One of the most vital challenges we currently face in Knowsley is generating more income to protect services in our borough.
As you may be aware, the Government intends to stop providing funding for local authorities by 2020. From that point, we will need to be financially self-sufficient. Of course, all councils across the country are going to be in the same boat, but it’s much easier to imagine local authorities being self-sufficient if you go to work every day in the London Borough of Westminster.
A big part of our challenge is to bring in more money through sources such as Council Tax and Business Rates. We can’t generate the money we are going to need just by putting up the charges for our existing residents and businesses, so we need to attract new housing, employment, leisure and retail developments on sites across the borough.
Aside from the financial pressures, new residential and commercial developments will create new jobs for local people. It’s also crucial that we increase the availability of high quality housing in the Borough and, as we grow our population, the people who move into Knowsley will be looking for local employment opportunities and amenities.
Many of you will know – indeed, you may have taken part in the lengthy consultation process – that we spent six years working and consulting the community on our Local Plan which was aimed at identifying appropriate sites for development in Knowsley.
While we identified a lot of brownfield land – including a number of vacant sites now being redeveloped into high quality housing by Countryside Properties – there were simply not enough of those sites to meet the borough’s needs. So our Local Plan also identified other sites, including nine which were released from the green belt at the start of 2016. The Plan was approved by an independent Government Inspector and found to be legally and practically “sound” (which in effect means that the Inspector agreed that we needed to release those sites).
I appreciate that developing on former green belt land is an emotive issue and it has prompted some strong reactions in some cases. Sometimes, I think that those reactions come about because people are not fully aware of all of the facts and the processes involved. So let me explain our approach and clarify the facts.
Knowsley’s Local Plan – the facts
Importantly, the amount of Knowsley’s green belt which was released through the Local Plan still left nearly half (49%) of our borough designated as green belt.
Of the nine former green belt sites which have now been identified for development, the majority are privately-owned and are not accessible to the public. The council is not “selling off” land which it owns and we are not taking away green spaces that residents are able to use.
And it’s also important to explain that releasing a green belt site does not mean that a development will ever definitely take place on it. Firstly, it is entirely up to the owner of the land to decide what they do with it – whether they choose to sell it, submit a planning application themselves to build on it, or simply do nothing.
And then, even if and when a planning application is submitted for development on one of these sites, there is no guarantee that it will be approved. As with every single planning application, any such application will be considered by the Council in terms of its consistency with local planning policy and national planning guidance.
I want high quality development for Knowsley
I want to make absolutely clear at this point that we are not interested in bringing just any development to Knowsley. We only want to see high quality developments which really enhance our Borough and bring real benefits to our communities.
Indeed, that is why the applicant chose to withdraw a planning application to develop on land next to Whitaker’s Garden Centre in Prescot earlier this year. A number of people have sought to take credit for this withdrawal, but the truth is that this council’s officers had consistently told the applicant that there were serious issues with the proposal which did not meet planning requirements and therefore it was not likely to be approved by our Planning Committee. The applicant, of course, can make the necessary changes to their plan and re-submit the application for consideration in the future. But I think that case shows clearly that we will not allow anything but the highest quality developments to take place in Knowsley.
The Government has slashed £86m from our budget since 2010 and we must find another £16.8m over the next three years. For us to be financially self-sufficient and to maintain the vital services which you, your family and your friends depend upon, we simply have to bring in more money. Making land available for new developments to generate that income means that we can protect key council services. Those are the facts.