A controversial developer has been criticised after it was revealed that a housing inquiry cost Wirral Council more than £350,000.
A total of £362,303 was spent defending the decision by Wirral Council to reject seven planning applications to build 788 homes across Wirral’s greenbelt by Leverhulme Estates.
Leverhulme had gone to the planning inspectorate asking them to overturn the decision via a lengthy inquiry, which took place over May, June, and July.
Leverhulme argues the council has a “deeply flawed approach” to house building with its focus on regenerating Birkenhead, Seacombe, and other areas in its draft development policy called a Local Plan, adding they “have attempted to engage positively with the Council over many years”.
The plans faced significant opposition with hundreds turning out to protest and unanimous political support against the plans. The planning inspectorate later upheld the council’s decision to reject the plans but did not allow it to recover any costs.
A Freedom of Information request revealed the inquiry cost the council £76,800 in legal fees, £107,191 in agency staff costs, £21,107 to host the inquiry website, and £157,204 to hire webcasting equipment, print legal documents, and cost of professional witnesses.
This brings the bill for the local authority to around £362,303 though this may go up due to further bills down the line. The council set aside £400,000 in its budget to deal with its draft Local Plan which was challenged by Leverhulme but those costs are now expected to be £900,000.
Leader of Wirral Council, Cllr Paul Stuart, said, “Wirral Council had no option but to prevent the attempts to overturn the planning committee decision to reject Leverhulme’s plans to develop Green Belt land, even though Leverhulme surely must have known that this legal process would be at great cost to Wirral’s council tax payers.”
He added, “The council’s proposed Local Plan shows how we can deliver the homes and other facilities people will need in in the coming years through a brownfield-first approach. We want to be building new homes on already developed land, an approach which will also see major regeneration along the eastern side of Wirral where it is most needed, while also protecting Green Belt land from unnecessary development.
“Many may also remember the petitions through which the public had also shown its very considerable opposition to Leverhulme’s plans. Despite the decision by elected councillors and the clear public opposition to their plans, Leverhulme decided to press ahead with the appeals against the council’s decisions to protect the borough’s Green Belt despite the significant cost to the local people.”
Green co-leader Cllr Pat Cleary also criticised Leverhulme, adding, “These figures lay bare the huge costs to Wirral Council of dealing with the unwelcome planning appeals from Leverhulme.”
He added, “This has a real impact on the council’s ability to deliver services our residents rely on. Let’s not forget that delivering new housing on brownfield land has unanimous support amongst all political parties.
“Leverhulme has ignored that democratic consensus. Its selfish actions not only represent a clear threat to Wirral’s green belt but would also undermine the regeneration that is fundamental to improving the lives of people in those parts of Wirral most blighted by poverty.”
Conservative leader Cllr Jeff Green said it was disappointing the council had not been able to recover costs but added the inquiry “served as a restatement of our commitment to ensure that future, major developments are confined to brownfield sites”.
He said, “I can only imagine the criticism that would have rightfully been aimed at the Council if it hadn’t fought these appeals and devoted the level of resources required to be successful.”
Planning committee chair Cllr Stuart Kelly said he hopes the Local Plan would now be adopted, adding it is “vital for us to defend the ‘brown field first’ strategy outlined in the Local Plan and protecting the Green Belt is key to prioritising regeneration.”
Nigel McGurk, Head of Planning and Development for Leverhulme, said, “The Local Plan examination has played a vital role in highlighting Wirral Council’s deeply flawed approach towards meeting the urgent requirement for new housing in Wirral, including family and affordable homes.
“The examination highlighted that a reliance on regenerating economically unviable brownfield sites will not bring forward the number and type of homes needed and will certainly not deliver them in the required timescale.
“Instead, there needs to be a balanced approach to ensure homes, jobs and additional economic growth are provided now and into the future.
“As Wirral’s largest landowner, we have attempted to engage positively with the council over many years, with the aim of providing the high quality affordable and family housing Wirral requires, all delivered through a masterplanned approach to create dynamic and sustainable communities.
“However, Wirral Council has chosen not to engage positively with Leverhulme or consider more deliverable options for the vibrancy and growth of Wirral. This means that the much-needed homes can only be progressed through planning applications and appeals.”
Lead image: Leverhulme protestors at Wallasey Town Hall Credit: www.fotopiaimages.com