Exactly how big can Chester become? That is the issue facing city planners as they seek to strike the fine balance between sustaining growth and preserving the city's special character and distinct Green Belt boundaries. ROB DEVEY investigates.
BEFORE the ink has even dried on Chester's long-awaited Local Plan, planners are thinking ahead to its successor.
The Plan could finally be adopted by councillors this month following 2004's public inquiry.
Changes to Government guidelines mean it must be followed by a new Local Development Framework (LDF), setting out a fresh blueprint for development and land-use in Chester.
The document will have major implications for homes, jobs and transport links in the city.
It will be informed by the West Cheshire and North East Wales Sub-Regional Spacial Strategy, produced by consultants for neighbouring local authorities.
Consultation on the Strategy, which recommends a policy of 'sustainable growth' for Chester, has just ended.
It earmarks unspecified land southwest of the city for a second business park.
The strategy says 6,500-7,500 new homes will be required in Chester by 2021, pointing to an annual shortfall of 400 affordable homes.
As well as backing the construction of the Western Relief Road, it talks of boosting public transport.
In a pre-emptive strike, the Campaign to Protect Rural England mailed thousands of residents, seeking support in its fight to preserve the Green Belt. Hundreds returned an enclosed postcard for the Government's attention.
But politicians and planners say the first preference is to develop available brownfield sites.
Cllr David Evans, leader of Chester City Council, said: 'The brownfield development we've been doing has been enormously successful. But there's certainly a debate to be had about where Chester goes in development terms, there's no fait accompli.
'There are those who seem to hanker after a 1950s Chester and a sleepy market town but life isn't like that. We want to see the city become a 'mustsee' European destination.
'If people want to come here it would be foolish of us to tell them they can't - providing we can find ways of accommodating them, and that doesn't necessarily have to be within the existing city limits.
'Ultimately we will get to a point when there are no more brownfield sites available and will have to make the decision 'is that enough'?'
Although another business park could boost the financial services or knowledge-based sectors, tourism and retail projects such as the Northgate Development, proposed Amphitheatre visitor centre and idea of a Chester 'Super Zoo' are to take centre stage.
And while new jobs will bring new people, not least to a city with unemployment at just 1.4%, Cllr Evans is confident the city will cope.
He said predictions of a natural decrease in population due to a falling birth rate would help to counterbalance increases arising from job opportunities.
'It's a question of growing in a sustainable way,' said Cllr Evans.
'We do not want to kill the goose that lays the golden egg.
'I don't think the view 'let's pull down the drawbridge and not allow any nasty outsiders in' is one many people in Chester would subscribe to.'
Cllr Evans is keen to get people not in work 'for a number of reasons' back into the job market.
But he admits the current public transport system is 'not good' and he is backed by Chester MP Christine Russell in demanding improvements.
Mrs Russell has doubts about the wisdom of the Western Relief Road, which is part of the county council's new Local Transport Plan but has not attracted Government funding for the next 10-year period.
'We already have part of that road in the Deva Link Road and that is already bumper to bumper,' she said.
'My view is that extensive studies would have to be done on how the relief road would affect the Sealand Basin area. There's every chance it would result in complete gridlock.'
With Chester's average house price now £189,313, Mrs Russell described the shortage of affordable homes as a 'huge issue', which could damage the city's prosperity if not addressed.
City council planning chief Andy Farrall said the requirement that 40% of homes within new developments be affordable could increase depending on how many homes it was given the go-ahead to build and land availability.
Mr Farrall said the authority would think about dropping the 'moratorium' restricting new-build depending on confirmation of new-build targets following a public inquiry into the regional spacial strategy.
He said a 1994 study, Chester: The Future of an Historic City, remained the main resource in guiding growth.
Mr Farrall said Chester was developed to the edge of its Green Belt, but there remained at least a five-year supply of brownfield development land.
Homes are set to be built on non-Green Belt green and brownfield land at the Countess of Chester Health Park and Saighton Army camp.
Green Belt sites the likeliest to face pressure for development include land off Wrexham Road and land south of Blacon bordering the River Dee, which is earmarked for employment.
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