Chairman’s Update

Much of the Society’s casework still continues to be focussed on dealing with some critical issues relating to the area administered by Wirral Borough Council, covering approximately the upper 2/3 of the peninsula.

Wirral Society Casework, August 2019

Changes at Wallasey Town Hall

Phot of a disappointed outgoing Council LEader, Phil Davies
A disappointed outgoing Council Leaver, Phil Davies, after the 2019 local elections.

Following the May Elections, there is a new situation politically at Wallasey Town Hall. Whilst the Society tries as far as possible to remain politically ‘neutral’ it nevertheless has to recognise that the political factor is an important element in the way we work. Whilst the political ‘balance’ that now exists is not ideal, we are nevertheless optimistic that it will bring more transparency into Council decision-making. All committees are now under ‘no overall control’ and key chairmanships, including Planning, Business and Environment are now held by councillors from a broader political spectrum.

Also, the abandonment of the current narrow Cabinet system of governance is being investigated for a possible change next year.

Wirral Council’s Local Plan

A key issue for this Council which is concerning us greatly, is the Council’s continuing inability to finalise and publish its Local Plan. It is one of three Councils in England, which was identified by James Brokenshire, as requiring special attention by Government, in view of its continuing delay in finalising its Local Plan. We note the Council has (quietly) published its Action Plan, as directed by the Secretary of State.

Wirral Council Housing Targets

We are convinced the Council has created the problem. By initially setting itself an unrealistically high target of economic growth in the Borough, it commensurately required an unrealistically increased and unbelievably high housing target, which Government officials concurred with and are now holding the Council to that figure.

However, the then Housing Minister, Mr Brokenshire subsequently reminded the Council that his housing figure was just a ‘starter’ and it was the Council’s duty to provide a realistic assessment of housing need.

The Council has now confirmed it is not going to produce a “properly evidenced and assessed deviation from the target” – which could have produced a lower target and the Council says it “does not believe there are exceptional circumstances which justify an alternative approach”. This is despite the Housing Minister informing the Council that the use of the standard methodology to calculate housing need is not mandatory. This supports our view that the Council was never interested in the first place in seeing a much lower, more realistic target.

To make matters worse, due to a legal requirement that a 20% ‘buffer’ be added, as the number of homes delivered in the last few years has been below target. it has now been obliged to increase the number of houses it’s required to build, in the coming years, from 12000 to 14460.

The Wirral Green Belt

A direct implication of this was the previous administration pursuing what can only be described as a crazy tactic, of instigating in September 2018, a 6-week ‘Consultation’ based upon identifying some 8 sq miles of the Wirral Green Belt and effectively inviting the public to say which parts of it could be most readily sacrificed, in order to meet those Housing Targets. The Council received so many objections to the threat posed, it has still been unable – or unwilling – to publish the outcome. So much opposition was generated, that a Wirral Green Spaces Alliance was set up to try and address the problems this has generated and continues to try to make some sense of what is going on.

With the geography we have here on the peninsula, it makes us effectively an island, so land in its Green Belt boundary, which was purposely drawn very tightly by the former Merseyside County Council, does an especially important job.

We have written to the new Housing Minister, Esther McVey, to ensure she is aware of the concerns we have over the way the Council is dealing with this matter

Liverpool City Region

The area administered by Wirral Council, is also now a part of the Liverpool City Region. The Society has been in touch with the Metro-Mayor, Steve Rotheram, congratulating him and other Metro-Mayors in the initiative they took earlier in the year, at an international conference on attracting new industry into their Regions.

 Mr Rotheram has replied saying in summary, he has:

  • Strategic planning powers, and a Spatial Development Strategy was being developed, and would have due regard to environmental issues & the Society would be consulted on the document. We note from what he is saying, that each of the 6 Districts + W. Lancs has indicated they can meet their housing targets without support from neighbouring Councils. We know Wirral Council certainly is struggling to do so – despite the good progress being made by Peel Land and Management in developing many new homes at ‘Wirral Waters’
  • a ‘Brownfield First’ policy and
  • created a funding team aimed at facilitating the remediation of various Brownfield sites in the Region, with the aim of making them available for development – principally for housing.

