Firstly, I would like to thank you Ms Mulloy for providing me with the opportunity to speak in this very important inquiry.
As the Member of Parliament for Cheadle constituency, in which Mirrlees Fields is located, I know, first-hand, how very important this open space is to our local community.
This Public Inquiry has been convened to consider the outline planning application appeal put forward by MAN Energy Solutions UK Limited, formerly MAN Diesel, who for ease, I will refer to as MAN.
The outline planning application to build 200 homes on Mirrlees Fields was first submitted to Stockport Council in 2021 and has been the subject of a wide and extensive consultation across local communities, garnering hundreds of comments, before being refused permission by Stockport Council in January of this year. We are here today as a result of MANs appeal.
Mirrlees Fields is a much-loved green open space which sits in the heart of the Stepping Hill area of Stockport, between Woodsmoor and Hazel Grove. The fields provide local communities with a ‘green gem’ on their doorstep and has done for many years.
They were particularly invaluable during the Covid-19 pandemic when people were able to use this green open space during lockdown and the vital benefits to both physical and mental health continue to be felt.
Indeed, one local friends group describes it as
“A place families and friends can come together, fly kites, have picnics, and kick a ball around and where walkers feel safe because they are visible. Families and children play, people walk their dogs, elderly sit on benches and chat with neighbours. Patients from Stepping Hill psychiatric department take exercise there and wheelchair users often use the pathways.”
The fields are also an important conservation space puncturing the wider built-up urban area. They are a natural habitat for a wide variety of flora and fauna providing a wildlife corridor for animals and with the area surrounding the stream, serving an attenuation purpose, and mitigating downstream flooding.
In view of the severe and distressing flooding downstream, in the Ladybrook and Micker Brook catchment in recent years, this is an important consideration.
The management of the fields, were taken over by Cheshire Wildlife Trust in 2014. Since then, working with the Mirrlees Fields Friends Group and other community groups, a significant amount of work has taken place on the fields. The natural beauty and environment of the fields has been nurtured and improved with a community orchard planted and birdboxes installed. All of this is much enjoyed by community groups including the Scouts and local schools.
Ms Mulloy, it must be acknowledged that Mirrlees Fields are privately owned by MAN. And it is through their goodwill and permissions that the access to the fields has continued. However, a designation of strategic open space and public or private ownership may not be mutually exclusive.
It is very disappointing that MAN has chosen to fence off these well-used fields. Whilst I appreciate this is private land and they have every right to fence the area off it remains open space and MAN have, until this application, allowed the residents unfettered access to the fields. And the Public Rights of Way are still very well used.
The planning application by MAN is for the construction of up to 200-hundred homes on 10 acres of the land and 21 acres for access.
The remaining 43 acres of land are proposed to be held by the Land Trust, who would maintain the fields as informal, publicly accessible, open space for the local community to enjoy.
I understand that the Land Trust is a national charity, and I would be interested to know, if they will manage the endowment fund long-term and what would be their plan for the land?
There appears to be no detail of how the sites quality is going to be improved or maintained in perpetuity.
This is a significant application which has so far only been considered as outline, rather than a full planning application. I would question why this is outline and not a full or hybrid application. And whether future applications are expected to come before the Planning and Highways Committee.
A full application would also have allowed a much more detailed consultation with residents who would be affected.
Numerous individuals, groups and organisations have opposed the planning application to build on Mirrlees Fields. And Ms Mulloy you will hear many reasons for opposing the planning application which are wide and varied.
There are very real concerns about the quality of the 43-acres of land, maintained by the Land Trust under the proposals. As well as the impact to long-standing rights of way such as the Fred Perry Way that spans Stockport Borough, from Woodford in the south to Reddish in the north and the prospect of it ignominiously winding its way through the proposed housing estate.
Questions have also been raised on why the South West corner was chosen for development when there were other alternative locations which may have had much less severe impact on the community and less ecological damage.
I am also concerned about the loss of open space, in this already urban area of my constituency.
The Stockport Open Space Assessment Report shows that Mirrlees Fields is the only site of natural and semi-natural green space in its locality.
And there is a real and identified deficiency of Open Space in this part of Stockport.
Furthermore, the assessment of the area shows it to be of High Quality and Value.
Mirrlees Fields is designated as Strategic Open Space under Stockport’s Planning Policy, however, as Stockport Council has, to date, failed to produce a Local Plan Mirrlees Fields have not been afforded the protections, they may have received, had that plan been in place.
I agree with the view of many local groups that the current protections on Mirrlees Fields should remain in place until a Local Plan is consulted and agreed on.
The planning application in my view conflicts with a number of existing council policies as well as national guidelines.
My understanding is that the application site is protected by “Saved” UDP Policies NE3.1, namely:
The Protection of Green Chain,
The Protection of Strategic Open Space and within the Core Strategy… “Safeguarding and improving the Environment”.
In my view the application also fails tests within the National Planning Policy Framework… especially regarding that
Existing open space, sports and recreational buildings and land, including playing fields, should not be built on unless the following apply:
- an assessment has been undertaken which has clearly shown the open space, buildings, or land to be surplus to requirements; or
- the loss resulting from the proposed development would be replaced by equivalent or better provision in terms of quantity and quality in a suitable location; or
- the development is for alternative sports and recreational provision, the benefits of which clearly outweigh the loss of the current or former use.
I believe there are numerous other policy issues which I am sure the inquiry will explore further relating to the application including reliance on the assumption of ‘non-car journeys’ to mitigate traffic flows. However, journeys to school by foot can be lengthy and cross multiple main thoroughfares.
Finally, Ms Mulloy, whilst a significant number of residents are fiercely opposed to this development I must recognise that some have considered the loss of green space acceptable, in order to protect the majority. In the interest of representing the balance of my constituents’ views, I understand that this option has found favour with residents who argue that more housing is needed in the area and are reassured that some land will be saved.
This argument has its foundation in the failure to provide a Local Plan for the area which properly reflects local housing needs.
Stockport has considerably improved its housing supply. The shortfall in the 5 year supply is now, I understand, under a year and considering the rate that Stockport has been building in recent times, the housing supply figure may not be a material matter in the future where the assessment may well be different.
Whilst appreciating the need for a balanced approach to the application there are in my view clear Policy implications and conflicts which I am confident you will explore and consider in detail.
This is particularly salient given that an alternative which has been promoted was the potential loss of the entirety to developers if this application failed. It is concerning that this ‘Sword of Damocles’ has hung over this significant open space in our community.
The adverse impact from the loss of Open Space is in my view a very relevant matter.
Currently the Mirrlees Open Space contributes to both the local area and the Borough of Stockport, and its loss would have a significant impact on the well-being of the residents of Stockport.
It is a Significant Harmful Development due to its loss of Open Space and whilst I appreciate the proposed mitigation it does not in my view demonstrably outweigh the harm.
Ms Mulloy, thank you once again for giving me the time to speak in this significant inquiry. Over many decades the relationship between MAN and local community groups has been strong. And so I call upon MAN Energy Solutions UK, Stockport Council, and community representatives to get back round the table and reopen discussions, to find an alternative and viable solution, so we can save this green space. I will help to facilitate these discussions should they be deemed appropriate so that all parties are heard, and a solution can be found which preserves this much loved Open Space.