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

Chairman’s Update Jan-Feb 2019

Our Chairman, Rod Tann writes

As we approach the end of the first quarter of 2019, it is disappointing for the Society that this year looks set to see Green Belt casework continuing to dominate its Agenda:

The Council’s Local Plan

Farmland-Wirral
Golf balls or food? Apparently, Wirral Council know best! (Photo: Rod Tann)

Wirral Council was one of the three Councils selected by the Minister for Housing, Communities & Local Government (MHCLG) last year, for “Special Attention” due to their failure to deliver a Local Plan.  This resulted in the Council holding a ‘Development Options Review’ Consultation, last September, presumably to show it was taking action. This consultation centred on the Council’s proposal to release of some 8 sq miles of protected Green Belt land.  Whilst the Council stressed it only needed some of this land to satisfy targets, the release of any of it would automatically make it a target for the volume house-builders. The Council would then have difficulty resisting giving planning permission, should owners wish to sell any released land.  We noted the ‘Golf Resort‘ land at Hoylake was excluded from the Consultation – so we conclude the Council has already made the decision that it will approve its release, should a planning application be submitted.

We, along with some 19 other local societies (now the Wirral Green Space Alliance, (WGSA), have been very active in responding to this Consultation. However, we can’t understand why the Local Plan has continually been delayed, as we (amongst others) had responded to consultations carried out by the Council on two earlier drafts in recent years. , bto the release of any land that we know have been submitted.

Not only did the Council impose a tight timescale for the Consultation but also it was made even more confusing with the ‘official’ annual housing target figures changing from about 800 down to 450 which then later reverted back to 800.  Some 10 years ago, under the NW ‘Regional Spatial Strategy’, the annual number of buildings identified as being needed was only 250.  We are unaware that there has been any increase in the level of demand for houses and, with no new large employers setting up in the Wirral, we believe there will continue to be a net reduction in population.

The Society engaged a professional planner from CPRE to assist in our response.  She was able to refute the need to release any Wirral Green Belt land, given the amount of ‘Brownfield’ land available especially including the ‘Wirral Waters’ site.  She had also indentified that some of this ‘Brownfield’ land didn’t appear on the official Register, a deficiency we will follow up.

We are also meeting the Project Director for ‘Wirral Waters’ again shortly, to discuss progress on the various schemes they are developing.

At Saughall Massie

Saughall-Massie-fire-station-construction
The ‘Very Special Circumstances’ Green Belt thief arises! (Photo: Rod Tann)

The “essential” Fire Station at Saughall Massie has now started construction. Given that, if it becomes operational in a few months time, it will be some 5 years since the West Kirby station closed it still begs the question why it was necessary to spend some £4m of taxpayer’s money on moving operations one mile down the road from Upton, against the wishes of some 4,000 petitioners and Societies such as ours?

Proposed Leisure / Golf-related development at Hoylake

A Motion put to Wirral Council, to drop the Resort proposal was disappointingly rejected in December.  Despite a large public attendance at the Council meeting, the majority party voted to continue spending taxpayers’ money on it.

Much also continues to be happening, which isn’t being made public:  For example, it’s not clear now what the focus is for this proposed development.  Until recently, the ‘Hoylake Golf Resort’ was centred on the creation of a ‘Resort’ based upon golf breaks, with an hotel, practise facility and an ‘enabling development’ of 160 luxury houses.  Its purpose was to make Hoylake the “Capital of the North West Golf Coast”.  However, with the Council having to ‘offload’ a number of municipal courses due to the rapid downturn in golf participation, the Resort has now been re-branded as the ‘Celtic Manor’ Leisure Resort’ It appears to be more focussed on broader ‘leisure-related’ activities (whilst, of course, still retaining the plan to build 160 luxury houses in the Green Belt).

