Fragoff – A powerful message about the number of houses really needed in Sefton

To see the pain of the faces of Labour campaigners and councillors when Maria Bennett took a seat on Sefton Council in Formby last May was a delight. You see, in my opinion, Labour had bet on yet another ‘yes’ person being elected under their banner to do the bidding of Bootle Labour Party. But it was not to be as Formby rose up to defend its Green Belt and high grade agricultural land from Labour’s attacks on it and independent Maria stormed to victory.

Now I have got that little rant off my chest this is why I am posting this particular blog piece. As the latest consultation period has come to an end on the notorious Sefton Local Plan Maria’s hard hitting and well informed FRAGOFF group has produced a very interesting fact and it is this (I quote directly from FRAGOFF’s submission to Sefton Council on the ‘additional sites’ consultation):-

‘We would like to point out that since the Draft Local Plan was submitted for consultation the 2012-based Subnational Population Projections have been released by the Office of National Statistics (ONS). These figures suggest that the 2010 data used to inform that Draft Local Plan has significantly over estimated the increase in population in Sefton over the designated time span. We would therefore now expect sites to be withdrawn from development and suggest that we should not be considering any additional sites until a new evaluation is made based on the most up to date figures.’

This really is one of those told you so moments as both FRAGOFF and the Lib Dems questioned in detail the robustness of the projected population growth figures when the draft was being put together and we were effectively ignored.

It will be interesting to see what happens next because you can bet that Labour will soon be claiming black is white and that they never supported the figures that they backed when they voted for the Draft Local Plan!

Population of England to reach 61m by 2037 – It’s an environmental crisis

According to estimates from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) the population of England is projected to grow at double the pace of the rest of the UK over the next 23 years. By 2037 it is estimated that more than 61m people will live in England – a rise of 16%. In contrast, 1.9m will reside in Northern Ireland (up 10%), 5.7m will live in Scotland (+9%) and some 3.2m people will make their home in Wales (+8%). Almost two thirds of the increase will be a result of immigration, either through newcomers arriving or the increased birth rate of migrants who have arrived in recent years.

The Times, Page: 15 – 5th June 2014

My problem with this issue is the environmental effect. We are a small island that can’t, in my view, continue to sustain an ever expanding population whatever the cause of that expansion may be. A rising population leads to more housing being built on high grade agricultural land, which in turn makes us a less sustainable nation for food production.

I don’t subscribe to the UKIP and right wing Tory view which I think tries to make racism more palatable. This is not a race issue it is a significant environmental, green and sustainability issue that we ignore at our peril.

Sefton’s Green Belt – Campaigners trying to save the Green Belt meet at Lydiate Village Centre

Last night I attended one of the meetings organised by local Green Belt campaigners at Lydiate Village Centre together with Cllr. Andrew Blackburn and Cllr. Edie Pope.

As an environmental campaigner I think it fair to say that most folks who know me realise that I have been fighting for the Green Belt and high grade agricultural land not to be concreted over for many years. Indeed, I led the fight to stop Sefton Council from releasing one of the very sites they presently want to release now, back in 1998.

We won that battle back then but this time with Labour having a majority on Sefton Council and them voting to build on the Green Belt the fight will be even more of an uphill battle than it was in 1998.

What’s more in 1998 the then Lib Dem run Maghull Town Council backed the campaigners and delivered a leaflet around the whole Town promoting protection of the Town’s Green Belt. And this is where the other significant difference is because in 2011 when Sefton Council publicly launched its Local Plan review Maghull Town Council (now Labour run) did not even make a submission to the Borough Council in defence of the Town’s Green Belt! No wonder the biggest piece of Green Belt that is up for development in the whole of the Borough is in Maghull. What you can’t be bothered to defend is easily lost.

And so to the meeting last night, it was organised by Fragoff the now prominent leading local Green Belt protection group that originally came together because of potential Green Belt loss in Formby.

rsz_lvc_-_fragoff_meeting_19_06_13

Lydiate Village Centre was full for the first (7.00pm) of the two advertised meetings and I would guess that the hall had 130 local people in it. A second meeting was due to start at 8.00pm but I had to leave at this point due to another appointment.

