Liberal Democrats vow to continue to fight to save Oldham’s Greenbelt from massive land grab for housing and industrial use

The Liberal Democrat Group on Oldham Council is gearing up for the next round in its fight to save Oldham’s Greenbelt and green spaces.

Later this week (Friday 11 January 19) Labour’s Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham and the 10 Council Leaders will agree the latest proposals for the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework (GMSF) which identifies where future houses will be built and industry based.

Last year, public opposition, backed by support from Liberal Democrat Councillors across Greater Manchester, forced the Mayor to withdraw the original proposals to build homes on greenbelt across the county, including many thousands in Shaw, Crompton, Saddleworth, Chadderton and Royton.

The so called new proposals are now in the public domain and according to Shaw Councillor Howard Sykes MBE, Leader of the Opposition and the Liberal Democrat Group on Oldham Council very little has changed in terms of Oldham Borough and especially Shaw and Crompton.

“The Liberal Democrats recognise that we shall need more homes, including affordable housing for first-time buyers and renters and homes for people living independently with disabilities,” said Councillor Sykes.  “But our Greenbelt is irreplaceable so we will continue to oppose any plans to build there when there are unused brownfield sites that can be built on and empty mills which can be converted into residential accommodation.”

The Oldham Liberal Democrats wanted to see a plan for the Oldham Borough where new housing development takes place first:

  • on brownfield or derelict sites
  • on sites with existing planning permission for housing
  • by converting long-term empty mills, shops and offices into homes
  • by bringing existing long-term empty homes back into use

The Liberal Democrats also want to see firm commitments made to invest in those areas where new housing is to be built to provide better roads, improvements in public transport, more school places, and increased capacity in local doctors’ and dentists’ surgeries and health centres.

Councillor Sykes said: “In Shaw and Crompton, we already have primary schools which are bursting at the seams and an overburdened and run down health centre; without more investment in our transport infrastructure and better, new public facilities we simply cannot cope with any more people.”

“The Liberal Democrats made our position crystal clear in response to the so called earlier consultation – NO building on our Greenbelt.  These pleas have been ignored and therefore we will redouble our efforts in opposing these plans that will concrete over and change the character of our Borough and especially Shaw and Crompton.

To the Liberal Democrat Group and many of our constituents, these plans represent a massive and inequitable land grab in Royton, Shaw and Crompton with the devastation of our local Green Belt and OPOL (Other Protected Open Land).

It is proposed that new properties will be built at Cowlishaw; in the Beal Valley; Rushcroft; the Whitfield Farm area over towards Newhey; and around Gravel Hole and Low Crompton.

Adjacent sites at Broadbent Moss (Oldham), Hanging Chadder (Oldham) and land East and West of the A627M (Rochdale and Oldham) if developed would also see a significant erosion of the Green Belt land in the so called ‘Northern Gateway’.

It is the view of the Liberal Democrat Group that there is no justification for the construction of a large number of properties (or indeed any properties) on Green Belt or OPOL before new homes are first built on Brownfield sites, on sites where planning permission for housing development has already been granted and upon the many derelict and unloved sites in our town centres and districts.

Furthermore it is our view that conversions should take place so empty mills and factories can be used for housing (buildings and/or sites); as can land marked for industrial/commercial use; and bring the large number of empty homes back into use.

All this should be done before any consideration is given to future development on Green Belt or OPOL and this development for Oldham should, in our view, be apportioned better in the Metropolitan Borough rather than disproportionately in Royton, Shaw and Crompton as at present.

Our existing motorways are frequently constrained by high levels of congestion resulting in unacceptable journey times and additional traffic jams on feeder and local roads. The projected growth of industrial warehousing, office space and new homes will require monumental investment in transport infrastructure.  It is of paramount importance to ensure that the transport infrastructure is in place before other building takes place.

All the sites identified, especially those in Royton, Shaw and Crompton are devoid of good vehicular access and there is no obvious way to make the necessary improvements.

