Is Wirral Council finally getting serious about plan-making?

Faced with the threat of government intervention, Wirral Council has published its action plan for improving its tardy plan-making. The plan shows no evidence of willingness to review the green belt, and reveals that the council's plan production timetable has slipped again. But it also discloses significant recruitment of officers and advisers, and a pledge to meet housing need as calculated by the government's standard method.

Wirral Council: action plan published
Wirral Council: action plan published

On 28 January this year, housing secretary James Brokenshire wrote a letter to the leader of Wirral Council. Brokenshire described the various chances the local authority had been given to make progress on a local plan since it was first threatened with central government intervention in November 2017. Time was running out, warned the housing secretary, directing Wirral Council to prepare an action plan setting out how it intended to proceed towards plan adoption. "I am offering you a final opportunity to demonstrate a clear path towards the delivery of your local plan," he said, adding that he intended to "closely monitor" the council’s progress.

Wirral’s strategic planning challenges are nothing new. The last time the authority adopted a development plan was in February 2000. That document covered the period 1986 to 2001 and expired just over a year after it came into effect. Since then, as Brokenshire noted, the council has "failed to meet local plan milestones in at least six local development schemes since 2004".

Andrew Bickerdike, planning director at consultancy Turley, explained some of the challenges that have faced the authority’s planners. "Wirral is a local authority area constrained by green belt," he says. Meeting the borough’s housing needs will mean releasing green belt land, said Bickerdike, which requires officers to make difficult decisions. "And they have been discouraged from making those difficult decisions about green belt by members who have avoided the issue," he says.

For a long time there was no incentive to break that impasse, says Bickerdike, but the threat of government intervention seems to have changed that. "Whether the threat has been taken seriously in the past, I don’t know," he says. "It’s certainly being taken seriously now."

Earlier this month, Wirral Council published an action plan as the housing secretary had directed. The document paints a picture of an authority intent on progress. Phil Davies, the council’s Labour leader, said it had recruited five new officers and three administrators to work on the local plan. Leading planning barrister Christopher Katkowski QC had been appointed as leading counsel to advise on plan preparation, he added, and the council would be providing monthly progress reports to the government. "We are committed to delivering a robust local plan," Davies wrote.

A spokeswoman for MHCLG said: "We asked Wirral Council to prepare an action plan within ten weeks of the receipt of the secretary of state’s letter, which has been provided. We will respond to the action plan in due course."

"They have taken some very positive actions," said Paul Nellist, principal planner at consultancy Avison Young. However, he adds, the action plan is not all good news. In it, the council advised that its local development scheme had slipped again; with a target submission date in November 2020, some ten months later than previously proposed. Nellist suggested this could well slip back further. Then again, "the sword hanging over their head is that the secretary of state is ready to step in," he said.

There are other clear signs of progress, said Nellist. The action plan makes a clear commitment that "the council will allocate sufficient land in the local plan to meet the need for housing for the whole of Wirral for the plan period". More importantly, the council notes that housing need will be produced using the government’s standard method for calculating housing need, stating: "It does not believe that there are exceptional circumstances which justify an alternative approach".

That figure, based on the Office for National Statistics 2014 household projections, is 803 homes per year. Wirral advised that it also accepts an "appropriate buffer" of 20 per cent, producing an annual housing need figure of 964. Nellist is hopeful this acknowledgement will conclude a long-running argument about the level of housing to be planned for in Wirral. "This action plan draws a line in the sand and they are accepting the figures reluctantly," he said. "The process of preparing their local plan starts now."

The issue of green belt release now looms on the horizon. Wirral Council did not respond to requests for comment on this. However, writing to Brokenshire, Davies advised that his authority was committed to preparing a plan while protecting the "unique character" created by the borough’s green belt. "I absolutely believe we can do both," he said. Bickerdike said there are certainly sites Wirral could use to avoid green belt release, but questions remain as to whether they are viable and will provide the type of housing the borough really needs. "Wirral can’t go into this naively," he said. "It’s not just a numbers game, it’s a qualitative consideration as well."

Of course, the threat of government intervention may focus councillors’ minds - and the conclusion of local elections at the start of May might create some breathing space. Brian O’Connor, associate director at consultancy Lichfields, said: "Politically they might be more willing to make hard decisions over the next year or two." O’Connor said other authorities in the region with dated plans will be watching closely to see if Wirral is capable of making progress, and avoiding having matters taken out of its own hands. "I know there’s a number of other authorities in the North West looking over their shoulders," he said.

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