Finale at Whitmore

The last Roadshow of the series, at Whitmore village hall, drew participants from Acton, Butterton, Whitmore, Baldwins Gate, Madeley Park Wood, Chapel Chorlton, Hill Chorlton, Chorlton Moss, Blackbrook and Minn Bank.

The evening followed the format of the previous two events and opened with a formal presentation on progress to date, evidence gathering and Questionnaire results, and future work. This was followed by consultation and an opportunity to view the display materials – more charts of the Questionnaire results, parish maps and the Neighbourhood Map.

Vision and Aims

Each participant received a copy of the proposed Vision and Aims and policy themes for the Plan and a list of discussion topics, waiting on the seats when they arrived at the village hall. The Vision was well received by participants and they gave the Steering Group a heart-warming round of applause. Thank you all. (The Vision and Aims can be viewed here.)

Questionnaire results

The results of the Questionnaire did not reveal any great surprises – but the questions had needed to be asked all the same. What most attracts people to live in the Neighbourhood Area is the rural location and the countryside. Interestingly, the selling points that estate agents like to push, such as accessibility to the urban area and transport links scored significantly lower! It was notably hard to engage the age groups under 55, especially the under-45s. This means that the needs of this segment of the community – for example, education, playgrounds and other facilities for families and children – are not well represented in the results. (The charts that were displayed at the Roadshows can be viewed here.)

Neighbourhood Planning process

Participants were interested in the statutory processes of Neighbourhood Planning and there were questions about the local consultation, submission to the local authority for public consultation, the formal examination and the referendum.

Local economy

As at the two earlier Roadshows, the rural economy was a topic of discussion. The economic base of the countryside has changed very significantly in half a century.

Agriculture is necessarily still the greatest land use by a long way, but agriculture and allied trades are no longer the predominant employers and sources of income for rural dwellers. Agricultural work that was once done by local people is now done by contractors. We will see more changes in agriculture in the years ahead. Farmers will need to develop new income streams and we can expected to see more tourism-based enterprise in the area.

Rural dwellers are now more likely to be working in professions, either self-employed or commuting to work, or they are retired. Unless we do something to help the local economy, our Neighbourhood Area will be little more than a commuter base and a graveyard.

The community needs to know more about the businesses that operate in the area so that it can support them and an online local directory covering the three parishes is needed. This would be a project for the parish councils, not the Neighbourhood Plan, which is concerned purely with land use and infrastructure for new developments. But it would go a long way in helping the Neighbourhood Plan with its own aim to revive and develop the local economy.

The matter of the old Whitmore Station Ticket Office was raised. It could be a suitable place for a small business or for a local enterprise centre. So far the Parish Council’s efforts to engage with Network Rail have not been successful.

Housing

A Housing Needs Assessment (HNA) for the Plan was prepared as free technical assistance by AECOM, an international planning consultancy appointed by the government to prepare HNAs and other technical reports for neighbourhood plans. The HNA concluded that over the 20-year plan period 2013-2033 our Neighbourhood Area would need between 50 and 100 additional dwellings. This is based on ‘fair shares’ across the borough, and is calculated on the basis of our population, which is 2% of the borough’s population.

Currently, there are 142 planning permissions in the area, including the Kier site in Baldwins Gate. This puts us well ahead of the identified need. It may be natural to assume that Baldwins Gate is the logical place for new development because it has more services than the smaller settlements, especially the all-important sewerage. Still, there may be a case for one or two new houses or a workshop here and there in some of the smaller settlements in order to meet the area’s economic development needs.

The Neighbourhood Area’s need for smaller dwellings – the kind that developers don’t want to build – was stressed. Young people working locally, such as in the local pubs and restaurants, are travelling out from town, which is quite contrary to the purpose of local jobs.

The displays and maps drew a great deal of interest. The evening concluded with an opportunity for participants to view these and to seek out Steering Group members for further talk about issues raised during the consultation.