Proposed Hoylake ‘Golf’ Resort

A long-running saga involving Wirral Council is now taking an interesting direction. It was heartening that a special scrutiny meeting recently recommended to the Cabinet, that the Council’s investment profile and limited resources would be better served if this business venture was funded on the open market, rather than through Council borrowing, and it should not enter into a separate agreement to fund the Celtic Manor project. This was welcome news.

Cover of the Development Agreement for Hoylake Golf Resort
John Brace had to justify to the ICO why this covert document should be available to the public. We are most grateful he took up the challenge.

We are still seeking to clarify the situation regarding a penalty clause the Council entered into earlier in the year, with the Jack Nicklaus Group, which would reputably cost the taxpayer £20m should the Council seek another developer to create a new golf-related facility in Hoylake.  As long as that is all that is contained in the Agreement, we are optimistic that such a payment would not be necessary, as we don’t think there is any appetite in the Council now, to progress such a development, let alone involve another developer.

Furthermore, if, as it seems, the Council is set on increasing the distance between itself and the developers, then should a planning application be submitted, the Planning Officer would now be able to put forward a recommendation free of any constraints. If such an application were submitted and contained the current proposal which required breaching the Wirral Green Belt with a 160 + housing development, this should surely in itself be sufficient to lead to an automatic recommendation to refuse permission?

We can see no case for any exceptions to be made on such a proposal, either by the Council or, on Appeal, by the Government’s Planning Inspectorate. We hope the developers will now seek ‘Pre-Application Advice’ from the Council and save themselves a lot of money!

We have written the West Kirby Charity, which owns key pieces of land on the proposed site, seeking clarification on what its position is regarding its involvement in the scheme.

Hooton Hangars Trust

The Society is keen to support the Trust’s work wherever possible. It is very encouraging to see the progress made on the formerly derelict Hangar 16. The roof is now on, supported by newly constructed Belfast trusses. Do visit their website to see more of their work and make a visit there if you can – it’s 2 minutes off the Eastham Oil Terminal exit of the M53 Motorway.  

Rock Ferry High School Site

There has been much concern, led by a residents’ group from Rock Ferry, over an anticipated planning application which would see development on the site of the former High School.

Rock Ferry High School development site
Rock Ferry High School development site.

The plan would include the conversion of the Listed school building itself and the construction of some 183 units around the school. The main concern of residents is the real possibility of the loss of many trees, to enable this size of development to be fitted in.

Our view is that as Wirral Council own the site and it has just signed up to a Climate-Change agreement, it would be appropriate for it to stipulate that all the healthy trees should now be recorded and ensure all have Tree Preservation Orders put on them. The number of units to be built should then be adjusted accordingly.

Rod Tann, Chairman, The Wirral Society

Civic Voice’s Initiative – ‘Public Participation in the Planning System’

A Voice for Conservation Groups

Image of the rear of Saughall Massie Community Fire Station.
The back of Saughall Massie Community Fire Station built on Greenbelt; ‘beautiful’ or merely a ‘pastiche’?

Civic Voice (CV) is the national charity for civic and conservation movements with 256 groups located in 70% of local planning authority areas. They are the Secretariat to the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Civic Societies with 76 MPs as members.

Civic Voice claims it has more influence (and no reason to doubt it) with government than CPRE  (Campaign for the Protection of Rural England) with the public being probably more aware of the former through more exposure in the media than the latter organisation, but both equally holding the government to account.

At a recently held meeting at Wigan Library delegates discussed the Civic Voice initiative, ‘Public Participation in the Planning Process’, which has a role in the Government’s proposed plan for ‘Building Better and Beautiful Homes’. Opinion had it that a successful planning system needed to radically: “Improve design quality, increase the voice of the local community in the planning process and be involved at a much earlier stage” and in general, the Civic Movement to make the case for higher quality developments.

Surveys carried out by CV reported that in answer to the statement ‘Is it easy for residents and community groups to influence the planning process?’, 85% disagreed and 70% believed civic societies/ community groups should have a more formal role in the planning system.

Further responses were:

  • 71% said we were not building enough homes
  • 69% would support more housing if of a higher quality
  • 80% said developers do not engage early enough if at all!
  • 73% felt that LEAs did not engage with the local community
  • 86% (encouragingly) believed that new developments can be “beautiful” but 63% said, “not to the extent of being merely pastiches!

