THE political debate surrounding Wirral's green belt saga began well before last month's announcement that 50 sites could be released for development.

So far, the Labour group has blamed the Conservative government for allegedly imposing huge building targets, while the local Tories and Liberal Democrats have attacked the council for its "inability" to develop a local plan.

Peel, the firm behind the huge Wirral Waters development, has also been scolded for not moving quickly enough with its scheme – hitting back by saying the project remained on track.

But what about the real people at the heart of this saga?

With the political spin in full motion, it can be easy to forget these decisions may have a big affect on the lives of residents and businesses in dozens of locations across Wirral.

That could mean getting hundreds of new neighbours in previously exclusive towns and villages surrounded by countryside – or being the ones benefiting from the new homes.

In a bid to find out what it might all mean for real people, we spoke to those living close to some of the biggest green belt areas that could be released for development...

John Heath lives on Irby Road – sandwiched between two of the sites that could be released from the green belt. 

To the west of his home is a huge collection of fields that, if filled with houses, shops and infrastructure, would essentially see Irby village merged with neighbouring Pensby and Thingwall.

John, who is planning officer at the Irby, Thurstaston and Pensby Amenity Society, which boasts hundreds of members, said: "Irby is a mixed community, it's got a lovely balance. There are people who work on farms, we've got commuters, professionals and more.

"It's got a great feel about it – totally different feel from Pensby, Thurstaston and from Greasby, but with these plans, they would almost all become merged.

"To a certain extent you can liken it to Liverpool and Manchester United.

"You wouldn't think of joining those teams together, would you? 

"It's a loss of identity and personal feeling of belonging is just being ignored."

He said if the plans went ahead, the Irby community would "disappear", and a "Greater Greasby" may emerge.

He added: "Once you start eroding where you stop? The value of living somewhere like this would drop.

"Resources should be going into areas like Birkenhead. Look at the number of people who are abandoning it as a shopping area.

"It's not a case of 'Nimby' or people buying houses for walks and views.

"Where we're coming from is morally, socially and economically the council should be developing in the areas of deprivations.

"They should be putting all efforts into revitalising those areas, that’s one of the planks that gets us so worked up.

"We have looked at places where they can develop. If the population does keep growing, the green belt has to be released – but only as a last resort."

Greasby resident Phil Simpson lives close to one of the massive sites to the south-east of the large village.

Speaking about the green belt development, he said: "It's upset so many people. 

"I've been contacted by people who are stressed – it's given them sleepless nights, including a farmer who has been working his land for over 60 years. He could lose his livelihood and his home."

According to Phil, the concern for a lot of people is about "urban sprawl", and towns being joined together with nothing in between.

He said: "We should be building next to where the jobs and the city centres are.

"We're worried about the environment and health of future generations and their ability to breathe fresh air. The green belt is the green lungs of Wirral, so we’re trying to tackle this in a reasonable way.

"It's going to ruin their quality of life. What do we leave them? Absolutely nothing."

Fellow resident Lily Clough added: "My main concern is over the infrastructure. Where are the school places going to come from?

"Where are the good, basic things required to be built where a lot of people are living?

"Locally, a lot of schools are oversubscribed. Families are already scrambling to find school places for their children, and this will make it worse."

Les Spencer is chairman of Saughall Massie Conservation Society, an organisation covering an area that could be released in its entirety.

He said: "The last two years have been a constant battle fending off developers, but the door is swinging open a bit now.

"With all the uncertainties, it's unclear whether the physical identity of the village will change.

"It has a distinct boundary at the moment, established by the council with a green belt ribbon.

"If that all went, we would become another part of Upton."

It comes after last year, when plans to build a fire station on this section of green belt were approved, shocking the community.

They were fought tooth and nail by local residents angry about the affect of noise pollution, traffic and green spaces being destroyed, but requests for a government call-in were rejected.

Les said the effects of even more development on the green belt could have an impact on house prices.

He added: "There would certainly be more pollution and congestion, and it would make the place less attractive. 

"One of the reasons we moved here was because it was a conservation area.