The Roadshow comes to Maer

Participants from Blackbrook, Maer village, Weymouth and Woodside attended the Roadshow at Maer village hall on 15 March. A lively discussion in which all took part followed a presentation on progress so far, the Questionnaire results and the Vision and Aims for the Plan.

Local economy

The first focus was the economic development of the Neighbourhood Area. There was much interest in the idea that had emerged at Aston the week before, for daytime use of the village halls as business/enterprise centres for small businesses and start-ups. Improvement of mobile coverage (poor to non-existent in both Maer and Aston) would be needed, but that could be fixed by talking to the mobile phone companies. On top of that, the other chief requisites would be a few desks on wheels and some lockers for people to store their stuff.

While this could meet the needs of some people with desk-based businesses offering professional services, such businesses are not necessarily integral to the rural economy and may not even be trading locally. Revival of the area’s rural economy needs truly rural businesses that will serve each other and the community as well as attracting custom from outside the area. We had such an economy a century ago, when the local directory listed a wheelwright, a baker, a farrier and so on. Now, we don’t even have a local directory.

Housing

The need for smaller dwellings was aired yet again. We need to keep our young people who grew up here and we need to attract young people who will come here, both to work locally and to establish their own local businesses. But for them to stay or to come, we need smaller dwellings within their price range, not the large houses that housebuilders want to build. Our smaller houses have disappeared over the years as semi-detached and terraced cottages have been joined together and dwellings of all sizes have been extended – the latter sometimes several times over.

Local green space

Then the discussion turned to local green space. There are wide verges in places along the A51, including from Maer Lodge and the War Memorial to Maerfieldgate. The verges at Maer were listed in the borough’s 2016 consultation on open space and green infrastructure as ‘accessible green space’ – not that anyone would want to sit by the side of the A51 and have a picnic! The verges provide a safe place to walk – or they would do if they were better maintained and easier to walk on. And people do walk along the A51 because it links essential lanes and public rights of way and is part of local pedestrian routes. Indeed it is a public right of way because it is a highway, and pedestrians have as much right to use it as the drivers of motorised vehicles do. Someone reminded us that the A51 is centuries old – it’s been a local pedestrian route for ever. It was also noted that the verges continue all the way to Stableford and provide the same essential link to lanes and paths. It was agreed to look into the matter of designating the verges as local green space. The matter of a footway from Maerfield Gate to the War Memorial/Maer Lodge was raised and it was agreed that this would be beneficial. In fact, a footway is needed all the way to Stableford.

Someone put in a word for the large semi-circle of grass in front of The Croft at Blackbrook. It is part of the character of the little crescent of houses and needs to be protected from being taken over for car parking. It was agreed that we should look into designating this as local green space too.

Roadshows kick off at Aston

Lively discussion followed a presentation comprising an update on Plan progress, a review of charts from the questionnaire, and the proposed Vision for the Plan.

Local economy and business

Participants generally agreed on the need for economic development in the area and provision for small business development. They also ventured into discussing the topic of out-commuting and digital commuting. The Newcastle planners seem to be concerned about out-commuting from this area, but what do they know about the (invisible) digital commuting that goes on? The digital economy is developing and changing fast, and the days are gone when it can be assumed that homes will be exclusively occupied by people who work in the local economy. The planners’ reluctance to support business and economic development in the rural area, and their focus on housing, was also mentioned.

People felt that the Neighbourhood Area would benefit from having a business hub with hotdesking facilities for people running small businesses and start-ups. The benefits would range from meeting the needs of self-employed people who would like to work away from home for at least for part of the time, to working in an environment where there are possibilities for exchange of ideas and business networking. Possibilities for establishing a hub or hubs in the area include barn conversions or installing superfast broadband in the smaller village halls, where an attractive working environment could be created during the daytime. Some people would appreciate having access to a place where they could hire a room to meet with clients.

Housing

If the local economy could be developed by providing facilities for small businesses and start-ups, then people who have grown up here might feel that there is something to stay for after all, rather than moving away, and younger people might be attracted to come and live here. But they would need housing within their price range.

