Cheshire West and Chester Council leader criticised by parish councillors

CHESHIRE West and Chester Council leader Mike Jones came under fire from community leaders for not supporting their stance against housing developments on greenfield sites.
Cllr Mike Jones Image 1

CHESHIRE West and Chester Council leader Mike Jones came under fire from community leaders for not supporting their stance against housing developments on greenfield sites.

Cllr Roger Lucy, speaking at Handley & District Parish Council, shared a proposed open letter with fellow councillors which asked ‘pertinent’ questions of Tattenhall ward councillor Jones, who was not present.

Cllr Lucy is speaking out because he fears revised plans by Marbury Properties for 65 houses, an ambulance station and village hall at Milton Green, near Chester, will be approved on a disused council depot and adjacent fields next week.

Cllr Jones has declared an interest in the application because he is friends with Mike Bell, of Bell Developments, who has acted as an advisor on the project. He has passed the job of representing the community on to a neighbouring councillor.

Cllr Lucy said a recent decision by the planning committee to approve 16 houses on greenfield sites at Milton Green, against the advice of officers, sets ‘a dangerous precedent’ according to the borough’s development control manager. Cllr Jones, who addressed the meeting as ward councillor, spoke in favour of both schemes.

Cllr Lucy said the outcome revealed the hamlet was no longer being treated as an unsustainable location despite the lack of amenities.

He cited a planning officer's decision to grant permission to Morris Homes for 33 houses on the so-called Granary site in 2011 as the turning point.

And he questioned why Cllr Jones did not refer that application for a committee decision because an email showed he was aware of it at the time even though he later said it had ‘sneaked through’.

Seeking support for his open letter, which was not read out publicly, he said: “This is our ward councillor. This is the first step to getting Mike Jones to answer some pertinent questions about why he said he didn't know about the Morris Homes’ application when he did. He had 18 weeks’ knowledge when he did absolutely nothing.

“The recent manifestations of that are two further applications being approved on greenfield sites which he had his say so on but has declared an interest 10 yards over the road!”

Parish chairman Ron Stockton said: “Sadly Mike Jones has never really supported the parish council. Now, he’s our ward councillor and he should have supported us in our objection to development on greenfield land.”

Cllr Jon Mathias, who is also deputy chairman of Eddisbury Conservatives, said Cllr Jones had rung him at 10pm the previous night 'complaining' about a separate draft statement issued on behalf of Handley Parish Council which has now been withdrawn.

Cllr Mathias wanted to know ‘all the facts’ before making a decision on the open letter.

Cllr David Mamwell, who said he received a call at 10.10pm from Cllr Jones the same night, did not wish to be 'press ganged' into agreeing to the open letter on the spot.

But he added: “I'm totally opposed to greenfield development. I know things aren’t being done properly at HQ and something’s got to be done.”

The clerk told members Cllr Jones had asked to see the last two years of the parish council minutes.

Parish councillors decided more time was needed to consider whether to support the open letter which would also be signed by residents of Milton Green.

PARISH councillors are amazed resubmitted plans for more than 60 new hamlet homes have not been rejected outright.

The controversy has arisen in Handley where a renewed bid has been made by Marbury Properties for outline approval for 65 homes, a new village hall and a rural ambulance station on land opposite Cambrian Villas on Whitchurch Road and Chapel Lane.

The development has been called in to a meeting of the borough’s planning committee on Tuesday (June 4) by development planning manager Fiona Edwards.

A previous application on the site, which includes a former council depot and open countryside on the edge of the village, was refused in March.

It was rejected as it was part of a development on greenfield land in a relatively remote location with poor pedestrian and cyclist links, a lack of local facilities and services and limited public transport.

The committee is due to hear 26 (40%) of the homes would be affordable and the developer has offered at a contribution towards improving pedestrian access at the Golborne Bridge to make it easier to reach a farm shop.

Apart from the inclusion of affordable homes, the layout has been changed with the village hall and ambulance station being on the greenfield part of the site.

House builders Morris Homes had permission for 33 homes on Chapel Lane in August 2011, according to a report. Planners argue that does not set a precedent.

Handley and District Parish Council believes the scheme as a whole is basically the same and it is ‘amazed’ the council has not rejected the application outright.

The main issues are the effect on services and a lack of school places, the parish council believes.

Residents are said to have sent in ‘multiple representations’ arguing the development would increase the hamlet by 200% in less than three years and would take all the character and identity away from Milton Green.

Supporters feel the new build would provide the village with a local meeting place and the opportunity for Milton Green to grow as a community.

Recommending refusal planners insist the development would not be sustainable and would encroach onto open countryside.

CHESHIRE West and Chester Council leader Mike Jones accused some of his critics on Handley Parish Council of having ‘a vested interest’ because they live near the development sites.

In a statement, he said: “Two members of the parish council – both with vested interests locally – have criticised me for supporting two tiny housing developments and for not endorsing the parish council’s view of rejecting development on ‘greenfield’ sites.

“It should be understood that while members give the most serious consideration to planning officers’ recommendations, they must also consider each application on its own merits and according to their own conscience.

“In my view neither of these developments bordering the A41 at Milton Green – each for just eight houses – would change the area’s character and they are sustainable, utilising and supporting recently established local shops.”

Members of the committee, of both parties, agreed and voted in favour of the application.

Cllr Jones stressed that planning matters can only be decided within planning policy.

While brownfield sites are preferred, there was no presumption against sustainable development on greenfield sites and it was not a recognised argument against planning applications.

He added: “Furthermore, I would emphasise at no stage did the parish council ever contact me to ask me to oppose the two small applications.”

Councillor Jones emphasised that neither site was connected with the much larger Marbury Homes application – on the opposite side of the A41 – and there was no reason for him to declare a similar prejudicial interest under this authority’s Code of Conduct.

“As a friend of the Bell Brothers – initially involved with that development – I am required to declare that interest,” he said. “Failure to do so would not only have contravened that code but it could also have constituted a criminal offence.”

It was a matter of record that he had opposed the Granary site housing development as a Chester city councillor – both in 2002, 2006 and again at appeal the following year – on the grounds the site had been designated for employment purposes.

When the application had been submitted in March 2010, he had not been notified and only learned of it at a meeting with parish council members several months after the call-in period had expired.

The members’ call-in procedure states a councillor must request to refer a planning application for a committee decision ‘within 21 days of the member being notified of the planning application’.

In April last year, Cllr Jones had contacted planning to enquire about its approval recommendation and had been told it had been a ‘finely balanced’ decision taken only after extensive marketing of the site for employment purposes had failed to produce any interest.

It was considered the development would bring a vacant and rundown site back into beneficial use and that the benefits outweighed the potential loss of employment land.

The council leader added: “I was happy with the methodology employed in reaching the decision and the affordable housing element desperately required in a rural area.

“When the original applications were submitted, I hoped the Granary site would meet the priority demand for local jobs. Despite attempts to market it for employment, this did not happen.”

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