approve the application for 34 homes on the Lowerhouse Land.
It was always going to be a difficult “ask” given the history of the site, with past permission for industrial development, nevertheless, we are extremely disappointed and feel that Cheshire East lacked courage and could have refused or deferred it on the grounds of our emerging neighbourhood plan and/or the shortage of employment sites in Bollington.
We had a great turnout with all the public seats filled by Bollington people and passionate presentations which painted the true picture of this site, particularly its history of flooding, its poor situation for any sort of development, its potential to cause traffic problems on its congested and narrow approach roads and its historic setting and association with the Greg family which warrant protection within a future conservation area. The setting should maintain the open countryside on its western flank. There was a compelling argument to return this open countryside to the green belt.
A statement was handed to the committee chairman from a surprising source, Michael Jones the Leader of Cheshire East Council. He could not be present but wanted his views as a fellow councillor to be taken into account. There was a short debate regarding whether councillors who were not members of the committees could speak or make representations. The chairman confirmed that any councillor could do this. His statement was read out. It was firmly against development and reiterated the points raised by the Bollington representatives.
The planning officer had already provided an overview of the site, which was formerly in the green belt but was taken out in the 1970’s. This was, in our view, the start of the rot and applications for industrial use followed. The then Macclesfield Borough Council and the Town Council refused the applications on many of the grounds raised on Wednesday. Flooding was one of them, which in those days was less of a threat than it is today. However, an appeal was lodged and the planning inspector allowed that appeal. The rot became systemic at that time.
Over the next 20 years the industrial development permissions on this land were not taken up by developers and this was used by the applicant on Wednesday to make the case that there was no demand for industrial use. He was pressed about when the land was last marketed and he replied 2012. One of the approaches made by Bollington was to object to the change of use and retain the land for employment use which would then allow more time for the land to be considered within our emerging neighbourhood plan. However, Cllr Gardiner, a member of the committee and a former planning consultant had been involved in marketing the land adjacent to the application site on the opposite side of the road in 2007 and he said that his experience had shown that no developer wanted to develop the land in that way. We felt that this intervention was inappropriate and did not reflect the situation in 2014. Nevertheless, it seemed to sow a seed in the minds of some of the committee members. The planning officer then said that planning policy stated that where land could not be marketed for industrial and commercial use consideration should be given to allowing development for housing. He also said that it was the policy of Cheshire East Council not to change the green belt boundaries except under exceptional circumstances and he felt that there would be no chance of Cheshire East agreeing to return the land to the green belt.
Attention then turned to the flooding. There was ample evidence to prove that the site would flood in the future and the 1 in 100 year likelihood, used as a risk measure, could not now be relied on because of climate change. However, the Environment Agency “experts” had fully analysed the mitigation measures proposed and were satisfied that these measures would deal with the problem. These measures were to raise the land and to provide retention systems to ensure that the flood plain’s natural retention mechanisms were not compromised by development upon it. Cllr Brown became very focussed on this aspect and challenged the view of the planning officer and the developer that they could not be certain that the mitigation measures would work. She also highlighted the advice given by the Government that flood zone 3 areas, which this land was within, were at the highest risk of flooding should only be used for none residential development. Again the planning officer referred the meeting to the expert advice from their statutory consultee the Environment Agency. The committee was then reminded by other members that the Agency had not got it right in terms of the flooding on the Somerset Levels.
Attention then turned to traffic. It was accepted that the site was not ideally placed and would generate additional traffic on a narrow lane (Moss Brow) and it would be very difficult to prevent users of the development taking that short cut. Albert Road was also busy but only at peak times in the morning and afternoon associated with the two schools. A transport officer from Cheshire East advised that the additional traffic associated with the development would be less than that which would be generated by the industrial use which already had permission and, therefore, it would not be prudent to refuse this application on these grounds.
The matter of the Town Council’s emerging Neighbourhood Plan had been raised by all the Bollington speakers but was summed up by the planning officer as “they have barely started”. That throwaway line was in spite of Bollington having been embraced by Cheshire East as one of 12 councils being helped by them and provided with a consultant to develop a plan.
It was all starting to look bleak and when approval of the application was proposed by Cllr Gardiner and the vote was taken it was approved 9 – 5.
Did we get a good hearing? Yes and no. The process took 2 hours but Bollington representatives had perhaps only about 8-10 minutes in all to put our case. However, the planning officer had almost unlimited time to challenge what was said and support his original recommendation to approve it.
Our elected members of Cheshire East Bill Livesley and Ken Edwards made good cases for refusal supported notably by Cllr Jones, Cllr Neilson and Cllr Bown but the matter seemed to swing on the reports of officers from the Environment Agency who were not there and could not be questioned.
We also need to be aware the Cheshire East Local Plan is in the equivalent of intensive care at the moment and undergoing a 6-month resuscitation exercise. You may know that Cheshire East declared a need of 27,000 houses new houses to be built over the lifetime of that plan whereas the planning inspector reviewing their draft plan thought the number should be nearer 40,000. The inspector also thought that they had the balance of housing provision too much weighted to the south and not enough houses proposed in the north – Bollington is in the north. Cheshire East is now trying to address these issues. Although 34 houses may not seem many, it may be too many to turn down when more are needed especially as we have a similar industrial site on the opposite side of the road which may go the same way as this one and deliver another 45.
We have seen the comment in emails and on Facebook that we have been stitched up by National Planning Policy. We should remember that planning policy allows for neighbourhood planning which is intended to localise that policy down to parish level and even a small neighbourhood. We have been stitched up with regard to Cheshire East planners unwillingness to invest confidence in emerging neighbourhood plans to deal with these issues. It would have risked a planning appeal but planning inspectors seem more willing to invest that confidence and turn down appeals. We have also been stitched up by Cheshire East’s flawed local plan and the uncertainty this has caused and will cause over the next 6-12 months or even longer.
We have seen comments about what’s the point of the neighbourhood plan and that people will not be interested in being involved. We would suggest that what has happened with Lowerhouse should encourage involvement to have a plan in place as soon as we can. We currently have 43 committed participants and will be involving everyone in our town to provide their opinion at every stage of the plan. If we had a plan in place Cheshire East would have been forced to follow its policies with regard to this land. The horse may have bolted on this one but the stable door was opened many years ago. We will have other planning challenges to our Town and we need to be in the driving seat or sat on that horse rather than stood on the pavement.
Is there any good news from this? Well not much if you live overlooking the site or on Moss Brow experiencing more cars. However, similar to the Tytherington Business Park, local residents preferred houses rather than business units. The development of this land for housing also takes some of the pressure off the developing of Hall Hill which is in the green belt. It also adds to the number of houses that Bollington has taken and makes it easier to argue that we have taken our share between now and 2030. All this depends upon whether Cheshire East is listening and a neighbourhood plan guards against the possibility that they aren’t.
We will be meeting the developer within the next few weeks to ensure that we get the best out of what will be built.
Please provide your views on our Facebook and Twitter links or email via this website.