Executive Director Sebastian Tibenham Explores The Polarised Planning Issues In Wirral

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Executive Director, Sebastian Tibenham, speaks to Place North West about the polarised planning issues in Wirral and the implications of Sajid Javid’s decision to intervene over Wirral’s lack of Local Plan.

Sebastian TibenhamOddly, 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.

You can read the article in full on Place North West’s website.

Sebstian Tibenham is Executive Director at Pegasus Group’s Manchester office.

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