East Cambs Council to throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water as emerging local plan is ditched amid accusations of acting 'undemocratically'
PUBLISHED: 16:58 17 February 2019 | UPDATED: 18:33 17 February 2019
Tory controlled East Cambridgeshire District Council will vote on Thursday to throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water and remove its emerging local plan - and two years of scrutiny - from independent examination.
If the vote is carried it could mean a temporary reprieve for residents of villages such as Kennett who are fighting proposals to stop the council’s scheme for 500 homes there.
But it could also mean East Cambridgeshire becomes a planning Klondike for speculators and developers as it will remain without a Government requirement of a five year supply of land for housing.
East Cambs Council says that if it had accepted the inspector’s latest recommendation green spaces in Witchford and Reach would be at risk and significant extra housing could be built at Soham, Littleport and Sutton.
One such site is Kingfisher Drive in Soham which had been allocated for 100 homes but which the inspector believes could sustain 175 homes.
And the council claims that if they adopted the inspector’s proposals for a new local plan it would mean deleting the council’s flagship community land trust policies.
Withdrawing the plan, however, could be fraught with complications and is opposed by Lib Dem Cllr Lorna Dupre.
She said that questions to be answered about why the council thought fit to “conceal the inspector’s modifications to the plan for two months.
“The proposal to withdraw the draft plan without proper discussion is grossly disrespectful to participants - landowners, developers and objectors alike”.
And withdrawal of the plan is being questioned by the Kennett Action Group that gave evidence to the inquiry and accuses the council of “acting undemocratically” by moving so swiftly against it.
Barclay Dutton of the action group said the Kennett Community Land Trust “was not community led, and survey evidence was accepted by the council that the majority of Kennett did not want the 500 homes development”.
It is faint consolation to the group that reverting to the 2015 plan will see Kennett – theoretically -once more be designated a small village with only modest incremental growth.
His group fears 500 homes are still on the cards and that a massive weight of evidence compiled by the Kennett protestors could now be destroyed.
It is a view shared by action group colleague Fahmy Fayez Fahmy who says that reverting to the 2015 plan means the 500 homes proposal is unlawful but fears East Cambs Council “will press on regardless”.
East Cambs Council is not only the planning authority but owns Palace Green Homes that wants to carry out the development. And council budgets have been put together on the basis of millions of pounds of expected revenue from their flagship Community Land Trust (CLT) scheme.
Councillor Anna Bailey, the deputy leader of East Cambs Council, remains adamant CLT schemes – including the Kennett proposals – will not be lost.
“The inspector’s modifications include deleting the community led development policy (that is already found sound and in our current local plan, and is what delivers Community Land Trusts) and deleting Kennett as an allocated site,” she tweeted over the weekend.
But in response to whether it would mean an end to the 500 homes proposed for Kennett she replied: “No, it doesn’t”.
Last year Mayor James Palmer won agreement from the combined authority to loan East Cambs £6.5 million for CLT homes at Haddenham and an ‘in principle’ deal for a further £40 million for East Cambs Council’s commercial arm East Cambs Trading Company Ltd for an extended programme of CLT housing.
It will now be up to East Cambs to see where those proposals fit alongside the intervention of Government inspector Louise Nurser who warned in December that the local plan proposals were “unsound”.
Richard Kay, strategic planning manager at East Cambs, has penned a report to full council on February 21 which contains the recommendation to withdraw the submitted local plan from its independent examination.
The effect will be to reduce the status of that emerging plan “to zero for the purpose of making decision on planning matters”.
The council began work in 2016 on the new plan and Mr Kay says it was submitted a year ago for examination. Inspector Louise Nurser was appointed to determine if it was “sound and legally compliant”.
Mr Kay said: “Officers were frustrated by both the slow speed of the examination and the considerable uncertainty as to where matters were heading, and what modifications might be necessary”.
These changes he says go to the heart of “or rather take away the heart of the plan prepared by the council”.
When the council did finally get her findings, he says, they expressed concern over the “sheer scale” of modifications needed, lack of explanation or reasoning, and the consequences.
Mr Kay believes the inspector ought to have stuck to her brief of focussing entirely on soundness matters as opposed trying to “improve” the plan.
Should the council accept all her suggestions “it would be one which is perhaps better described as an inspector-led plan. In short, with the modifications, the plan would become largely unrecognisable from the plan submitted for examination”.
Mr Kay summarises many of the technical aspects of why the council rejects the inspector’s findings including the fear that standards of new housing would fall with implications and ignoring the needs of the elderly and disabled.
And he says he is mystified by a reference by the inspector to “provide for those of a nomadic lifestyle” since it was unclear what this meant and why it is needed.
Mr Kay argues removing policies about village growth was unreasonable since these policies had been prepared in conjunction with village
“It remains unclear why the policies are, in their entirety, ‘unsound’ and incapable of being made sound,” he says.
Of modifications suggested he says “officers believe the vast majority are so wholly unjustified as to not be defendable at a future five year land supply inquiry i.e. rather than making the plan ‘sound’.
“They would actually make the plan ‘unsound’ by having over ambitious dwelling targets for sites, impacting on our supply and deliver of units”.
He added: “Another effect of the increase in numbers of specific sites is to significantly increase total growth in Littleport, Soham and Sutton.
“The Kennett site of 500 community-led dwellings be deleted. No reasons given.
“Local Green Spaces as backed by the local community in Reach and Witchford be deleted, the latter (Horsefield) being the one most supported by the parish council – no reason for deletion given.”
Mr Kay added: “A plan can be withdrawn at any time, for any reason, by a council.”
Once the plan is withdrawn, East Cambs will rely on legislation as well as “the direction of travel the combined authority is taking” to guide growth.