In a long and often heated debate on Tuesday 5th August, Uttlesford District councillors delayed their decision on whether to fight Kier’s appeal to build 300 new houses on the inaccessible east of Saffron Walden. Kier’s application was refused by the UDC Planning Committee in April. The UDC leadership called the closed-door extraordinary Full Council meeting on 5th August to try to override that decision.
Corruption of process
There has been increasing cross-party unrest in the District Council over the last few months as the UDC Cabinet and senior Officers have sought to push through many of their draft Local Plan sites before the first review of the Plan by the Planning Inspectorate in the Autumn. The meeting on 5th was no exception, with a number of Councillors expressing concerns about this new attempt to overturn the planning refusal.
Before the meeting Essex County Councillor John Lodge stated “UDC leaders are setting a worrying precedent with this meeting, namely that if they don’t agree with the independent Planning Committee decision, they will try to override it by hook or by crook. It is a corruption of the democratic process. This is not the type of open and transparent District Council that residents expect, which is why residents intend to stand their own candidates in 2015.”
Concerns over lack of infrastructure
When planning was refused in April, Kier’s housing application had come under significant criticism from locals, particularly about the lack of infrastructure, including school places, sewers, roads, cross town traffic congestion and the associated pollution and environmental impacts. These were part of the reasons for the planning refusal.
Before the 5th August Full Council meeting Uttlesford residents group, WeAreResidents.org, wrote to all Councillors to express their concerns. At the meeting Jen Beaton, from WeAreResidents.org, made a statement reminding the Council of the infrastructural and other problems with the Kier application.
Jen Beaton of WeAreResidents.org said: “There is a strong case to fight this appeal because it was refused on many sound and highly defensible grounds, including direct and specific advice from DEFRA about pollution Saffron Walden.”
UDC Chief Executive John Mitchell brushed residents’ concerns aside, guiding Councillors to ignore any infrastructural impacts, and urging them not to fight the appeal.
In her statement, WeAreResidents,org’s Jen Beaton also asked Councillors not to overturn the Planning Committee refusal and to get a second opinion, citing the fact that recent legal planning advice being presented by UDC Officers “had little basis on which to make a decision because it had not been independently verified or subject to peer review, and any risks had not been quantified.”
Press and public barred from meeting
The press and the residents were then dismissed and barred from the rest of the meeting as UDC had decided that the remaining discussion should happen behind closed doors away from the public, but some details have been shared on Cllr Alan Dean’s blog.
Lack of confidence in Officers’ advice
Things continued to be heated during the closed part of the meeting. The number of dissenting Councillors meant that the UDC leadership didn’t get what they wanted – agreement not to fight the Kier appeal. Instead Councillors, not confident in the legal advice presented by UDC Officers, almost unanimously voted to instruct those same UDC Officers to get a second opinion.
Independent second opinion needed
The sting in this vote was that Councillors also agreed to let Officers both review the new legal opinion and then decide if the Council should fight the Kier appeal. This is problematic because those same Officers are the ones pushing not to fight the Kier appeal, so what is the transparent process by which Councillors and residents can determine if they have reached an independent decision? This is even more important given that the Full Council had just indicated that they had no confidence in the Officers’ advice in the first place.
That means that it would be both technically and politically problematic for UDC Chief Executive John Mitchell to leave his Officers to make the decision themselves, so it is expected that UDC will need to convene a second extraordinary Full Council meeting before a Planning Inspectorate deadline at the end of August.