What has happened to Warrington's Local Plan?
July 8, 2020 3:41 PM
It has now been over twelve months since the consultation closed on Warrington's Local Plan. Some 3,500 people responded to the plan. So where is the Local Plan up to?
Somewhat surprisingly given the number of objections, not least those made by the South Warrington Parishes, it appears that the next version of the Local Plan won't look too different from the last one. Having sifted through all of the responses, including those from landowners and developers, the council reckons that they have one outstanding issue - the delivery of infrastructure - and they even think that they have solved that problem over the past twelve months. As a councillor and lifelong resident of Warrington, I am not only disappointed but frustrated. It seems that the powers that be simply are not listening to the people who they are meant to serve.
Let me be clear, my opposition to the Local Plan in its various guises to date has not been about NIMBYism. Quite frankly, having seen some of the problems left behind by poorly managed growth in other parts of the town, I would have been equally incensed by this current plan even if I didn't live in and represent one of the worst affected parts of the borough. At its heart, my objection is very simple - the plan doesn't offer a compelling vision for the future of Warrington.
The plan as it stands remains full of contradictions. It sets out a direction which diverges from the desires and aspirations of many people from across the town who I have spoken to. People who want a greener, fairer and more inclusive future.
There remains a disconnect between the plan's aspirations for regenerating the town centre and the development of new garden villages. We know that any future for our town centre is dependent on it's repopulation and redevelopment. How will this be achieved as soon as developers are allowed to cherry pick newly released Green Belt sites across the borough?
The Local Plan and it's sister, the Local Transport Plan, make much of a 'modal shift' away from the cars, yet thousands of houses are planned for garden villages. A recent national report highlighted what we'd been saying about these plans - garden villages sustain car dependency.
So much of the Local Plan is dependent on the delivery of critical infrastructure, not least the Western Link and a new distributor road across Appleton and south Grappenhall. The council clearly have a rough price tag for this as they are in discussions on how it will be paid. If this price tag bears any resemblance to some of the figures given in the last iteration of the plan, then we should have grave concerns for whether infrastructure will ever be properly delivered given how underweight some of those valuations seemed to be. As importantly, much of this infrastructure is about new roads, thus further increasing car dependency. Some research I recently came across made two critical points. Firstly, building new roads typically does not ease congestion, but rather just increases overall traffic volumes. Secondly, active travel and public transport infrastructure is often the same price or cheaper than new roads, so there is no financial excuse for funding road delivery over greener alternatives.
All in all, this remains a plan driven solely by economic growth and underpinned by car dependency. We are repeatedly told that we need to grow our way out of our current infrastructure problems. The blame is also, somewhat legitimately, pushed onto central government who set the planning agenda, not least through their housing need methodology. In my view though, we are giving in too easily.
The council may have the degrees of freedom in which they can act restricted - not only by government policy, but also by Warrington's unique geographical constraints and also its historical development (significantly, but not only, the unfinished New Town). Why though, are we not pushing back? Why are we not arguing that the system as it exists does not suit Warrington and its unique circumstances? Sadly, I think that for all the crying of foul play, the council seem happy to accept significant development if it means more revenue. Again, I understand the historical factors which make Warrington so poorly and unfairly funded compared to other local authorities. There are so many wrongs involved here though that they simply cannot make a right.
So I will continue to demand better. This is not just opposition, it is calling for a better alternative. We need sustainable growth, which prioritises regeneration, reduces car dependency and focuses on making places rather than meeting targets. We must use ever inch of flex within the current system to achieve a slower rate of development while also getting our infrastructure right. And if the system doesn't allow that, we need to change the system.
Admittedly this goes beyond Warrington - we need a national planning system which is more responsive to local communities and more reflective of a fast-changing world. Planning is so important and the planning community gets it. Our planners must be as frustrated as we are. Planning must be about building holistic, sustainable places which prioritise quality of life.
That is what I want for Warrington and the group which it is my privilege to chair, Rethinking South Warrington's Future, will continue to make exactly that case. If this sounds like a vision for the future which you can support, do please seek us out and get involved: the future is worth it and with your help we can make it a better one.
Councillor Ryan Bate is the Chair of Rethinking South Warrington's Future, a group representing residents and communities from across the south of the borough.