The Secret Plan

Please click here to read the West Cheshire/North East Wales sub-regional strategy.

THE WEST CHESHIRE/NORTH EAST WALES SUB-REGIONAL STRATEGY
This strategy and its implications make it the biggest plan for North East Wales and its people certainly in living memory.

It proposes:  ‘To create a new sub-region with its own distinct identity.’ Later amended to include ‘and to safeguard the distinctive characteristics within it.’

It talks about joint strategies for housing, economic development, transport, waste management and tourism.
Essentially it is purely an economically driven spatial plan. It is in essence seeking a solution to limiting factors that constrain the continuing economic growth of West Cheshire and Merseyside.  The major limiting factor is one of land supply that is well documented throughout the development of this strategy. The strategy has been presented as a ‘sustainable’ approach to economic development, we would propose that it is only sustainable from the North West of England’s point of view as it proposes the continuing expansion of both the economy and addressing of housing needs of the North West of England into North East Wales and even further westwards.

There are several references to the fact that Denbighshire is also absorbing this housing pressure along with Flintshire and Wrecsam. The language used in drafts of the plan include ‘aggressive development westwards’, ‘regeneration’ (meaning housing development, economic growth and re-population, NOT regeneration of existing communities). Out of the 13 areas marked for this type of development in the final strategy, 11 are in Wales. These can be seen on Pg 34 (diagram 6).
Examples of serious flaws with this strategy are highlighted by various reports, such as CPRE North West Region, Enviro Watch Wales and the borders and the RSPB (these bodies being the only consultees not with a vested interest in the completion of these plans).
The Mersey Dee Alliance that has been formed to implement the sub-regional strategy is a non-elected body answerable to nobody within the respective councils, implementing a non-statutory plan. This body seems even to be aiming to override local and national (Welsh) planning policy. One of it’s stated aims is:
“…..ensure through our close collaboration, that we help to bring forward the most appropriate sites for development, based on their merits, rather than having regard to administrative boundaries and to local allocation targets.”


(Memorandum submitted by M D A to the Welsh Affairs Committee, April 2008)

The strategy itself recognises many problems that its implementation will cause across North East Wales, including the recognised problem of house price rises caused by in-migration and the loss of Welsh identity.
Scale and distribution of homes (pg 51)

“Provision should be made for approximately 30,000 – 35,000 new dwellings within the sub-region until 2021.”

Out of those, 13,000 – 14,700 are in England whereas 17,000 – 20,000 are in North East Wales.

(Pg 52)“ The dynamics of the local housing market are such that pressure for development is not constrained to the core study area of the sub-region but has implications for authorities within the wider reference area, most notably for Denbighshire.”

(Pg 23)“ The key is to live within our environmental limits. This will affect factors such as accommodating flood risk, the protection of the Coastal/Marine zone, climate change, biodiversity and habitat loss; deterioration of built and archaeological heritage and the decline of local distinctiveness, including welsh language and culture.” 
 
SWOT ANALYSIS (Pg 14) – THREATS
 
“Continuing trend of net in-migration in Flintshire, Wrecsam (from English authorities) and Denbighshire leads to loss of local identity.”
Consistently the plan is contradictory in its aims, apparently aiming to be a ‘sustainable’ development strategy whilst at the same time actively promoting commuting, which it acknowledges WILL LEAD to a loss of local identity. Its statements are often contradictory, such as:
Policy ENV 1 – originally said ‘to create a clear identity for the sub-region’, later amended in the final version to say ‘that recognises the distinct characteristics of the communities that define it’.
Consistently, responsibility for tackling any of the problems caused by this expansion of the North West’s economy into Wales are ducked by bland statements, which essentially recognise the problems the plan will create but defer responsibility of mitigating the damage to the relevant local authorities.
Policy ENV1, (Pg 44) – The Sub-Region’s Environment:
“The local distinctiveness of settlements, centres and rural areas within the sub-region will be conserved and enhanced.“ However, it offers no explanation or in fact any information as to how this will be done.
The West Cheshire/North East Wales Sub-Regional Strategy has invented a sub-region, ignoring a national boundary and a different culture, identity and language. It has totally ignored history and people.
Its stated aim and its historical development show that this is purely an economically driven plan, a plan which aims to expand the economy of the North West of England into North East Wales, thereby mitigating the limits to its growth and the problems of sustainability which such growth inevitably causes. The fact that it is a non-statutory plan but has gained status through creeping validation is extremely worrying. Interwoven within the strategy is an incredible level of ignorance and one-dimensional thought. A planning strategy of such magnitude that advocates large movements of population but does not consider the social, political or environmental issues is surely deeply flawed. At no point in the plan is it clear where even any economic benefits are brought to the already existing population of North East Wales.

