Wirral’s greenbelt boundaries may need to be reviewed as a major development policy faces intense scrutiny.
The planning inspectorate, a government body, could ask Wirral Council to review its draft Local Plan’s policy for rural areas after representations were made by several developers and an NHS hospital trust for it to reconsider two hospital sites and a number of villages.
They argued the council was “failing to plan positively” when it came to the greenbelt both in terms of using the land to enhance biodiversity but also look at growing the economy and providing housing in rural areas.
The draft Local Plan will set out a number of developments across Wirral over the next two decades with a focus on developing brownfield land in more deprived parts of the borough like Birkenhead, Bromborough, and Seacombe. It promises to deliver a minimum of 14,000 homes but could potentially provide many more.
It’s currently under review by the planning inspectorate who may require the council to make changes to the plan in order for it to be approved.
On 1 November, it faced intense scrutiny over its greenbelt policy and whether this “washes over” a number of sites across Wirral. Planning inspector Mike Worden asked the council about why it didn’t consider excluding villages from the greenbelt.
Guidance on greenbelt policy said villages should only be included if there is a contribution which “the open character of the village makes to the openness of the Green Belt.” This was added to greenbelt policy after Wirral’s was created.
Christopher Boyle KC, representing Leverhulme Estates, argued a number of villages should be removed from the green belt including Thornton Hough, Storeton, Brimstage, Raby Mere, and Barnston.
Mr Boyle said releasing this land from the greenbelt would allow for more housebuilding within these areas and provide “the opportunities at a village level of meeting the needs without compromising the greenbelt as a whole” outlined in national planning policy.
He also said plans by Leverhulme for artisan food production and leisure facilities would be “extremely restricted in terms of these even existing steadings the moment one wants to move outside an existing built form or footprint.”
In a hearing statement, the developer argued the council failed to provide for a single new dwelling in the rural parts of Wirral and didn’t treat the greenbelt as a “valuable resource” which was “to the detriment of the thousands of residents who live there”. Wirral Council argues at least 57 homes could be built based on previous planning permissions.
Council representative Christopher Katkowski KC said affordable housing could be provided within the greenbelt through policies allowing limited building in villages and use of previously developed land if it didn’t further impact or harm the greenbelt.
He said, “It may well be your very special circumstances would be there’s a very real need for affordable housing,” adding: “That’s the way the system works, that’s the way national policy on the green belt works.”
Jackie Copley from the Wirral Green Space Alliance said, “It’s not uncommon for villages to be washed over by a greenbelt. Maybe in other locations there’d be reasons because of the way the belt is located that you might have that decision” and pointed to Wirral’s position as a peninsula.
Representatives of the Wirral University Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust which runs Arrowe Park and Clatterbridge Hospitals also sought reassurance the greenbelt policy didn’t restrict any future developments on those sites.
Wirral Council argued this was not necessary pointing to a recent extension that was allowed by the local authority but Daniel Staniland who was representing the trust pointed to Cheshire West and Chester Council who in 2019 created individual areas within the green belt to support businesses like Chester Zoo.
He said the NHS trust had suggested an alternative policy to acknowledge developed sites within the greenbelt, adding, “There has got to be some middle ground. We would like to see these sites recognised with an allocation.”
The council also agreed to rewrite a policy relating to the use of best quality farmland to say the loss of best and most versatile land would weigh against an application rather than be refused.