Cowlishaw has no acceptable roads leading into the proposed site.  The topography around the Whitfield Farm area makes it difficult to envisage an elegant solution to site access.  Similarly the Beal Valley site is currently served only by a narrow road and the desire to facilitate access to this site by enhancing links to Shaw and Crompton Metrolink Station seem incredulous; the only current access, via Beal Lane, is saturated with existing traffic and HGV movements to and from existing businesses which are large National/European distribution centres.

The increase in population will necessitate provision of additional services.  The GMSF does not appear to adequately address available funding to deliver on these requirements.

In Shaw and Crompton, the necessary infrastructure to support even our existing population is lacking.  We have primary schools that are already overcrowded or full; a secondary school that is falling apart; a dilapidated Health Centre that is near cardiac arrest; no swimming facilities or dry leisure provision; precious few youth facilities and no municipal tip.

Under the proposals, 3,000 homes will be built in Royton, Shaw and Crompton for growing families.  These new residents will need more primary and secondary school places; more GPs and dentists; leisure and shopping facilities; and new highways and more buses and trams to get them there.

Now doesn’t Oldham Council’s decision to close and not replace the Crompton Swimming Pool and Gym look a little short-sighted given the number of new young residents that will need to learn to swim and the number of adults that will want to keep fit.

An important vision of the GMSF is that Greater Manchester becomes as well known for the quality of its environment as for its economic success.  Green Belt plays a role in this but there are important green spaces, parks, rivers and canals in the heart of our urban communities which are equally valuable.  The protection and enhancement of our blue and green infrastructure is a central theme of the strategy.

In view of the above aspiration it is difficult to understand why the specific green sites in Royton, Shaw and Crompton have been proposed.  There has been a lack of balance in the review and failure to give necessary weight to environmental and quality of life issues.

The vast majority of sites are notably attractive open spaces that provide pleasure, relaxation, and health benefits to local residents as well as our wider community.  The sites include public footpaths enjoyed by many dog-walkers, ramblers and walking groups. Many of the Public Rights of Way are important to the historic Shaw and Crompton ‘Beating of the Bounds’ and Crompton Circuit walks.  These locations also provide one of the few opportunities for people to undertake horse riding in safety which is particularly of concern for young and inexperienced riders.

These sites are further enhanced by a diverse range of flora and fauna and importantly provide those ‘green lung’ areas which minimise urban sprawl between built up conurbations.

Two of the sites include small but nevertheless important rivers within their boundaries; the Rivers Irk and Beal (Cowlishaw and Beal Valley respectively) help to prevent flooding and are attractive features of the two sites.

Additionally the Cowlishaw site is renowned for upwell of numerous local springs and given to serious flooding. The area has deep unstable subsoil that will require significant pilings leading to excessive construction costs.

Cowlishaw and Beal Valley also contain Sites of Biological Importance and these must be retained.

In regards to Saddleworth there is only one Strategic Site in the Spatial Plan, Robert Fletcher’s in the Greenfield valley, which has long been seen as needing a strategic view and plan to avoid piecemeal development.  Indeed Saddleworth Parish Council presented an outline plan for the valley some years ago and has done so again in response to the spatial proposals.

The plan proposes some 175 houses and 10-15 ‘lodges’ which one assumes, given past happenings, would become houses.  These houses given the lack of public transport or facilities and the preference for high value housing would do nothing to lessen the need for affordable housing in the area.

The topography and lack of transport links and the high value of local scenery makes other large sites hard to find in Saddleworth especially given the presence of the Peak National Park there.

Saddleworth is, however, very vulnerable to the number of other smaller sites, some of them astoundingly unsuitable, offered for development in addition to those in this strategic framework.

The Green Belt and open spaces within Oldham are areas of pleasant natural beauty that make us unique in Greater Manchester.

The Oldham Council Liberal Democrat Group firmly believes that our precious Green Spaces should be protected.

The Group strongly advocates that no building on Green Belt or OPOL be undertaken until developments are first undertaken on Brownfield sites, on sites where planning permission for housing development has already been granted, and upon the many derelict and unloved sites in our town centres and districts; and also after the conversion of mills and factories into housing use and after every empty home has been brought back into use.

