Over the last 10 years Uttlesford District Council (UDC) has considered a new town to be the preferred route to achieving centrally imposed governmental housing targets. This is because the existing towns and villages in the district have:
- Traffic congestion and vehicle emission problems
- Poor connections to A-roads, motorways and railways
- Narrow and historic streets that can’t easily be expanded
- Schools, water and sewerage that are all at capacity
In other words, significant development of existing towns would be difficult and unsustainable. And since 2006 UDC have published a number of studies to support this position, as are shown in the timeline whitepaper.
Then quickly and behind closed doors at the start of 2012, the UDC Cabinet’s housing strategy changed completely. It moved away from a new town and in favour of concentrating 1,000s of new houses in Saffron Walden and Great Dunmow, nearly 800 in Elsenham and Newport. The remainder were to be spread around the rest of the district (see the full housing allocations here). However the underling infrastructure and sustainability issues have not changed; it is still the worst and least sustainable option.
But decisions weren’t transparent and clear:
- Before April 2012: UDC met behind closed doors with developers and house builders. Those meetings are unminuted, but they happened just before the policy U-turn.
- 5 April 2012: The UDC Cabinet reviewed and approved a new model for housing growth which was based on predicted job growth, and was later found to be flawed.
- 10 May 2012: The UDC Cabinet discussed and agreed the U-turn in housing policy. The minutes indicate that evidence would need to be “created” to support this switch.
- 21 May 2012: The UDC Scrutiny Committee reviewed the draft Local Plan. Concerns were raised specifically the location of the sites proposed for Saffron Walden and Newport; unaddressed traffic and emission issues; the fact that the plan for jobs was not keeping up with proposed housing. Given that the draft Plan was 147 pages and included sites agreed with developers, it is very likely that it was produced behind closed doors well before the 5th April UDC Cabinet meeting.
- 24 May 2012: The UDC Cabinet reviewed and approved the draft Uttlesford Local Plan document in spite of the Scrutiny Committee concerns.
- 22 March 2013: UDC provided an update with respect to proposed Local Plan development sites. Quite apart from UDC still ignoring their own evidence, and the weight of public opinion over their dispersed housing strategy, the update fails to plan for or address any of the core issues of sustainability, highways, transportation, employment, water, sewerage, air quality, education and medical provision, community engagement and tax-payer desire.
The lack of transparency over the switch in strategy is concerning to residents, particular as the new approach seems to favour developers more and impacts the greatest number of council tax-payers. Building in existing settlements means that developers need to spend less for infrastructure investments. This increases their margins , but disadvantages council tax payers both through the impact to their settlements and their ability to access local services.
It is also concerning to many councillors, some of whom have come out publicly against the plan; all the decisions were made by the UDC Cabinet alone and seemingly without much reference to or input from non-cabinet councillors, which seems to undermine the reason why district councillors are elected.