Over the border: Councillors blast local plan meeting as ‘waste of time’
Politics / Sat 20th Jan 2024 at 07:20am
ESSEX councillors have blasted an extraordinary meeting regarding the progress of a local plan as a “waste of time”, and accused the opposition of politicising the process reports the Local Democracy Reporter.
The independently-run Uttlesford District Council’s (UDC) battle to adopt an up-to-date local plan under the current system has been well-documented and has recently been subject to wider scrutiny after the Secretary of State for Levelling-Up, Housing and Communities, Michael Gove, named the authority as one of the seven “worst” in the country for development.
The extraordinary meeting, held on January 17, was called for the council to respond to the draft response of leader Councillor Petrina Lees (Residents for Uttlesford, Elsenham and Henham) to a letter sent by Mr Gove on December 19, which highlighted the authority’s “persistent failure” to adopt a local plan since 2004, and which has subsequently “left communities vulnerable to speculative development and has risked not delivering the economic growth and infrastructure they need”.
Each named authority was given a 12-week deadline, at the end of which they are required to have provided the Secretary of State with an updated timetable for adopting a local plan before the June 2025 deadline.
However, many attendees questioned the need for the meeting, branding it “a waste of time” and calling it part of a “vanity project” for Mr Gove, who listed UDC as one of seven councils across England which were ‘named and shamed’ for their “consistent under-performance” in delivering housing and infrastructure projects during his speech at the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA).
Cllr Lees initiated the discussion of her formal response to the Secretary of State by reiterating that she found Mr Gove’s singling-out of the authority “perplexing”, given that he and the Department for Levelling-Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) had been kept well-informed of UDC’s position and its progress towards adopting a local plan.
She said she intended to keep UDC’s response “cool, calm and factual only… there’s no need for political games when it comes to a local plan”.
Despite this, Councillor Ray Gooding (Con., Stansted South and Birchanger), who additionally sits on Essex County Council (ECC), expressed that he was “a little concerned that [UDC] is being portrayed as incredibly confident” in its position regarding adopting a new local plan by June 2025.
Cllr Gooding said that both the cabinet and opposition “want to see a sound and robust local plan in place”, but that consideration must be given to the concerns of ECC regarding the spatial strategy outlined in the draft plan submitted, with special attention paid to the issue of a lack of education provision proposed.
However, a number of councillors claimed the subject’s irrelevance to the debate at hand, with Councillor Chloe Fiddy “Residents for Uttlesford, Saffron Walden Shire) calling the session “a vanity project of a meeting”. She said: “The council is not awash with spare money to give to officers waiting around with nothing to do, for an extraordinary meeting to be called on a whim.
“This is nothing but a waste of taxpayer money, and we should not be wasting taxpayer money pandering to a political group for which public approval has collapsed, and is just desperately chasing newspaper headlines.”
Councillor Neil Gregory (Uttlesford Independent Group, Littlebury, Chesterford and Wenden Lofts) concurred, noting that among a large number of councillors, there had been “a worrying outbreak of consensus” that the Secretary of State was working to promote Conservative political interests rather than to improve security for local councils and their communities.
He said: “You can say what you like about Mr Gove but he is a very bright man, so why is he asking questions he already has the answers to?
“Surely he can appreciate that there is a case for respecting the democratic mandate; whether he likes the composition of the administration is irrelevant.”
Cllr Gregory said that Mr Gove “needs to stop making bogus political points”, and that MP for Saffron Walden, Kemi Badenoch, “needs to start supporting the residents of this district and help build a sustainable community with the right infrastructure”.
Turning to criticise ECC, which has been under the control of a Conservative majority since 2001, Councillor Neil Hargreaves (Residents for Utlesford, Newport) slammed its “utter ineptitude” in failing to work with UDC to improve issues which it later raised in its response to the draft local plan, which it ultimately ruled it could not support in its current state.
Councillor Richard Freeman (Residents for Uttlesford, Saffron Walden Castle) reiterated the administration’s intention to adopt a sound local plan, referring to it first “like a phoenix” due to its requirement to be continuously renewed, and later saying a good, widely-approved plan “is like a unicorn; a strange beast… you don’t find very many of them about”.
He said: “I take no confidence from what has been handed down by the central government.
“I can confirm that planning is supposed to be apolitical; it’s about the community, not policies.”
When you're dealing with a Tory, its always a sad story. The same state of affairs has been played across the county; District councils that are not Tory run are obstructed, undermined and ignored by County Council, MPs, and Ministers who seek to drive one agenda - keeping the Tory Party in power. All of this with total disregard for the reality of the situation on the ground. Uttlesford was Tory run until recently so why hadn't someone in Westminster got the Local plan issue addressed before this? Oh yes, it would look bad for a Tory council to be named as a "worst performing" by a Tory government! Party politics is a sham and has no place in local governance. All Tories are good at is getting elected, once they have to govern they can't be bothered.