Only when all of these things have been done should we then; and only then; consider developing any part of our precious Green Belt.

My two allowed questions at tonight’s Oldham Council meeting – 12 December 2018 – Who decides on the GMSF Plan and Coping with Brexit

Q1 Oldham Council Leaders Questions – Who decides on the GMSF Plan?

Mr Mayor, my first question to the Leader tonight returns to a subject that I asked him about in September – who will be responsible for taking the decision in this Council whether to adopt the final proposals for the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework.

I make no apology for asking this question again as circumstances seem to have changed on this issue since we last spoke in this Chamber about it.

On 1 October 2018, the Mayor of Greater Manchester and the ten Council leaders who are the Greater Manchester Combined Authority issued a media release which stated categorically that:

Leaders also commit to ensuring that the formal draft plan is put before each Council to ensure real democratic debate and scrutiny.

The draft Greater Manchester Spatial Framework must be approved by each and every local council next summer.

 The Mayor and Leaders have today made clear that regardless of the requirements, they are committed to ensuring that the formal draft Plan is put before each Council to ensure real democratic engagement, debate and scrutiny.

 Local ward councillors will have their say on this plan

 Throughout this process we have always committed to taking the GMSF through local councils.

On 30 November 2018, the Greater Manchester Combined Authority issued a further statement which stated categorically that:

  “Before we go out to consultation for a second time (in the summer of 2019) the revised Greater Manchester Spatial Framework will be taken to all the local authorities and councils within the city-region for discussion, debate and ultimately sign-off.”

As I read these two statements, they would appear to imply that all Greater Manchester local authority leaders, including yourself, have agreed to bring the draft GMSF plan before a full meeting of their local Council for scrutiny and debate and for ward members to vote on whether their local Council chooses to adopt the plan?

This appears to be a contrary position to the one that you outlined in your response to my question on the matter at the September meeting of full Council.  Here you indicated that you as Leader would make the final decision.

Please can I ask the Leader of the Council to clarify the current position as he sees it?

Q2 Oldham Council Leaders Questions – Coping with Brexit

Mr Mayor, for my second question to the Leader tonight I would like to turn to Brexit, more specifically the serious threat a No-Deal Brexit will pose.

The last Council presented a report which stated that: “It is looking increasingly likely that a ‘no-deal’ Brexit is the most likely outcome…”

This would result in a downturn in economic productivity and growth in our region as the EU accounts for almost sixty percent of our export market.

The cost of imported raw materials and components are already increasing, in part because of the falling value of the pound.  This will also impact on employment and on wage rates which will be devastating as Oldham working families are already amongst the poorest in the UK.

But this is NOT the worst of it.  Former Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab admitted the Government was preparing to stockpile food.

Health Secretary Matthew Hancock admitted discussions on building up NHS reserves of vaccinations, blood products and medical supplies had been held.

But it is impossible to stockpile advance supplies of fresh food, as by their nature they are perishable, and many patients rely of medicines with a short shelf-life.

Essentials will therefore have to be flown into the UK at great expense, while stuff rots at our ports which become gigantic truck parks with no drivers to drive them!

I say flown, but this is of course assumes that the Government can obtain the necessary export permits, complete the necessary new bureaucracy and obtain the flight-certified aircraft to do the job.

Frankly this sounds like a scenario akin to the Berlin Airlift of 1948 rather than Great Britain in 2018.

Seventy years ago, the Western allies had to overcome the Communist Soviet military blockade of that city to prevail.

Here common-sense has yet to prevail against the bigotry, narrow-mindedness of Little Englanders and the swivel eyed loons determined to break faith with our European neighbours.

Mr Mayor, this is frightening stuff, made more so in a borough where we already have so many poor citizens reliant on emergency Food Bank supplies, a great many with chronic and long-term health conditions.

I am sorry to say that this is not the script of a post-Apocalyptic movie this is just weeks away.

