St Helens MBC Local Plan
Launched in late 2015 with early 2016 being the initial scoping phase there has been considerable attention generated from the public response and some political volatility that would not be out of place in a BBC drama.
To be fair to St Helens council, like all councils, they do have a challenge, due to local government funding of central grants being reduced leaving the council needing to replace funds lost from central government. In addition there are pressing social issues a shortage of housing and the need to generate long term growth and employment in the borough.
That the council needs to provide housing and facilitate growth and employment is not in question by the concerned residents. The issue to these people is that the current plan, the council are proposing, actually falls some way short of those objectives in the view of many.
We will examine some of these arguments later in the article ostensibly though they assert that the housing strategy does not meet core social need and the commercial strategy is too limited in scope to deliver the step change in overall growth and employment the borough requires.
This is before we get to taking account of health, well being and environmental issues something foremost in people’s concerns and priorities in relation to any local plan.
The plan the council have for the borough can be largely summed up into two distinct elements.
One a succession of executive housing estates with prime detached houses in outlying parts of the borough. The second aspect of the plan is the creation of a cluster of warehouse and storage complexes on the periphery of the borough in Newton-Le-Willows and Haydock.
Nominally still in St Helens borough but in reality actually on the borders of Wigan, Warrington and St Helens.
This gives rise to a number of problems as seen by the opponents of the plan.
The need in the borough is for affordable housing where the bulk of the population live. High value detached homes are of no use to young people of those with modest means looking to get a step on the housing market ladder. Nor is it of use to local communities whom may live away from the outer periphery of the borough. The council have also been questioned on seemingly extraordinary population growth projections for the borough in the local plan, both for the borough as whole and specific targeted towns internally in the borough. Despite a relatively steep decline in population for the past 30 years the future 30 year projection is for a circa 22% population increase with some existing towns / parishes to increase in population by 50%.
These numbers are under dispute by a number of communities in the borough, describing them as grossly exaggerated, unachievable, unworkable and unrealistic.
This volatile situation is further complicated by a government white paper on Objectively Assessed Needs (OAN) this essentially means the government may be changing the basis for housing which will impact housing quotas by councils, including St Helens.
See the view of the CPRE HERE
Exclusively the commercial strategy to create growth and employment for generations to come is from almost one single sector and also substantively in one location. That is Warehousing in Newton and Haydock and even then to the east of these areas effectively on the border of Warrington and Wigan boroughs. Warehousing employs a range of positions from management to operatives and certainly should not be disparaged as a sector. However if this is to provide the bulk of employment opportunities and drive future multiplier growth in the borough this has obvious limitations. This is further compounded when a recent report asserted that by far the biggest sector at risk from the forthcoming generation of robotics is automation and load services.
The question arises is this giving the young people of St Helens a bright and prosperous future?
Future employment will come increasingly from small to medium businesses who are innovative and fast to market. These will require reasonably frictionless road transport access. In addition to the narrow warehousing sector focus of the council there is concern the vast Warehousing sites denominating the A580 / M6 to the east of the borough will most likely create road congestion issues which will be a barrier to the wider economy and prosperity via new enterprise.
St Helens Borough Generally and Town Centre – although St Helens Council has initiatives for the town centre included in its local plan it’s hard to understand how the thrust of its housing and commercial strategy will regenerate the town centre and create housing for the bulk of the population.
At the end of the day what generates wealth in a town centre is disposable income and crucially footfall. By dominating the future population at the periphery of the borough and focussing employment narrowly in the warehousing sector again on the periphery of the borough, what are the implications for the town centre and the core and hub of the boroughs population?
A wider economy is also far more likely to generate higher disposable income which in turn will benefit the town centre.
These are valid concerns, concerns that it would be reasonable of the council to at least recognise.
Broadly over the years the council has had a reasonable relationship with the public. There is a fissure now developing in that relationship, one that could have long term implications. There is concern over the council’s engagement with the public in a number of areas. These are important and we will look at these in a moment but first it’s worth reminding ourselves here of the timeframe of the local plan and where we are at the moment.
We have passed the scoping consultation (where the council sets out generally what they want to do) and the controversial preferred options stage (where the council want to do it). We are now at the stage of waiting for the draft local plan to the secretary of state which we expect late summer 2017. Then it’s a public examination with a government inspector early 2018 and adoption of the local plan (or not) by late 2018.
The full schedule of events as far as we understand, at this stage, are
SHBC collate representations and responses to SHLPPO ( currently ongoing)
- SHBC Consult with experts on findings (GL Hearn produced addendum reports for the Warrington Draft LP)
- SHBC prepare record document for PINS and draft Local Plan
- SHBC prepare Draft Local Plan taking into account SHLPPO response
- SHBC Publish Local plan ( Due anytime after September -currently October or November)
- 6 weeks draft Local Plan PUBLIC CONSULTATION PERIOD – PUBLIC FINAL OPPORTUNITY TO COMMENT
- SHBC collate representations and responses to DLP
- SHBC Consult with their consultants on findings
- SHBC prepare addendum Local Plan report summarising DLP responses for submission to PINS
- SHBC issue Draft Local Plan & Addendum to PINS for examination. (plus all evidence docs)
- A Local Plan Programme Officer is appointed by LPA (SHBC) to manage the process ,meetings evidence docs hearing etc.