"Like the building of the fire station, this would be against the interests of residents.

"We are starting to see the council now as more of an enemy than a friend. It contributes to a real sense of insecurity."

He said he believed many of the owners of fields surrounding the conservation area "would be prepared to allow them to be developed".

David Allan, committee member of Conservation Areas Wirral, called the plans "unacceptable".

He said: "25% of the conservation areas in Wirral will be affected by this. That is unacceptable.

"People come to Wirral for history and heritage as well as its countryside and shoreline. If the plans go ahead then so much of history and heritage is going to be lost.

"Conservation areas are very precious to people who live here. Saughall Massie is a prime example of what could be swamped by these potential new developments.

"It will mean a loss of identity.

"Once you merge it in with the urban sprawl, it dissipates that and becomes part of a mass."

What does the phrase "green belt release’ actually mean?

Land across the UK is placed in the green belt to prevent “urban sprawl”, and keep it permanently open for everyone to enjoy.

National planning policy prevents towns merging into one another, safeguarding the countryside, preserving special or historic towns, and assisting in regenerating urban areas.

Once designated as green belt land, "inappropriate development" can only be built in "very special circumstances".

Similarly, green belt boundaries can only be changed in "exceptional circumstances that are fully evidenced and justified".

In terms of the Wirral, the existing green belt was defined by the council in February 2000 in its unitary development plan.

Just under half – 45% and 7,317ha – of land in the borough is designated as green belt, after it was tightly drawn around the built up area.

Very few of these sites are actually owned by the council, with the vast majority in private ownership, although the local authority will make money from the larger overall tax base – particularly from the high council tax bands that often come with homes in these areas.

If a site is released from the green belt, it is not a guarantee that all of it would be developed, as many are subject to environmental or other constraints, such as being kept as golf courses, country parks, recreation grounds or woodlands.

Wirral council claims it must build 12,000 homes over the next 15 years – a total of 800 each year.

Not everyone is convinced so many homes are needed The figure has caused some raised eyebrows across the borough, including that of Professor David Gregg, who has a background in mathematical modelling, statistics and operational research.

He claimed to have worked out that based on population changes in Wirral over the last decade and allowing for economic growth, the housing need is actually more like 200 to 300, rather than 800.

He said the council has deliberately exaggerated the green belt problem, and following the review later this year, will claim they have "heroically" saved much of the land – land Prof Gregg said was never needed in the first place.  What did the council say?

Cllr George Davies, cabinet member for housing and planning, said: “The Government has told Wirral we must find space to build 12,000 new homes over the next 15 years.

"The Government knows the peninsula does not have enough brownfield land to meet this target, unless Wirral Waters was fully developed, but Peel say they will need substantially longer to achieve this."

Cllr Davies said the policy is "exactly what residents would want and expect" – that brownfield sites are prioritised for development first.

He added: "At the moment, council planning officers have identified enough other brownfield space for 2,410 new homes by 2033, including across the borough’s most deprived areas which we would aim to see regenerated through new development.

"As residents of this fantastic borough we all value its open spaces, and will continue to protect as much of our Green Belt as we can.

"But we are legally obliged to review our Green Belt land and, while making any of those sites available for development will be our last resort, it has been made unequivocally clear to us by Government, that if we do not complete a plan to meet the Government’s targets, they will not hesitate to complete the task for us."

He also drew on the political debate thrown up by the saga.

"Wirral Tories clearly can't decide what to do or don't do when it comes to the Green Belt.

"Our leader Phil Davies has written to Liz Truss MP – the Tories number two in the Treasury and Jacob Rees Mogg MP – a leading Tory contender to replace Theresa May as Prime Minister.

"Both of these senior Tories have written in national newspapers explaining why they believe Tories should support building on the Green Belt, so it really is make your mind up time for Ian Lewis and his Conservative colleagues.

"It is crucial our Local Plan is designed based on the distinct needs and characteristics of our Borough, and the needs of our residents.

"This is why we will be talking to residents through an extensive programme of community consultation over the coming weeks."