Verbal changes to important council evidence document go unchecked and unrecorded
Sites such as Danes Moss North and Handforth removed from scrutiny on landscape character grounds by unelected officers and their unaccountable consultants
Off-the-record agreements and decisions undermine Cheshire East Council’s claims to be “Open” and “Fair”
Over the course of our campaign, we have made many applications to Cheshire East Council under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 or Environmental Information Regulations 2004. We do this to obtain documents that may help to explain the proposed destruction of 55ha of wildlife-rich peatland. We have made so many requests, in fact, that we think the council sees us as vexatious or, at best, just plain vexing. Sometimes their responses shed light on opaque and tortuous planning processes; more often, the council invokes various defences including “commercial confidentiality”, “work in progress”, or “information not held on file”. Occasionally we are so concerned about the lack of transparency that we resort to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) for adjudication.
One of our long-standing concerns relates to the local landscape character, which is assessed in the Environmental Statement (ES)i submitted as part of the outline planning application. The ES refers to an important document known as the Cheshire Landscape Character Assessment, which describes the Danes Moss Character Area (1) as:
It then goes on to say that:
Elsewhere in the planning documentation the helpful map below shows the boundaries of the Danes Moss Character Area. The development site, edged in red on the plan, is clearly included in the Character Area. This is important as it is a key material issue in the planning process.
The Cheshire Landscape Character Assessment was published in 2008 so the council decided to provide an updated version which was published in May 2018 (at which time the outline planning application was being considered by Cheshire East’s Planning team).
In the 2018 Cheshire East Landscape Character Assessment(2), a Landscape Character Type (LCT) called Mossland is defined as:
The Assessment goes on to define the characteristics of the Mossland LCT as:
Topography, geology, and drainage
- A largely flat low-lying landscape with altitudes … up to 160m at Danes Moss. Formed above a bedrock of mudstone overlain by a surface geology of glacial sands and peat.
- The landscape is characterised by peat bogs that developed over many thousands of years in water-logged depressions and hollows created by the retreat of the glaciers.
- Varied woodland, including dense birch woodland and scrub, and wet alder and willow woodland.
Land use and field patterns
- An ancient field pattern of long thin fields enclosed by hedgerows, known as ‘moss rooms’ which resulted from the enclosure of strips of common land from which individuals had the right to extract peat for fuel.
- Land uses include a mixture of dairy pasture, horsiculture and recreational facilities (sports grounds). Landfill is prevalent at Danes Moss and Lindow Moss.
- This type represents a … discrete series of nationally important peatland sites designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and Special Areas of Conservation (SAC)… The cut-over raised mire at Danes Moss (SSSI) is one of the scarcest and most threatened habitats in the UK.
- These rare peatlands and the diverse patchwork of habitats associated with them, including small water bodies, wet grassland and wet woodland support a host of rare and endangered flora and fauna, such as cotton grass, cross-leaved heath and sphagnum mosses, bog asphodel, and the carnivorous sundew, as well as species of dragonfly, damselfly and butterflies.
Archaeology and cultural heritage
- A continuity of land use dating back to the medieval period and archaeologically … provide a sense of history. Local place names reflect the long association of the area with peat cutting.
Settlement, road pattern and rights of way
- The boggy mire historically provided an unappealing location for settlements and villages developed on the edge of the moss … However, with the loss of much of the original moss, this type is now located adjacent to urban areas.
Views and perceptual qualities
- Perceived as remote and inaccessible despite the proximity to urban areas, such as Macclesfield … Blocks of dense birch woodland provide a high degree of enclosure, while open wet grassland allows extensive views out to distant hills in other areas.
Anyone familiar with the proposed development site would agree that this is an accurate description of the whole area, including Danes Moss North. Imagine our surprise when the map that defines the boundaries of the Danes Moss Landscape Type (9b) turned out to stop at the boundary of the closed landfill site.
What could account for the omission of 55ha of prime Mossland LCT, especially as almost no changes had taken place on the land between 2008 and 2018? We put this question to Cheshire East Council, to no avail. We followed this with an Environmental Information Regulations request, to which we received the “no information kept on file” defence. We felt this was inadequate, so we applied to the Information Commissioner’s Office for a review of the case. The ICO found the council had made a minor infringement of the rules, but they found that no information was kept on file so no action would be taken. But…
…The ICO also ascertained that:
With regard to the final sentence of paragraph 6 (3), the LCA 2018 certainly does contain a methodology for conducting the assessment, including the type of information that should be recorded. This comprises:
- Desk-based review and classification
- Field survey
- Evaluative analysis
- Draft report
- Final report
We find it inconceivable that none of this would be retained because the LCA 2018 will be used to inform future council policies such as the Local Plan review, or successive versions of the Local Plan, and may be subject to challenge. With no evidence base to work from, how would Cheshire East be able to respond to any such challenges?
Puzzling though the lack of records may be, Paragraph 7 of the ICO’s Decision Notice contains significantly more disturbing issues.
The process for landscape character assessment should be based on survey and analysis of features such as landform, vegetation, built elements, water bodies such as rivers, streams, and ponds, plus heritage and established management activity. What it emphatically does not include is assumptions of future development activity. In fact, the consultants responsible for the 2018 LCA claim to have followed the methodology for assessment (4) promoted by Natural England (5) , which clearly states that landscape character assessment should be used to inform policy – not the other way round. Using administrative planning designations as a determinant of landscape character is a travesty of established practice and the council should not indulge in such arrogant, ill-informed meddling.
The most astonishing and worrying aspect of the ICO’s findings, however, is the revelation that such an important and far-reaching decision to override established practice was made verbally between council officers and hired consultants. We find this abhorrent.
In a democratic society, material changes to council policy documents should be made by qualified, experienced professionals and scrutinised by relevant elected members. Significant policy changes should not be made by unelected officers in association with unaccountable consultants and communicated solely by verbal instructions.
So, although the ICO could not find it in themselves to sanction Cheshire East Council for a misdemeanour, it did establish that a critical decision to depart from established best-practice was made on an un-minuted verbal agreement between internal and external staff. As a result, an important assessment report commissioned by Cheshire East Council, that should inform decision making, contains incomplete and misleading evidence. And the data on which it is allegedly based does not exist.
The Council’s strapline is Open; Fair; Green. The evidence for these claims has presumably been lost too – if it ever existed.
We have asked the council’s landscape consultant – LUC, based in London and Bristol – for sight of records that should have been made under the methodology set out in Appendix 2 of the LCA 2018; we have received no reply.
We understand that private companies undertaking work for local authorities may be subject to the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, so we are exploring that possibility.
- South Macclesfield Development Area – Environmental Statement, Volume 1 Chapter 6 – Landscape and Visual Impact Assessment
- For clarity, the Cheshire LCA 2008 is confusingly called the Cheshire East Landscape Character Assessment 2008 in the ES submitted with the outline application. This is a small illustration of the sloppy attitudes that prevail throughout the ES documentation
- ICO decision notice dated 8th February 2023
- An Approach to Landscape Character Assessment, October 2014, updated 2018
- The government’s adviser for the natural environment in England