A veteran councillor accuses her own Labour-led authority of ‘rushing’ the £300m Northgate Development as it prepares to lodge a planning application before the public consultation has concluded.
Cllr Marie Nelson (Blacon) is concerned if Cheshire West and Chester Council (CWaC) is only going through the motions with respect to the consultation relating to the revised city centre regeneration scheme that would include a department store, new shops, replacement Crowne Plaza hotel, cinema and market hall.
A councillor for more than 30 years, she told The Chronicle: “If this is what we are doing, and I don’t know if it is, I don’t like it.”
Today (Wednesday, March 16) the CWaC cabinet will meet at 6pm where councillors are expected to give strategic director Charlie Seward the power to submit a planning application for consideration by the planning committee next month (April) and enter into lease agreements on all units with rentals of more than £100,000 per annum.
But just half an hour later a stakeholders’ meeting concerning Northgate is being hosted by CWaC at Chester Town Hall followed by a three-day public exhibition in the 'Northgate Consultation Shop’ at The Forum which begins the very next day (Thursday March 17) in the wake of a similar exercise in December.
Cllr Nelson, who is appalled at the quality of some of the developments given planning permission in Chester over the past few years, added: “We have waited for this for so long, why don’t we get it right?”
She feels if there are valid reasons for ‘rushing’ then there needed to be openness about what those reasons are and fears pushing projects through too quickly could be counter-productive and actually lead to slower progress.
“You create problems for yourself. You don’t want to alienate people before you’ve even started and that's what's happening and I find that bizarre,” she added. "It could be officers doing whatever they want to do and political inexperience, but I don't know what's gone on behind-the-scenes."
Andrew Needham, chairman of the Cheshire Campaign to Protect Rural England and a former Tory county councillor of 20 years’ standing, agreed “As a point of principle, this is being rushed. Before there is an agreement to put in a planning application they should say what the application is and then the council agree it. That would be the normal way.”
The September council cabinet had indeed agreed that a further report should be presented to full council in advance of the submission of any planning application but this has now been dropped.
Labour council leader Cllr Samantha Dixon (Chester City) ‘strongly’ rejects the accusation the Northgate Development is being rushed – with a long-stated ambition to submit a planning application in spring 2016 – and she insists the authority’s approach has ‘always been open and transparent’.
Stressing the redevelopment had cross-party support and equal representation on the Northgate Members’ Working Group, she said there had been a series of extensive consultations on Northgate since 2011.
She added: “The public exhibition which opens on Thursday will show how comments made by the public during the pre-planning consultation have been taken into account and reflected in changes to the design.
“All feedback received during this latest stage of consultation will form an important part of the statement of consultation which will accompany a planning application, and will be considered by the planning committee when the application is before them.
“There will be a further opportunity for people to make their views known as part of a 16-week formal consultation that will take place once the planning application is submitted."
Cllr Dixon concluded: “My door is always open to meet with any councillor who may have questions about the scheme or who wishes to discuss it in more detail. Alternatively they are welcome to speak to any member of the working group."