The people in charge of this mess and our country; in the middle of the most important constitutional change since Henry 8 or Oliver Cromwell; now decide to have a leadership contest and oust the Prime Minister!

They have done more to damage our reputation in the world; and the Union that is the United Kingdom; at a single stroke than any event in modern history!

Words fail me.

Firstly please could the leader tell us what is being done by this Council, in conjunction with our partners in the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, to plan measures to mitigate for a possible No-deal Brexit?

Secondly would he be willing to join with me in sending a joint letter to the three Members of Parliament who represent our Borough asking them to support a second people’s referendum, with the option on the ballot paper to remain in the European Union and retain the many benefits accruing from membership, before any move by this Government to take our nation over the abyss into Brexit?

Liberal Democrat Plan to make Oldham Town and all District Centres Safer at Night

Liberal Democrat Councillors Hazel Gloster and Howard Sykes MBE will be proposing a motion at the next full meeting of Oldham Council (Wednesday 12 December) calling for the establishment of Safe Zones and for the ‘Ask Angela’ scheme to be adopted to help make Oldham town and district centres in the borough safer for night-time revellers.

Commenting Councillor Gloster said: “When the Liberal Democrats were in power, we tackled the anti-social issues that resulted from problem drinking in Oldham town centre, issues that attracted lots of unwanted media attention with Yorkshire Street being dubbed ‘the  Wild West’ and I am pleased to say that things are now a lot quieter.  However, people do sometimes have too much to drink or they can feel threatened late at night, and we should take action to ensure that young people and vulnerable people who get into difficulty are able to find help when they need it.”

The Liberal Democrats are calling for a Student Safe Spot / Zone scheme and an ‘Ask Angela’ scheme to be established in Oldham and in other district centres across the borough, as they are in other places with student populations such as Bradford and Manchester.

Councillor Gloster added: “Although ours is not a big university town, we do have the Oldham Sixth Form College, the Oldham College and University Campus Oldham in our town centre.  Safe Spots are designated venues where staff offer support to students who feel unwell or unsafe late at night by phoning for a taxi, a friend or the emergency services. These venues display a prominent sticker in their window and new students receive information about the scheme as part of their induction. In Bradford, there is also an arrangement with a local taxi firm to transport students home who find themselves without money, with the bill later being settled via the university authorities.”

“The Ask Angela scheme is operated nationwide in many pubs and clubs. Like Student Safe Spots, staff will swing into action to help when someone who feels vulnerable or threatened ‘asks for Angela’ at the bar. This scheme is primarily, though not exclusively, aimed at lone women, who may for instance meet someone new for a date and find they feel increasingly uncomfortable or unsafe and want to leave discreetly. Premises promoting the scheme display posters, which are usually placed in the toilets of those establishments to be discreet.”

Councillor Gloster concluded: “These ideas are common-sense suggestions that will help people feel safer when they go out for a drink or a meal in the evening. They complement other excellent initiatives, such as the Street Angels scheme. The Liberal Democrats would like to see the Council work with the licensed trade, the Police and our social partners to introduce these measures in our town centre and in our district centres, for example in Shaw, and I do hope that Council will support them.”

Improving Public Safety in Oldham’s Night time Economy

Council notes that:

  • In Bradford and Manchester local businesses and community groups have joined with local colleges and universities to establish Student Safe Spots / Zones; these are premises self-identifying as havens for students who are being followed, or are feeling vulnerable or unwell.

Staff at these venues offer assistance in booking taxis home; in contacting the emergency services if their assistance is required; or offer a temporary safe haven until a problem has passed. Venues signed up to the scheme receive a sticker to place prominently to advertise their involvement and a list and map of venues is published on line for students to access.

  • In Bradford, there also exists an agreement with local taxi businesses that students without money but presenting with a valid student ID badge will be offered carriage and the bill is then sent to the student for payment, via the relevant college and university authorities.
  • The ‘Ask for Angela’ scheme is operated nationwide in many pubs and clubs.

