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Council refused the offer to choose sports facility site

The government Inspector charged with “examining” the Sefton MBC local plan to ensure that it was “sound” (to use the jargon) offered Sefton council, in conjunction with Formby parish council, the opportunity to choose the site with the new sports facilities. Both councils refused his offer. Now that the plan has been accepted, and the dust has settled, that story needs to be told.

This is how it happened. From the start the council maintained that there should two 'sustainable” commercial development sites in Formby, a very ordinary proposal for the site north of the present industrial estate, and one to the south including the sports facilities. The Inspector was equally clear that only one site was sustainable and initially chose (for whatever reason) the northern site, thus rejecting the sports facility. Following an unprecedented volume of objections the Inspector unusually and highly commendably re-opened the public debate. As a consequence, again unusually and commendably, he offered the council ( in conjunction Formby parish council via the neighbourhood plan) the choice of which site he should include, given that there was little to choose between them. Formby parish council voted against the plan at a committee meeting on 3 January. Sefton council refused that offer and insisted that the Inspector make the decision. From that moment the fate of the sports facility was sealed. The council's officers must have known that the only possible decision the inspector could make was to support his original choice. This is why it is actions of both councils (but particularly Sefton as the senior partner) not those of the Inspector who are responsible for the resultant fiasco.

There several curious aspects to this affair. First, the Inspector put onto the local plan website full details of the correspondence he had with both councils on the subject. In my experience a government official would only do this out of sheer frustration. In a Q+A exchange he rejects two reasons (more like excuses) given by Sefton council; that the proposal was of doubtful legality, and Formby parish council were not competent to do the job. Local plan documents EX.126, EX128 and Ex129 are all relevant and well worth a read. Secondly, at the committee on 3 January each councillor’s individual vote was recorded, this is unusual. Who voted for and against makes very interesting reading. Finally, too many councillors lead by the chair of the planning committee, jumped in too quickly to defend their officials and place responsibility unfairly with the Inspector. Methinks the councillors did protest too much.

This analysis raises a number of questions. Why did Sefton council act in the way they did when a sensible compromise would have lead to a very different outcome? An outsider can only speculate about this, but one reason given by the council, that they insisted the Inspector continue to consider both sites despite overwhelming evidence that only one would succeed, is incomprehensible. This was an incredibly bad decision and reading between the lines, I suspect many councillors sort of knew that.

So there we have it. If Sefton council had been less stubborn and Formby parish council more courageous and far-sighted, the new sports facilities would have been included in the Sefton local plan.

By John Nelson

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