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Ingleborough Road protesters clash with council over confidential report
OPPONENTS of plans to build houses on a Wirral memorial field have been thwarted in their attempt to be given sight of a confidential report that was crucial to the development being approved.
The document’s findings were cited last year by planning councillors to lift the authority’s usual policy of making 20% of all new homes “affordable housing.”
The key report, prepared by independent consultants, is being kept under wraps as it contains what the council describes as “commercially sensitive information.”
Consent for around 90 homes to be built on Ingleborough Road fields - formerly used as a training ground by Tranmere Rovers FC - was given last October.
It was part of a linked proposal to reinvest proceeds from the sale of the houses to improve facilities at Woodchurch leisure centre.
The application sparked controversy as the field was set aside in the aftermath of the First World War as "a living memorial" to 88 old boys of Birkenhead Institute Grammar School.
Among them was celebrated trenches poet Lt Wilfred Owen, who served on the Somme and was killed at Ors a week before the armistice. Owen's works, including Dulce et Decorum Est and Anthem for Doomed Youth, led him to be posthumously recognised as one of the greatest war poets.
A brick pavilion, archway, flagstaff and bell tower were built with donations from pupils and relatives and 88 poplar trees, one for each boy killed, were planted.
The new housing development will incorporate a landscaped memorial area as a tribute to the pupils.
During a meeting called to scrutinise the proposal in October, a planning officer told committee members the independent report, by Kinnear Miller Associates, concluded it was “not viable” to require Tranmere Rovers to meet the usual council policy that 20% of the houses should be affordable.
It also indicated the football club stood to gain an unspecified sum from the sale, which was to be used to pay off some of its accumulated debts.
Birkenhead Institute Old Boys’ Association used Freedom of Information law to try to force the local authority to release the report.
A spokesman for the association said: “The borough is being asked to accept that it should forego urgently-needed affordable housing so a private company can reduce it borrowings.
“One can only speculate why such efforts have been made to withhold this important information from the public, both then and now.”
David Ball, Wirral’s head of regeneration and planning, said: “The report in its entirety was not released because it contained commercially sensitive information, a decision which was endorsed by the Information Commission on August 5, 2013.”
Building work at Ingleborough Road was stalled while the Department for Communities and Local Government decided whether to scrutinise the application.
But in December of last year, Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary, decided not to intervene because the department has to be "very selective" about which applications it looks at.
Speaking at the time of the proposal, Rovers’ owner Peter Johnson said the club was developing a new ground to the benefit of local residents.
Under planning rules, councils are obliged to ensure a supply of sites for housing.
The Government says planning committees should adopt a “presumption in favour of sustainable development”, and that councils must each year identify enough land for five years’ housing supply.
Sports pitches can be built on if developers open new facilities elsewhere.
War memorials are given no special protection from development under the law.