A very interesting suggestion was that we need to look at subdividing larger houses into smaller units. Workers’ cottages and council houses were built in the past to house people who worked locally, but with the changing rural economy, the right to buy and loss of rural jobs, that housing has been sold off. Little cottages have been joined together to make larger houses, or demolished to make way for large replacements. But now people voice a need for smaller dwellings for longer-term residents who want to downsize. And to enable younger people to live here and create a place for themselves in the local economy we need accommodation that will provide those lower rungs on the housing ladder.

Altogether, the Vision looks good, and this evening, as so often happens when people get together to talk around an idea or a problem, some ideas crystallised a little more and some new ideas came to the fore.

Roadshow Starting Bell

Prior to the second series of Neighbourhood Plan roadshows this month, Maer Village Hall was the venue on 2 March for a meeting with the parish councillors. The Steering Group gave a progress report on the Neighbourhood Plan to date and a preview of what is coming next, while councillors had an opportunity to ask questions and discuss issues related to the Plan. Our consultant Hannah was present to answer a variety of technical questions about neighbourhood planning.

The inevitability of change and the types of change that can be expected featured in the discussion.

Agriculture

Agriculture received the highest rating in the questionnaire section on suitable uses of land, but this is one area where we need to expect change. Brexit means that farmers will lose their EU subsidies and they will have to look to new means of making money. Inevitably this will lead them to diversification into other areas besides farming. As a result, we will see changes in the way they use their land, and changes in the rural economy.

Communications

Another finding of the questionnaire was a high level of dissatisfaction with mobile voice and data reception. While the answer to this problem is to upgrade the infrastructure and provide 4G connectivity across the area, it does mean that people will have to accept that phone masts become part of the landscape. The need for mobile infrastructure upgrade also has wider significance. For example, we can expect to see the growth of telemedicine for delivering medical services in rural areas. Likewise, improved infrastructure will be needed to support the development of the local economy and those people who work locally, whether in a business or working from home for an employer.

The future

‘A rural area where people both live and work.’ This was the future vision of the Neighbourhood Area that received the most support in the questionnaire. There was significantly less support for local business or enterprise centres. But if the area is to be a place where people both live and work one thing that is certain is that there must be places where they can work, and also a business and service infrastructure to support them. Conversion of farm buildings to new uses, scope for lunchtime catering businesses, and yes, 4G mobile connectivity spring to mind as just three ingredients (but by no means the only ones) of a mix that would support this future vision.

It will take time, but over the years, if we work towards it, our area can change from one that is dependent on commuting and the urban area to one with a strong and thriving local economy.

Introducing Our Planning Consultant

We are delighted to announce the appointment of Miss Hannah Barter of Urban Vision Enterprise CIC as Planning Consultant for the Neighbourhood Development Plan.

Hannah has lived in Staffordshire for 14 years and has a wealth of experience with Neighbourhood Planning. Hannah is the consultant for a number of other Neighbourhood Plans in North Staffordshire, including Stone and Barlaston. She is also involved with Neighbourhood Plans in other parts of the country, including as far south as Portsmouth.

Hannah is a director of Urban Vision, which is based in Leek. As well as working with Neighbourhood Planning groups, Urban Vision is closely involved in providing support to Locality, the organisation that is running the Neighbourhood Planning programme on behalf of the government. Hannah’s co-director at Urban Vision, Dave Chetwyn, is the consultant for the Loggerheads Neighbourhood Plan.

Hannah will provide advice to the Steering Group and, as the work progresses, will assist with the all-important work of drafting the policies of the Plan. Her work will be funded by the government grant that is supporting our Neighbourhood Plan.

We look forward to working with Hannah and to making progress under her expert guidance.

Sir Bill Speaks Up for Us

Question: Where, in Hansard, the official record of proceedings in the House of Commons, will you find references to the Parish of Whitmore, to Whitmore Heath and to the village of Baldwins Gate?

Answer: In Volume 617, at columns 1135 to 1140.

On 24 November 2016 Sir William Cash addressed the House of Commons in the adjournment debate at the close of the day’s proceedings. He chose to speak about the impact of HS2 Phase 2A in his constituency and devoted part of his address to the anticipated impacts in Whitmore parish.

