There have consistently been accusations of a lack of transparency over the draft Local Plan, but recently things have taken a more serious turn as a number of concerns have been raised which seem to show that UDC has improperly promoted some new-homes sites over others and actively discouraged the developers of others. Commercial bias is not allowed; favouring particular sites or developers over others without a proper purpose for doing so is unlawful.
Cash for homes
In 2012 the UDC Cabinet leader acknowledged that Local Plan development site selection was a political decision and they were being paid to build new homes by the government. To maximise cash from the New Homes Bonus, UDC has upped the number of new homes twice, from 338, to 415, then to 523 a year, every year. In fact a recent Telegraph article shows that in 2013 UDC approved 2.5 times more major planning applications per capita than any neighbouring district.
By politically deciding where to build, UDC has ignored its own comparative sustainability assessment and so it has never been clear to the residents why some sites have been promoted over others.
Council mislead before critical vote
In April 2014 it seems that the district council was misled by UDC Cabinet Member Cllr Susan Barker just before a crucial vote on the draft Local Plan, which could have affected the outcome. As a result a code-of-conduct complaint was served on her by a number of Uttlesford residents groups, including WeAreResidents.org.
Cllr Susan Barker is responsible for the Uttlesford Local Plan. According to the residents groups, at the April 2014 Full Council meeting she was asked why specific development sites, such as those in Henham, Elsenham and on the east of Saffron Walden had been chosen and other more sustainable ones rejected, even though developers had come forward with proposals for them.
In response she said that the Council could only “…stick to the sites that have been put forward”. After making her statement she urged the Full Council to approve the draft Local Plan implying that it contained the only real options. Her statement was not true and as her own Local Plan report delivered to the Cabinet just before clearly stated, with other developers wanting their proposals for various sites considered. It seems that none of these alternative developments were explored.
Since her own report shows that other land was available, it seems odd to residents that the UDC Cabinet member responsible for the Local Plan would tell the council otherwise.
New home sites not treated the same
Things then took a more serious turn. After the meeting, evidence came forward that seems to show that in 2013 one of the developers promoting the other sites was effectively blocked by the Council from talking to them. Emails produced by the developer show that there was an internal discussion at UDC between a number of senior people who then decided that they didn’t want to talk to the developer or even hear their proposals, in spite of the fact that the Council was currently considering and consulting on other additional (and seemingly less suitable) sites in Saffron Walden, Elsenham and Dunmow. Two of these sites, Ridgeon’s in Saffron Walden and Taylor Wimpey Ongar Rd South site in Dunmow then had planning permission hurried through for them right after the crucial votes at the April Full Council meeting. At the same time Council Officers were also actively meeting with Gladman, a developer of a new potential site in Thaxted, who later submitted an application after the meeting with UDC. So why were these sites seemingly favoured and developers for others apparently blocked by UDC ?
Are others complicit in a cover up?
When asked by Councillors Alan Dean and David Morson about the emails and developer’s request, it seems that UDC officers denied that they had received any requests. When confronted with the contents of the emails, they then said that they had simply forgotten. This seems highly unlikely since the land concerned is part of one of UDC’s potential major new-settlement sites, is in a village where 2 cabinet members live, the denial for a meeting involves at least 3 people at UDC, and the officers were asked 3 times to confirm that there had been no email communication with the developer.
Councillors Dean and Morson then served another compliant against the Council and then went public issuing a press release with redacted copies of the email correspondence.
So why does it matter?
It matters because if it was shown that some developers’ proposals were intentionally favoured and others deliberately blocked and covered up, then the basis of site selection for the whole draft Local Plan would likely be found “unsound”, and maybe illegal. Soundness is one of the key tests that the Planning Inspector reviews during their Local Plan examination and hearing.
A council is required to run its planning system on a level playing field, so unlawful improper conduct could lead to wrong planning decisions and £ millions in fines, or even worse consequences.
Serious stuff indeed.