Ian Harvey, Executive Director of Civic Voice said:

The quality of our cities, towns and villages is vital to the achievement of so many objectives which are shared across the political spectrum: economic growth…..Most people want to have a say and many want to play an active part in making sure that the design of their city, town or village is as good as it can be.  We need to see more meaningful engagement in the planning system if we are to ensure the nation can deliver the homes that the country requires in a timely responsive manner.  We look forward to debating these issues……and that civic societies across the country shape the quality of housing in 2019 and for the years to come.

Ian Harvey

I would suggest that The Wirral Society makes a very worthwhile contribution to the debate with its annual Civic Design Award.

Terry Edgar, Vice Chairman, The Wirral Society

Hoylake Golf Resort – What’s in the Small Print?

What Are Wirral Council Not Telling Us?

Image of magnifying glass over paper contract

We are still seeking to clarify the situation regarding penalty clauses in the Development Agreement Wirral Council entered into in 2016 with the Jack Nicklaus Joint Venture Group (NJVG).

Under a Freedom of Information request, the Council initially refused to publish the Development Agreement. Subsequent to a complaint to the regulator ICO (Information Commissioner’s Office) and a threat of a First Tier Tribunal, the Council published part of the Development Agreement, although much of it was redacted citing the reason that it was “commercial and confidential”.

Since the May 2019 local elections, when politically the Council became ‘No Overall Control’ we have learnt that the Development Agreement contains penalty clauses which could, potentially, cost the Council between £15 million and £20 million, should they pull out of the agreement.

This came as a huge shock to both the public and most of the Councillors who were unaware that the previous Council Leader, and his Cabinet, had seemingly signed up to these penalty clauses in secret.

Indeed, on several occasions, the previous Council Leader Phil Davies, had reassured Councillors that signing that Agreement would not expose the Council to any risk.

A report to the Cabinet dated 7th November 2016, stated the Council retains at its absolute discretion, the ability to withdraw from the project should the Funding Strategy not prove to be acceptable to the Council.”

Furthermore, at a Business and Overview Scrutiny Committee Call-In meeting to discuss the Development Agreement, a senior Council official stated if the project fell at the funding and viability phase then the money that the council has invested would not be recoverable and similarly the money that the NJVG has already invested would not be recoverable.”

The Funding Strategy was finally submitted to the Council earlier this year, several years behind the original programme date. Part of this Strategy included the Council lending the NJVG £26million at preferential borrowing rates. In July 2019, both the Business Overview Scrutiny Committee and then the Cabinet unanimously voted to reject this proposal loan NJVG the £26million. The Cabinet has now recommended the scheme be privately funded on the open market rather than through Council borrowing.

Should the NJVG obtain private financial backing they can then submit a planning application. However, as the development would breach the Wirral Green Belt with a 160 + housing development, it would normally be deemed ‘inappropriate’, so the Developers will have to prove that ‘very special circumstances’ exist before planning permission could be granted. We can see no case for any exceptions to be made on such a proposal, either by the Council or, on Appeal, by the Government’s Planning Inspectorate.

Wirral Council has also recently declared a ‘Climate Change Emergency’ and building such a resort and a housing estate on a flood plain would make a mockery of the Council’s intentions to mitigate against future increasing extreme weather events. The NJVG has dubious financial history. This includes bankruptcy of their construction company which built the housing development associated with their golf ‘resort’ in Llanelli where a promised Hilton Hotel was never built. Therefore, we are optimistic that no financial institutions will be willing to invest in such a risky project at Hoylake.

Wirral Council Pull Out of Hoylake Golf Resort Funding Plan

Don’t Get Too Excited – The Beast Still Lives

A more realistic layout impression of the proposed HGR site showing the link road and placement of the 160 ‘luxury’ houses.

The Society applauds the recent decision by the new Cabinet of Wirral Council not to loan their preferred Developer £26million for the Hoylake Golf Resort/Celtic Manor Resort project. However, we need to remind everyone that whilst it has taken a first important step towards distancing itself from this project, the project itself has not been stopped.

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