Since 2007 Uttlesford District Council (UDC) has favoured building a single new settlement to meet the majority of its government-driven new housing targets. The strategy was backed by all of UDC’s sustainability evidence and was the basis that the council members fought and won the 2011 local elections.
Shortly after the election, the majority party voted in a new district cabinet system that wrested the power away from the full council of 44 members and settled it in the hands of only 7 officials from the same political party. This change in the local power structure was not part of the party’s election manifesto.
In early 2012 the new UDC cabinet issued a draft Local Plan. It contained a switch in strategy, away from the voter-endorsed single settlement approach to one that proposed building the majority of the new housing in the existing and overstretched towns of Saffron Walden and Great Dunmow. This decision ignored the council’s own planner’s sustainability evidence and was what the Uttlesford District Council Cabinet admitted “a political decision”.
Critically this plan sought to build a minimum of 1,200 and up to many 1,000s of new homes on the east of Saffron Walden. The town is predominantly a commuter town and sits in a natural bowl with schools, jobs and transport to the west. It is not served by any major roads, so mass building on the east would force 1,000s more cars through already often congested residential areas; 4 areas in the town already breach allowable legal pollution limits. These were a number of the key reasons that the proposals had been rejected by planners in the past as being the worst possible and least sustainable option.
Many of the residents of Saffron Walden were horrified and the civic group WeAreResidents.org took on the challenge of opposing the proposals to protect the future of the town. They believe that the most sustainable and evidence-backed option should be selected. This would seem new housing focused in a new single settlement near jobs, transport and school capacity, leaving a moderate 1,000 houses spread around existing settlements, which would include 250 in Saffron Walden.
During the draft Local Plan public consultation, the switch in strategy to building in the towns was rejected by an unprecedented 99%. The proposals were also rejected by Saffron Walden and Dunmow Town Councils and a number of local parish councils.
The cabinet of Uttlesford District Council then issued a draft Local Plan update in March 2013. This plan admitted that it had ignored the public consultation feedback from the previous summer and in fact sought to increase housing in Saffron Walden.
UDC made no visible progress on the Local Plan in the interviewing 10 months. None of the required education, highways, air quality, or water plans were produced. And along the way the Local Plan turned into an omnishambles: The council was accused of a chain of secret and unminuted meetings with developers; they tried to hide 1,200 houses that they were required to build from voters just ahead of the elections; and they were forced to remove developer provisions for highways and medical centres because they hadn’t done the prerequisite background work.
For reasons that seem at best opaque, the cabinet of Uttlesford District Council seem intent on damaging the future of the town by ignoring sound evidence and the wishes of those that that actually live in the town and love where they live. They continue to promote new large scale housing estates on the east of town and have even recently approved an out-of-town supermarket whose own planners admitted that it would kill town centre convenience turnover by 7.7%; the site was rejected by HM Inspector in 2012 for a similar supermarket due to the negative impact on town centre retail.
Fed up with being ignored, Saffron Walden residents stood their own WeAreResidents.org independent candidate for the May 2013 local elections. In what amounted to a referendum on housing, they won the town’s single county council seat, unseating the incumbent who previously held over 50% of the vote was also a cabinet member at Uttlesford District Council. Residents are now hoping to influence the agenda from the inside and have stated their intent to stand a full set of district councillors in the 2015 Local elections.
Its time the residents of Saffron Walden decided for themselves.