DETAILED ANALYSIS OF ‘THE SECRET PLAN’

Before beginning a detailed discussion of the strategy, it’s important first of all to understand the process by which this ‘non- statutory’ plan has now found its way, by a process of creeping validation into local development plans and the Wales Spatial Plan, therefore becoming statutory. Its status has therefore resulted in a strong influence over various planning, housing, economic and transport strategies across North East Wales. It’s unclear how the strategy has been absorbed into the Wales Spatial Plan and by what mechanism it has now become a material planning consideration for local authorities in North East Wales.   

Due to the fact that this strategy has come forward as non-statutory, it has not undergone any genuine scrutiny outside of key stakeholders. In fact, there has been very little consultation of any kind and absolutely none with the general population in North East Wales.

The plan links in to other other City Region plans that were being developed at around the same time, in particular the Liverpool City region plan and to a lesser extent Manchester. It is acknowledged that the West Cheshire sub-regional strategy has been prepared in keeping with the themes of these other strategies.
Origins and Development of West Cheshire/North East Wales Sub-Regional Strategy:

1 – The first reference to the ‘sub-region’ was in the Mersey Belt Study in 2002. This study was commissioned by the North West Development Agency to address land supply issues for the growth of the North West of England. The study recognised a shortage of land supply for both employment and the subsequent shortage for housing, particularly in the ‘Southern Crescent’ (Chester, Ellesmere Port etc).
The following quotation is taken from Chapter 3 of the Mersey Belt study:
3.27 iii) Pg 30

“Recognising the limited availability around Chester and its important role as an attractive location to the target sectors, an alterative option would be to identify a suitable site for knowledge based industries just over the border in Wales. With close proximity to the Chester Business Park that could be perceived by investors as a Chester location. This study has not sought to identify any specific sites in North Wales. We recommend that the NWDA, local authorities and their partners in the North East Wales/West Cheshire sub-region should undertake a co-ordinated appraisal of the Cross-Border economic needs and opportunities. This could explore a range of options for FUTURE LAND SUPPLY and would accord with the approach beginning to emerge out of the RPG process.”
Also, this quotation from Chapter 6 recognises an aspiration to protect Cheshire from overcrowding.
Policy Recommendations for the Mersey Belt Area:
Providing quality Housing sites  – ‘Southern Crescent’
6.18 (Pg 79)
“It’s important that a steady supply of quality housing is achieved in the Southern Crescent as a whole to match the natural capacity of existing and proposed target sector employment locations. Switching off this supply would not only be non-sustainable in commuting terms but it would detract from the areas pulling power for nationally mobile investment. However, as the area grows in population it is important ‘not to kill the goose that lays the golden egg’ in terms of overcrowding the North Cheshire countryside.”
2003/4  – West Cheshire/North East Wales Sub-Regional Study, GVA Grimley.
Following the recommendations of the Mersey Belt study, a cross border group of organisations, including local authorities in North East Wales commissioned GVA Grimley consultants to prepare the West Cheshire/North East Wales sub-regional study. It is unclear as to the extent of involvement of either officers or elected members from the Welsh side of the border in this commission. The aim of the study, completed in 2004, was to identify the economic drivers that could influence future development in North East Wales and West Cheshire. This included studying the housing market in both areas, identifying ‘stakeholders’ aspirations from both sides of the border and identifying options for future development. It was at this point that the reference area for the sub-region expanded to include Denbighshire.
It’s at this stage that the report suggests continuation of expansion of growth of what is now termed the ‘sub-region’, using North Wales as a kind of expansion zone of the previously identified overheated ‘Southern Crescent’ in the North West of England.
One of the main aims from the original study is:
“ To create a distinct identity for the sub-region.”

This was later amended to include ‘whilst safeguarding the distinctive characteristics within in it’, although it is still set out in it’s original form as late as 2005 in the sustainability appraisal. Apart from the addition to the wording of the aim, no further information as regards how local characteristics will be safeguarded were ever included in the plan.
The following are quotations from the GVA Grimley study:
Demographics (Pg 4)

“A significant flow of migration has been from Wirral and Liverpool, southwards into Ellesmere Port and Chester and particularly westwards to Flintshire.”

