Herts and Essex Observer reporter Sinead Holland writes:
They now want a showdown with the authority’s Conservative leader Jim Ketteridge.
The district council’s opposition party pulled out of the Local Development Framework working group last week amid allegations of exclusion from key briefing meetings to “finetune” future housing development policy.
After they made public their concerns – followed by robust denials from the Tories – Lib Dem leader David Morson and his deputy, Elizabeth Parr met with UDC planning chief Andrew Taylor to discuss their concerns.
According to the pair, who represent Henham and Elsenham, Mr Taylor told them the unminuted meeting in January, which was set to be followed up at the end of August, was held because “smaller decisions, like wording, would be handled better by a smaller number of councillors”.
Cllr Morson said: “It seems our suspicions have been confirmed.
“Senior Tories have claimed that the secret meeting in January was simply a briefing by council staff for the benefit of a selected group of councillors, but it appears that decisions were being made on specific elements of the local plan by an elite group of councillors.
“The clandestine nature of the meeting means that these decisions cannot be held up to scrutiny by councillors or the public.”
At the heart of the row is the thorny problem of future housing provision. Previously the Tories adopted a “preferred option” of a 3,000 home, new town, centred on Cllr Parr and Cllr Morson’s constituency to satisfy demand for the next two decades.
However the shift to sharing development across the main towns and key villages has caused a backlash in the Tory heartland of Saffron Walden.
Cllr Morson said: “Local plan process should be transparent and accountable, something which Conservative stewardship has thus far has failed to deliver.”
As the controversy first erupted, Cllr Ketteridge made it clear the working party had no decision making powers – and all members were allowed to attend.
“To suggest that there is anything improper is both an attack on members and the council’s officers. This council prides itself on the degree of openness it has but working groups and task groups give both members and officers opportunities to put forward and discuss ideas that may never go further.”
He has offered to meet with his critics.
Residents expect their council to run transparent and fair processes and to act on the public consultation responses they receive. It is also what the Planning Inspector requires. Uttlesford District Councillors, and particularly the UDC Cabinet, will be held to account by voters and other politicians if councils don’t do this and instead try to find ways to short-circuit the system to meet their own ends.
Read the article on the Herts and Essex Observer website.