We also know the original house-builders, Story Homes, have now withdrawn from the project because of ‘a change in strategic direction’.  Interestingly, they continue to contact Wirral landowners looking for other Green Belt House-building Opportunities. The Resort house-builders will now be Redrow Homes. This Company currently faces public outrage in Liverpool, with over 50,000 people signing a petition to oppose Liverpool City Council’s plans to sell part of Calderstones Park to Redrow, to build 50 luxury houses there.

And it is understood that a number of environmental and financial reports are due to be presented by the Nicklaus Joint Venture Group to the Council early this year.  The Labour Cabinet will then decide if they wish to continue with the Resort project.  The Stop Hoylake Golf Resort Action Group (SHGRAG) question the ‘independence’ of these reports as they’ll be commissioned and paid for by the developer.

The SHGRAG hopes that the Council will look at other more sustainable options for the site. In particular, urging the Council to look seriously at the Hoylake Village Life’s proposal for a Wildfowl and Wetland / Eco Centre which is supported by the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust. This option wouldn’t require Green Belt housing, would bring in far more tourists and is, with the threat of climate change, a more sensible option for a Zone 3 (highest risk) flood plain site.

A spokesperson for SHGRAG says:

“we urge all residents who are against the Resort, with its plans to build houses on the flood plain and Green Belt, to contact the Councillors, particularly the Labour Group Councillors, to urge them to look at other options for the site.”

The Wirral Society supports this request. 

Tree-planting and Hedge-Laying

Tree-planting-and-hedge-laying-at-WoodchurchIn the last issue, I reported how the Society is also contributing towards a 4-year hedgerow restoration project at a farm near Woodchurch, which started in November, with a Hedge-laying event. The event turned out to be a great success, especially as many of the volunteer hedge-layers were young people from nearly Woodchurch High School.  As the laying work will continue close to the Woodchurch Estate, it is planned there will be continued contact with the youngsters.

Common Ivy

Common-Ivy-takeover
Photo: Rod Tann

A year ago, I commented on how ivy was gradually taking over so many sandstone walls and trees – especially in this part of the Peninsula.  I made the point that “whilst it apparently doesn’t normally affect its host to any great extent, its vigorous growth enables it to take over wherever it grows.” Well, here is a recent example of how ivy, along with a strong wind, can lead to the destruction of a mature tree.

Anti-Golf Resort Demonstration, Wallasey Town Hall

Wirral’s Public Turn Out To Protest Against Wirral Council’s Green Belt Policies

As this post is being written, an Extraordinary Meeting is being held by Wirral Council at Wallasey Town Hall to discuss Wirral’s long-running white elephant vanity project, ‘Hoylake Golf Resort’, or, the ‘Celtic Manor Resort’, as it has now been rebranded. The meeting was called by opposition Councillors and it is hoped that a majority from the 66 elected Councillors will be persuaded to vote for a cesation to proceed with this project, in the light of wide opposition to the idea and current national economic uncertainty.

The Wirral Society have previously argued that the land in question on the outskirts of Hoylake is not only essential Green Belt, but useful farm land with the potential for contributing to Wirral’s home-grown food supply. However, Wirral Council Cabinet continue to ignore anything anybody says against their golfing venture, preferring to  uphold their own internal ideas for development on this Green Belt.

However stubborn Council Cabinet can be, they can be sure the people of Wirral who oppose their Green Belt sell-off ideology will make their voices heard, as they have done so tonight outside and no doubt inside, the Town Hall. Needless to say, the public gallery filled up very quickly with many people being turned away, and one person was heard saying, “well, I wouldn’t really want to go in there without the aid of a shark cage!”

Whether that comment was directed at Council Cabinet or the spectators gallery, we really couldn’t say, but it’s sure to have been a lively event, judging by the frustration of the protestors wishing to have their voices heard by a Council Leader who seems determined to push this policy through before the forthcoming May elections.

We’re not hopeful there will be a vote with the result we would like to see, but the fact people are coming out to show their support for their environment against a Council who seem not to share the views of their electorate, still gives us hope and reason to exist as an organisation.

Only time will tell…