2.13    ” A greater flow of migration within the sub-region however, is the movement southwards from Chester to Wrexham and more significantly the westwards flow into Flintshire. Moreover, the migratory flows into Flintshire are more than four times the migratory flows entering Wrexham. This is a clear indicator that Flintshire is absorbing the major movements of population.”
2.14    “ A secondary ‘westwards’ flow is also emerging. Denbighshire is also absorbing significant numbers of population from Flintshire.”

.Definition of the Sub-Region (Pg 7)

“In economics, housing market and travel to work terms we can conclude, it is reasonable from this study that the Core Study Area is a quite distinct, coherent and functional sub-region. However, there is substantial evidence to suggest that Denbighshire and Wirral should also be considered as constituent parts of this sub-region for specific issues, particularly in relation to the housing market and impact of economic development.”

 
It is unclear and unexplained how the conclusion is drawn that the core study area is a ‘distinct, coherent and functional sub-region’. It seems that the existence of a national border and a national culture are non-existent. However, the fact that the Welsh side of the ‘sub-region’ seems to hold solutions to sustain the sub-region’s growth merits its inclusion. Despite this glaring flaw in thinking, the following recommendations were proposed and accepted (again although both the Welsh Assembly and Welsh local authorities accepted these plans, there was no open discussion or debate up to and including this stage).
“RECOMMENDATION: The West Cheshire\North East Wales Sub-Region is defined by the local authorities of Chester, Ellesmere Port and Neston, Flintshire and Wrexham, together with the inclusion of Denbighshire and Wirral where specific issues arise.”
Need for strategy / common vision – ( Pg 8 )
“RECOMMENDATION: The next stage in following this study is to develop an agreed Vision and Strategy for the West Cheshire\North East Wales sub-region, that leads to the provision of a clear and consistent regional and local economic and planning framework together with an agreed programme for the implementation of common development projects.”

Sustainability Appraisal 2005 – (pg 54)

“the Government is promoting the concept of the city region as a centrepiece of regional economic development. In the case of the West Cheshire/North East Wales Sub-Region, the role of the city regions of Liverpool and, to a lesser extent Manchester, and their associated economic policy objectives are reflected in the new spatial strategy. The draft Liverpool City Region Sub-Regional Strategy in particular incorporates a number of policy objectives that impact on West Cheshire/North East Wales, particularly with regard to economic development, transport links and housing”. Planning policy – (Pg 8 )
“Recommendation: that the Study begins to inform the review of planning, economic and housing policy across the sub-region, from the national and regional level to the local level. This will be part of an ongoing process that over the next 12 months will be further informed by the preparation of a robust and inclusive sub-regional Strategy.”


2005-2006  – West Cheshire/North East Wales draft strategy
A draft of the Sub-Regional Strategy was produced in 2005 by Hyder Consulting and Price Waterhouse Coopers.  This then led to the final version of the strategy being adopted by Wrecsam, Denbighshire and Flintshire councils, along with the Welsh Assembly in 2006. Again, the level of democratic process involved is unclear and seems overall to be officer lead. Up to and including this date, there had still been no general public involvement or consultation.
The Broad spatial planning vision for the Sub-Region was as follows:

“The West Cheshire and North East Wales sub-region will be an area able

to compete successfully in the regional, national and global marketplace,

where the area’s special characteristics for growth are pursued to the

benefit of both the sub-region and the Liverpool city-region.”

2005-2007  – Liverpool City Region Proposals and Housing Strategy

This was being developed in tandem with the sub-regional strategy.
The Liverpool City Region states that “ The City Region consists of thirteen local authorities, inclusive of the New Heartlands HMRI Pathfinder area. It incorporates the local authorities of Liverpool, Knowsley, Sefton, St Helens, Wirral, Halton, Ellesmere Port and Neston, West Lancashire, Chester, part of Vale Royal, and the Welsh authorities of Wrexham and Flintshire.”
It defines the Southern market area including North East Wales:
4.25 – “These market pressures have driven up house prices fuelling affordability issues across the area. The Southern Market Area records the highest affordability ratios within the City Region and includes a significant area in which it is very difficult to locate affordable Housing.”

 
“Overall the Southern Market Area offers unrivalled quality in its neighbourhoods and quality of life. This has fuelled high demand for property in the area, although as noted capacity issues regarding available land and the location of services and infrastructure limit the options for continued growth. Joint working between authorities will be increasingly important in the future if the Southern Market is going to effectively supply the level of housing required to sustain its economic development and wider contribution to the City Region.”
The Southern Housing Market Area Priority:

“Promote sustainable growth and development of the West Cheshire/North East Wales Sub-Region as a key economic driver for the Liverpool City region”.