If a member of the public who feels vulnerable or threatened ‘Asks for Angela’ of the on-premises staff they know to take that person to a safer location and offer them assistance, such as calling a taxi, contacting friends or in certain circumstances ringing the police. Premises promoting the scheme display posters, which are usually placed in the toilets of those establishments to be discreet.

Council believes that establishing such schemes in our borough would help safeguard vulnerable people in our Borough, especially students and women enjoying our night time economy, and would complement the excellent work being done by the Oldham Street Angels.

Council therefore resolves to ask the Overview and Scrutiny Board to examine in conjunction with relevant partners, including the Oldham College, Oldham Sixth Form College, University Campus Oldham, schools with post-16 provision, licensed premises and public and private hire taxi businesses, the practicality of establishing such schemes as soon as possible in our town and district centres.

Proposed Councillor Hazel Gloster, Seconded Councillor Howard Sykes

Liberal Democrats Opposed to Fast-Track Fracking

The Oldham Liberal Democrats are submitting a motion to the next full meeting of Oldham Council opposing Government changes to planning procedures on fracking matters.

Liberal Democrat Councillor Dave Murphy is proposing the motion and Councillor Derek Heffernan is seconding it.

Councillor Murphy explained: “The Conservative Government is quite simply trying to circumvent established local planning procedures because they know that fracking is simply not popular with either Councils or the public.  Recent fracking activities on the Fylde Coast have demonstrated that there are public health issues with fracking activities, such operations involve many vehicle movements, ground disturbances that have led to earth tremors, and the real danger that fracking could lead to the pollution of local water supplies. It is only right that where such operations are contemplated that local people and their elected Councillors are able to properly consider them under established planning procedures.”

He added: “And this is not simply about fracking.  There is a danger that the government could decide that other contentious planning issues, such as building new nuclear power plants or housing on the green belt, could be considered at national level, denying local people and local Councillors any say in what goes on in their area.  At the end of the day they are the people who have to live with the consequences.  This goes completely against the grain of localism, which is about divesting power to local communities, and it is fundamentally undemocratic, and this is why as Liberal Democrats we are opposed to these changes.”

Changes to the Planning System to Fast-track Fracking

 Council notes:

  • With concern that the government is proposing two major changes to the planning system as it applies to shale gas extraction (or fracking) by:
  • Granting automatic planning permission for exploratory drilling prior to fracking, using ‘permitted development’ rules. This would remove the need for companies to submit a planning application and so also reduce local democratic scrutiny.
  • Including shale gas production projects in the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects regime. This would take decision-making powers on shale gas production away from local councils and hand it to central government.
  • That wherever fracking has been proposed, it has been opposed by the public and local authorities because of real fears about noise, traffic, air pollution, the impact on the countryside, and the effects on climate change.
  • That the Cardiff Business School has produced a report that reveals that to replace 50% of the UK’s projected future gas imports for 2021-2035 would in the most likely scenario require around 6100 fracking wells to be built on well pads that could cover the area of 4900 football pitches. This would require the equivalent of drilling and fracking one well every day for fifteen years.

Council believes that:

  • The Government’s proposals completely contradict the principles of localism and set a dangerous precedent for planning authorities in denying them the right to determine certain types of planning applications locally and in denying members of the public and communities their say during the planning process.
  • ‘Permitted Development’ – the category of planning that the government wants to move shale gas exploration drilling into – which was designed for developments with a low environmental impact and is an inappropriate category for drilling which has such wide-reaching implications for local communities and climate change.
  • Bringing fracking applications under the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects regime will be harmful to local communities.
  • Local authorities and local people are best placed to continue to make decisions throughout the planning process on matters that affect their locality, including fracking.

Council therefore resolves to ask the Chief Executive to:

  • Write to the relevant government ministers outlining this Council’s objections to the proposed changes and requesting that fracking applications, or indeed on any other planning matter relating to our locality and its people, be determined locally.
  • Copy in our three local Members of Parliament and the Mayor of Greater Manchester and ask for their support on this issue.

Proposed Councillor Dave Murphy, Seconded Councillor Derek Heffernan.