The government has been slammed for its “devastating” decision not to intervene in controversial plans and accused of failing to protect Wirral’s green belt.
The plans put forward by Leverhulme Estates would see up to 788 homes built on countryside across Wirral. The seven planning applications were rejected by Wirral Council in 2022 but the developer appealed with an inquiry held over the summer.
The applications are the first stage of plans to build nearly 8,000 homes across west and central Wirral that could see major changes to its towns and villages. An appeal was also recently lodged by Leverhulme for 240 homes rejected near Greasby with a date set for 5 December.
Leverhulme’s proposals have been hugely controversial with campaign groups turning people out in their hundreds accusing it of pursuing profits over protecting the green belt. It has also been argued projects to regenerate Birkenhead and east Wirral with thousands of homes would be undercut.
The developer however criticised Wirral Council for a failure to deliver housing and said its plans were “fully deliverable and would ensure multiple other benefits in ways that no other proposal in Wirral can.”
Following the inquiry, calls have been made for Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing, and Communities Michael Gove to make the final decision, not the planning inspectorate. Wirral’s council leader Paul Stuart, deputy leader Jean Robinson, and Wirral West MP Margaret Greenwood even delivered a letter to Downing Street.
However junior minister Baroness Scott of Bybrook said: “After careful consideration, we have concluded that the appeals should not be recovered. A decision will therefore be issued by the independent Planning Inspector.”
Margaret Greenwood MP said, “We have repeatedly heard from the government that they will protect the green belt, but when given the opportunity to do so in Wirral, they have failed to.
“The Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Secretary of State Michael Gove had an opportunity to step in and save Wirral’s green belt. Their decision to sit on their hands and ignore the wishes of local people is devastating.”
Criticism has even come from the local Conservative Party over the decision. Cllr Jeff Green said, “While I completely appreciate the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities not being willing to exercise these rarely used powers, it is disappointing that the strength of local feeling and the potential cumulative impact of these applications, prior to the implementation of Wirral’s new Local Plan, on our precious green belt has not been clearly understood in Whitehall.
“It is of course ironic that a Labour leader of the council should have delivered this letter, because if previous Labour administrations had heeded the Government’s warnings first received in 2017 and given the issue of protecting our green belt the priority it deserved by getting on with the job of producing a Local Plan, we clearly would not be in the position of requesting yet more special treatment from the Government to mitigate the Council’s incompetence.”
Hitting back, Labour council leader Cllr Paul Stuart said, “I will not take lectures from Cllr Jeff Green regarding the delivery of Wirral’s local plan. Wirral has had several administrations since the last local plan was adopted, including a period under his leadership. What actions did he take as council leader to address the local plan? Nothing!
“It is his Conservative government that is refusing to safeguard our green belt. It is under a Labour-led council that we have developed a brownfield first Local plan. I expect the planning inspectorate to consider residents’ views seriously and prioritise the preservation of our green belt.”
Cllr Stuart added, “The government’s refusal to intervene and recover the planning appeals sends a concerning message to our residents and demonstrates that the Conservatives are not interested in saving Wirral’s Greenbelt. What do they want? To sell our precious green belt to the highest bidder?
“It is deeply disappointing that the government has not recovered the Leverhulme Estates’ planning appeals. Wirral Council stands firmly with our residents in opposing these developments on green belt land and remains committed to protecting our green belt in line with our brownfield-first local plan.”
Wirral’s planning committee chair Liberal Democrat Stuart Kelly said, “Michael Gove had the opportunity to end the uncertainty inherent in a planning inspectorate inquiry. The Tory government could have acted to cut through the red tape and stand up for the green belt and our regeneration ambitions, but has refused.
“The case has very clearly been made at inquiry, we need to protect agricultural land in the west and build new homes to renew the east of Wirral. The Leverhulme side-show offers none of this.”
Birkenhead Green councillor Pat Cleary argued the government had undermined the council’s housing plans and its “visionary future for the borough.” He added, “Logic dictates that the government should confirm its support for that vision by blocking attempts by the private sector that undermine democratically agreed plans.
“To fail to do so clearly puts at risk the broader strategy – which the government has to date supported – and by extension the future of Wirral’s green belt. Unwarranted release of land through Leverhulme’s appeals would suck investment out of brownfield regeneration into the destruction of irreplaceable green belt land.”
The Department of Levelling Up, Housing, and Communities declined to comment as it relates to an ongoing case.
Image: The Leverhulme planning applications have prompted large protests. Credit: Edward Barnes. Commissioned for use by LDR partners