- Week 10 -12 after submission the main hearings begin.
- If a Pre Hearing Meeting (PHM ) is needed the programme moves back a further 6 weeks (week 16-18) with the PHM taking place in week 8.
Detailed Information on the Planning Inspectorate Local Plan examination process is HERE
We read with interest the comments from local MP Connor Mcginn the council’s chief executive Michael Palin in January 2017 HERE. The MP makes some interesting points that although he is in favour of aspects of the plan reading between the diplomacy there are some clear concerns. One of the visions of the MP is that the future St Helens should be an attractive place to live work and visit. There is an obvious reference to some of the points raised above in particular diversity of employment opportunities and the danger of creating transport barriers and detrimental effects on the quality of life and health of people in the borough. The east of the borough is specifically mentioned. Were we to score this feedback from the MP we would score it as a less than totally comprehensive approval. Other Labour MP’s from the surrounding borough’s Wigan and Warrington have also expressed concerns over the St Helens Local plan details namely Andy Burnham (recently when MP for Leigh), Yvonne Fovargue (MP Makerfield) and Helen Jones (MP Warrington North)
So why is the council pursuing, as some see it, commercially dysfunctional and socially divisive strategies?
To many it looks like simple expediency!
This goes back to the beginning of the article what is the council’s core problem that the local plan is intending to solve ?
Does the council want to progress the borough with a diversity of employment, housing and the place people want to live?
Or does it want to plug a short term funding gap by generating a short term spike in business and democratic rates ?
The council could pursue a high growth strategy with a diversity of employment opportunities and provide affordable housing in areas of the borough that need it. They could align this with a safe healthily environment where people choose to live. They could, using the words of the local MP, make St Helens an attractive place to live and visit. In any event there must be doubt about how much additional income, for example raising money from additional council tax, will be generated with this strategy if there is a contraction in the housing market?
However it appears the vision of Mr Mcginn and much of the public has been discarded in favour of a low risk low return strategy. Low risk, of course handing vast swathes of the borough’s green belt to developers and funding developers with public cash is very much likely to be delivered. What developer would not grab that with both hands?
But there are consequences to easy options, there always are!
St Helens MBC strategy appears low risk / low return both in economic terms and high risk to deterioration of quality of life and health. St Helens Borough has fallen behind in recent decades it’s not clear how a strategy of executive housing and warehousing on the periphery of the borough will overturn this position in relation to adjoining borough’s who pursue a more balanced strategy.
The alternative is a higher risk, higher return policy by attracting a wider range of business sectors across a wider area but with a longer term growth and employment yield potential and providing housing that’s appropriate to the need and affordability of present and future populations. This is harder to do but potentially offers much higher returns both economically and socially for the borough.
Does St Helens borough not at least deserve that chance?
There has also been some public critique of the lack of transparency in the years leading up to the plan. Council minutes have shown there was recognition years in advance that public reaction could be unfavourable. Throughout that time it was very much kept under the radar and when the consultation and communication with the public came, it was over the Christmas period. Something the council took a lot of criticism for from the public.
But this was only the mere genesis of a much wider period of unrest and division between the council and many of its residents. Generally the scale of the green belt loss and its effect of communities were causing great worry particularly in its allocation heavily targeting some areas.
A number of community action groups against the St Helens MBC local plan were formed across the borough.
This situation was further compounded by a perceived lack of engagement / responses from the council.
Then if this was not enough there then followed a series of political comings and goings in late April and early May that would not be out of place in a TV drama. We include links to articles in the local press below.
A series of public demonstrations outside the St Helens town hall and local sites impacted which also attracted the attention of national television and some well known individuals in national politics and celebrity status.
At the moment there is an uneasy calm. The council have undertaken two big consultations with the public and the exact shape of these responses has yet to be published by St Helens council.
It is perhaps the case St Helens Council were surprised by the scale of the responses to the “Preferred Options” consultation over the 2016 festive period and these are absorbing a high element of resource in their processing.
Certainly of interest will be the draft plan to government (expected early autumn 2017) and the extent to which St Helens Council have taken on board the responses of the communities they serve. There is also some desire to see a more compelling ambitious strategy for the borough in commercial terms and recognition of the importance of health and well being of the residents of the borough and especially for the residents in generations to come.
If these are not forthcoming then there is a possibility of more public protest and a further deepening of the growing fissure between the council and its residents.