Local people attempting to shake up local politics
The ruling Tory group on East Cambridgeshire District Council (ECDC) have voted to withdraw their new Local Plan after the Planning Inspector requested quite substantial changes.
This decision means that years of work and thousands of pounds have been wasted. It also leaves the entire district wide open to speculative planning applications for over a year and possibly well into the future.
The report written by ECDC into this fiasco puts the blame wholly on the Planning Inspector, apparently they are wholly faultless. The truth may be far less palatable to the ruling Tory group on the council.
ECDC spent a considerable amount of time creating a local plan which was eventually adopted in April 2015. The adoption of the plan gave every village and town in the district a development envelope. Planning applications outside these development envelopes could be rejected on that grounds alone. These development envelopes protected all the towns and villages in the district from speculative development.
In June 2015, just 3 months after it was adopted, the local plan was successfully challenged because it was inadequate. This challenge lead directly to an unwanted and badly located development of 128 houses next to the A142. It also rendered those protective development envelopes irrelevant. Every village and town in the district became wide open to speculative planning applications and ECDC could do very little to stop them.
Although there were elections in May 2015 the ruling group on ECDC didn’t change. Most of the councillors responsible for the 2015 plan are still on the council and in the ruling Tory group.
To fix the problems with the 2015 plan ECDC decided to create a new local plan, which has taken much of the last 4 years. That process has not been very transparent.
A consultation was undertaken into on which of four directions the plan should take. The results of this consultation do not appear to have been published by ECDC. Three of the options would have led to expanding the current large urban areas of Ely, Soham and Littleport. Concentrating the development in specific areas like this is a more sustainable approach as more amenities can be included. However ECDC decided instead to create a plan based on spreading the development evenly across the district. This leads to lots of smaller developments which don’t include additional amenities in villages already lacking those amenities.
ECDC then put out a call for land, asking landowners to put forward sites for possible development, but they failed to contact landowners who had previously expressed an interest in putting forward land, a second call for land was then arranged.
In 2018 a final draft of the plan was ready and due to get rubber stamped. It included a 700 house development in Witchford which the local community were very opposed to. At a Parish Council meeting the night before the draft plan was due to be approved, the leader of ECDC was made aware that local residents were willing to take legal action to oppose the massive development on their doorstep.
In the meeting to approve the plan the following day a hastily arranged amendment was circulated dropping the contentious development. The plan that had taken years of work to create was radically altered at the last minute because earlier consultation had been ignored.
Soon after this the Tory councillor responsible for leading the local plan process moved to London but wasn’t replaced in that role, or as a councillor.
Having passed the amended plan ECDC sent it to the Planning Inspector. This is where as far as the ECDC report is concerned the problems begin. However as shown above the problems were brewing for a long time before this.
The ECDC report puts the blame squarely on the Planning Inspector, who they say took far too long and hasn’t stuck to the agreed way of doing things. Although crucially they admit she hasn’t actually done anything wrong. The report doesn’t mention how little ECDC appears to have chased up the Inspector during this period, having the lead Councillor living in London probably didn’t help, or whether they intend to lodge an official complaint.
A pivotal issue with the plan appears to be its reliance on Community Land Trust (CLT) developments. These are supposed to be developments led by local people, for local people providing affordable housing. However, they haven’t taken off and are providing only a small number of houses. Despite this they are a core part of ECDC’s plans to deliver its required housing numbers.
One of the CLT developments included in the plan is for 500 new houses in Kennett, a tiny village near Newmarket. This development will in fact be carried out by ECDC’s commercial arm, funded by the Mayor, with money from the Government. Its ″community″ credentials are vanishingly thin, in fact there’s a local action group actively opposing it.
Removal of CLTs and the Kennet development is one of the changes the Inspector requires.
ECDC were informed changes would be required to the plan on the December 5th 2018, and the list of the changes was given to them on the December 19th 2018. The ruling group appears to have sat on that information for 2 months until the February 13th 2019 just 7 days before the meeting on whether to withdraw the plan. They then refused to consult on whether to withdraw the plan despite requests to do so from parish councils affected by the decision.
Having now withdrawn the plan ECDC’s planning decisions will have to rely on the 2015 plan which has already been successfully challenged. Their only silver lining is that in April 2020 the slate is wiped clean for the 2015 plan and the development envelopes will be enforceable again. That’s over 12 months away, 12 months of planning free for all across the district. After April 2020 it will only take another successful challenge by a developer to render the 2015 development envelopes worthless again.
But it’s not just the development envelopes. The new plan included lots of additional new protections for green spaces for example, stricting rules on parking spaces per dwelling, more pedestrian and cycle policies and so on. All of these are lost.
Finally the 2015 plan is rapidly going out of date with respect to national planning laws, making it more susceptible to being challenged by developers.
The Tory group running ECDC have now been responsible for the 2 local plans that have proved to be to be inadequate.
For the last 5 years they have left local towns and villages with virtually no protection from speculative developments. That lack of protection continues for at least another 13 months.
They have ignored consultations and made decisions about the direction of the plan behind closed doors, keeping information from other councillors, parish councils, landowners and the public.
They have wasted months of their officer’s time not to mention the time of all the consultees. They have wasted thousands of pounds of their own and other people’s money.
They had the chance to listen to the communities, create a sustainable plan and give the district a stable future. They failed.
There’s an election in May perhaps it’s time for a change.