You can read the official transcript of the proceedings here. (The first part of the speech covers the impacts in Stone and Yarnfield. For Whitmore parish go to column 1135.)

Our Heritage

No one would dispute that our Neighbourhood Area has a fine heritage.

Our beautiful landscape in the rural south-west of Newcastle-under-Lyme can be considered the jewel in the crown of the borough.

The Neighbourhood Area has 14 Sites of Biological Importance, two Biodiversity Alert Sites, one area of Special Scientific Interest and one Regionally Important Geological Site. Maer Hills is the largest Biodiversity Alert Site in Staffordshire.

Our historical and built heritage includes one Grade I listed building,  seven Grade II* listed buildings and 55 Grade II listed buildings and structures, three Scheduled Ancient Monuments and one Registered Park and Garden, plus three conservation areas.

All combined, we have a rich natural, environmental and built heritage. And let us not forget our cultural and scientific heritage too, with such famous former residents as the Wedgwoods, or our frequent visitor Charles Darwin, who made his first observations of the action of earthworms on the soil at Maer Moss; or our social and economic heritage, deriving from the coming of the Grand Junction Railway in the 1830s.

Our landscape and built heritage is the subject of a report prepared in the summer of 2016 and for which we received technical assistance from consultants, under the terms of our government grant. The illustrated report, called Heritage and Character Assessment, describes our Neighbourhood Area’s historical development, geology, landscape and land use, its individual settlements, its views, and more. It also makes recommendations for managing change in the Neighbourhood Area so as to maintain its character and local distinctiveness.

You can read the Heritage and Character Assessment here.

HS2

HS2 hangs like a heavy, black cloud over our area. We face the prospect of 7 years of devastation and misery during construction, and the permanent destruction of parts of our beautiful landscape and precious wildlife habitats – and all for the sake of what? We would all like it to just go away, but until we hear anything to the contrary we must assume that it will go ahead. The Bill for HS2 Phase 2A will be presented in Parliament some time in 2017.

Some 320 people attended the HS2 consultation event at Whitmore Village Hall on 30 September. Two weeks later the local HS2 Action Group gave a series of sessions at an information event arranged by Whitmore Parish Council. Mr Bill Murray addressed the sessions most expertly, explaining exactly what was proposed along  the Whitmore section of the route. Bill’s presentation of the facts laid bare the enormity of the impact that HS2 will have in this area. Questions were asked and discussed; when answers could be provided, answers were given. All were urged to respond to the consultation.

The Steering Group for the Neighbourhood Development Plan submitted a response and you can read it here.

Bellway Homes Consultation Event

On 27 April 2016 Bellway Homes held a public consultation event in Whitmore Village Hall on a proposed development of 99 houses on land to be accessed via Meadow Way.

The event was held from 2.00pm to 7.00pm and was well attended by residents from all parts of the Neighbourhood Area.

Subsequently the NDP Steering Group submitted comments to Cerda Planning, which is acting as the agent for Bellway Homes. You can read the Steering Group’s comments here.

Commenting on the Joint Local Plan

The consultation on the Stoke-on-Trent and Newcastle-under-Lyme Joint Local Plan Issues has been running since 15 February and is due to close on 29 March.

The Steering Group decided that it was neccesary to respond to the consultation. To say that the prospect was daunting would be a colossal understatment. We made the task a little easier by divvying the work up and each reviewing two of the eight topics.

When we had written up our comments these were circulated among the group and we then met a few days later to review the results and compile our general remarks.

Our response to the consultation was submitted electronically on 25 March and a printed copy will be hand delivered to the Civic Offices after the Easter holiday, on 29 March.

The links below will take you to our response documents.

General remarks
1 Housing
2 Economy
3 City, Towns and other Centres
4 Transport
5 Health and Communities
6 Heritage
7 Natural and Rural Environment
8 Energy and Climate change

The Joint Local Plan Issues consultation can be read here.
The supporting evidence for the Joint Local Plan Issues consultation can be read here.