Fragoff have certainly done some in depth homework as they have developed their significant challenge to Sefton’s Local Plan and the meeting was a rehearsal, for the benefit of Maghull and Lydiate residents, of that work.

What interested me most was a matter that I have seriously pondered on ever since it popped out at a Sefton Council run ‘Stakeholders’ meeting on 8th May this year. It is with regard to Sefton’s population. I have posted about it before but it concerns Sefton’s falling population which we are told is about to go into reverse and start rising again due to inward migration. Consultants working for Sefton Council told those of us at the Stakeholders meeting that despite a more or less year on year population drop in the Borough for as long as most of us can remember they had advised the Council to expect the population to start rising due to people moving into the Borough from elsewhere. But who are these people, when are they coming and where are they coming from?

A break-down of population statistics discussed last night seemed to indicate that in terms of people from outside of the UK Sefton attracts around 100 per year according to present Office of National Statistics (ONS) figures so that is unlikely to be the source of the suggested population increase. So where does it come from and why is it important. Where the population increase credibly comes from I, like many others, am yet to be advised but it is important as anticipated population increases fuel the ‘need’ for more housing. More housing puts Green Belt land under pressure.

I have been keeping a close eye on Fragoff’s efforts for a long time now so I knew about their work in detail but it was clearly new to many residents attending the meeting. What it showed me, as I expected, is that there is a hugely sceptical Sefton population out there that is far from convinced about our Labour led Council’s plan to allow the building of houses on Green Belt and high grade agricultural land.

The profile of this vital local matter is bound to increase as we enter a second round of public consultation and Sefton Council’s Local Plan gets put under the public’s microscope again.

One interesting last point – There were no Labour councillors present at the meeting that I could identify.

Sefton Planning Committee approves Local Plan for consultation

The Labour dominated Planning Committee of Sefton Council last night voted to approve what I believe to be a flawed draft Local Plan.

The 8 Labour members of the Planning Committee all voted in favour of the Local Plan with its proposal for substantial building in the Green Belt. 4 Lib Dems and 1 Conservative voted against.

From my perspective the flaws are:-

• Too easily giving in to pressure to release high grade agricultural land for development.
• That in 15 years time the Council will most likely revisit the process and yet more ‘best and most versatile’ agricultural land will be lost.
• Dubious population growth statistics in a Borough where the number of residents has been dropping for years.
• That the population growth projections seem to be built on inward migration into the Borough when there is no evidence of this actually happening.
• A lack of detailed coordination with the West Lancashire Local Plan.
• Too much concentration on the Merseyside perspective when the majority of Sefton’s boundary is with Lancashire.
• Selecting sites for development in the Green Belt where concreting over the high grade agricultural land will forever stop the land being used for food production.
• The plan is simply not ‘green’ enough. The balance between economic development and sustainable environmental planning has not been struck.

Capitalism, urban planning and growth

The thrust of capitalism, so we are told, is that it needs almost continual growth to be successful; the alternative is virtually no growth or worse, recession, where we have been stuck for quite some time. I raise this because it is fundamentally linked to why Green Belt, green spaces and high grade agricultural land are under attack from concrete, bricks and tarmac.

Also, locally here in Sefton, despite the Borough’s population falling by 26,800 between 1981 and 2011 14,004 additional homes were built during that period. The seeming conflict between economic growth and a declining population will, in the main, be explained by separate but related social and economic factors i.e. most of us are living in smaller family units and of course living longer.

‘Between 2002 and 2009, the borough has experienced a 2.75% reduction in its overall resident population.’ – Sefton’s State of the Borough document July 2011.

‘The borough’s declining resident population over this period is in sharp contrast to the national and regional picture, which demonstrated a 4.35% and 1.78% increase respectively’ – Sefton’s State of the Borough document July 2011.

Growth pressures are therefore responsible for the ‘need’ to build more houses in the Borough. In turn, because there is nowhere else to turn (i.e. very little brown field land left that has previously been developed and is presently available for redevelopment) planners are telling us that some Green Belt/high grade agricultural land has to be lost.

We plan for growth from an economic perspective because it is hard wired into just about everything Government/The Treasury thinks and does. The thinking seems to be ‘if we not planning for growth, we are creating recession’. Planning for growth means building things like houses. Building houses needs folks to buy them/rent them. Our falling Borough population should logically have meant we would buy less/rent less houses but our living in smaller family units and living longer has saved the economic (growth) day because less of us require more houses.

As an aside one point that has concerned me for as long as I have been a Sefton Councillor is that Sefton is virtually always compared to other parts of Merseyside to justify some stat or other yet the Borough’s physical connection with Merseyside (Knowsley and Liverpool) is far, far smaller than its lengthy border with Lancashire. Indeed, it is surely the case that the vast majority of Sefton has far more in common in many ways with the Lancashire communities that surround it than it does with much of Merseyside.

Moving on, what’s all this about Sefton’s population starting to rise again because that is what the planners now tell us is going to happen?

Until very recently we have been looking at a continuing potential for Sefton’s population to decline but then, almost out of the blue, planners have told us that the Office for National Statistics (ONS) have said that Sefton’s population is to rise due to people moving into the Borough. But how do they make such projections and how reliable are they. Indeed, where do ONS gain the data from to make such a prediction?

On one level these ‘surprise’ projections have been met with a high level of scepticism. Just who will be moving into Sefton, why and indeed when? Is this just taking the numbers of people moving about the UK, adding in migrants from outside of the UK and then giving Sefton a share of the higher population? Surely, it could not be such a crude calculation because logically people moving into Sefton would be doing so because of the availability of jobs either in the Borough or close to it in Lancashire and Merseyside. I have yet to see a reasoned, understandable and reliable explanation as to all the factors that will cause Sefton’s population to go into reverse and start rising again but the ‘fact’ that ONS say it will is going to be a big factor in creating more pressure for house building.

But what about urban planning (whilst we await a clear and credible explanation of why, how and when our local population is to rise)? I recently started to read a book that made comment on such. The book was about an American city in deep crisis – Detroit, but a couple of things jumped out at me that could help to explain why no matter what is going on beneath the waves planners always plan for growth.

‘there seemed to be a bone-deep American reluctance to even flirt with the notion of getting smaller’ and ‘I teach land use and planning and there’s nothing in there about downsizing’ and ‘the assumption is that a population is expanding, so how best to control it’. – The Last days of Detroit – Mark Binelli P 2013

Fundamentally, UK planning policy has been economically led for generations but are we at a cross roads? Surely, environmental sustainability and food production are now the most important things to plan for. Building more houses because we always have done fits with all the major historical imperatives of capitalism but maybe those major imperatives need to change – indeed I become surer that they do every day.

I would never advocate a socialist economic approach as many in the Labour Party and trade union movement do because frankly it simply does not and will not work. But neither am I in any way convinced that ploughing on in the same way as we do now for growth, growth, growth at all cost growth is going to be a sustainable way forward. World resources are in decline, the world population is increasing, environmental catastrophe is just around the corner yet our major worry is economic growth?

The bottom line is that the areas of Sefton that are presently not concreted over are part of a mere 2% of the English land mass that is made up of the best and most versatile agricultural land. Taking more of such land to build on is simply nuts! It may only be 2% or 3% that is lost this time but we have done it before that’s why many of our houses in the Borough are built on what was previously such land. In 10 or 15 years the planners will return and tell us that another small percentage of that diminishing amount of ‘best and most versatile’ agricultural land is needed for building and the same cycle will repeat itself. That is not environmental and food production sustainability it is the politics of the mad house. We are not planning for the future, more like failing to plan for the future and Labour, Conservatives and yes even some Lib Dems are not waking up and smelling the coffee.

Planning policy is fundamentally an economic growth tool it needs to become a sustainability tool balanced between the environment, food production and the economy otherwise we are all going to hell in a hand cart.