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Is it all about UKIP?

June 11, 2013 3 comments

A lot has happened in the last few weeks – here are a few random thoughts:

First we had the SE Plan, then the Strategic Housing Market Assessment (SHMA), and then the SHMA “critical friend” evaluation – all of which recommended a higher housing number (565 – 580 houses p.a. or maybe higher) than Arun’s original “preference” for 400 houses p.a. (remember that!). Arun’s officers have confirmed that there is no evidence to support 455 houses p.a. let alone 400 houses p.a.!

Now Arun’s Conservatives have allocated £100,000 of taxpayer’s money for another “review” of the SHMA evidence, before deciding on strategic locations (and we all know that the council has already declared its “bottom line” in a press release!).

Little detailed justification was given for why such a huge amount should be spent – just:

“The Cabinet Member for Planning and Infrastructure then concluded the debate on the amendment by confirming his view that the underlying data in the SHMA could be wrong and that was why a review was being requested.” 

It’s only £100,000!

On 2nd May 2013, in the county council elections across the Arun district, the Conservatives received 10,100 votes, UKIP 10,036 votes, Lib Dems 5,055 votes, Labour 3,467 votes, Independents 766 votes and BNP 57 votes.

Arun District Council has been under the control of the Conservative Party since its first election in 1973. The last elections to the council were held on 5 May 2011. Crucially, the next elections are now less than two years away.

An incredibly unpopular Conservative council needs to make itself popular as a matter of urgency.

Are we now witnessing a political group using £100,000 of taxpayer’s money to “win” short term popularity … and to provide a convenient excuse for when it eventually has to face up to its responsibilities?

Is this a publicly funded face saving exercise mounted to cover up poor political leadership throughout the Local Plan process?

For instance, the creation of a one horse race, in which the proposed “horse” is almost certainly undeliverable and rather carelessly located in Conservative heartlands too! The Conservative majority is so substantial that it didn’t matter before, but now, with recent defections, a by-election defeat, and UKIP on the scene the political landscape looks rather different!

Is this just smoke and mirrors to make the electorate think that Arun’s Conservatives are on their side by seeking lower housing numbers – whilst quietly pressing ahead later with the higher housing number? (with a heavy heart obviously!). Arun’s Conservatives can then blame the officers, planning inspectorate, their own government, numerous consultants, or anyone else that is handy, when they seek re-election in 2015. Something along the lines of “we didn’t want to do it, but we had no choice”!

It’s interesting to look back at how recent events unfolded.

Only two weeks after the County Council elections the Local Plan Sub-Committee were required to make a recommendation on the Local Plan to Full Council – the most important and controversial element being the housing numbers and strategic locations.

In a knee jerk and highly irresponsible (and populist!) response to the emerging UKIP threat the Leader of the Council proposed the following recommendation:

“That the Council’s Local Plan should allocate 455 homes per annum for the next 6 years only. Further housing provision should be determined by means of review prior to the expiry of that 6 year period.”

Prior to going to the vote, the Assistant Director of Planning and Economic Regeneration sought clarification on the proposal that the Local Plan only covered 6 years with a figure of 425 homes per annum plus 30 homes per annum under the Council’s own house building programme. I got the impression that he couldn’t quite believe what the Leader was up to!

Officers had already made it clear that there was no evidence to support this and that a housing figure of 455 dpa would make the Local Plan unsound.

This recommendation was loyally supported by the Cabinet Member for Planning and the rest of the Leader’s Conservative colleagues on the LPSC.

They spent nine years to arrive at a six year plan – amazing!

Then the following recommendation was passed:

“That the Council’s Local Plan be updated to give effect to the first resolution and be presented to a future meeting of Full Council via the Local Plan Subcommittee. As a consequence the proposed public consultation and publication of the Plan should be suspended and a new timetable proposed.”

The long grass again! 

It is then believed that the Assistant Director of Planning and Economic Regeneration attended the Conservative Group meeting on 21st May 2013 to advise the Conservative Group.

If so, did he give guidance exclusively to the Conservative Group and to the exclusion of other political groups?

…  and Chichester District Council made their feelings known in a letter saying:

“Should Arun Council resolve to agree the approach recommended by the Local Plan Sub-Committee (or adopt a similar approach designed to reduce housing provision below that recommended in the officer report), we consider that the resulting Plan would be likely to fail to meet the Duty to Cooperate requirements and NPPF tests of soundness when submitted for examination. Chichester DC would not wish to raise a formal objection to the Arun Local Plan, but unless your published Plan is supported by clear evidence to justify your approach to housing provision and does not lead to a displaced housing requirement to be met elsewhere in the sub-region, we may find ourselves in this position. This is not a situation that we would welcome and we would therefore hope that Arun Council will support the officer recommendation on housing numbers at the forthcoming Full Council meeting.”

But what could be done to save the careers of the Leader and Cabinet Member for Planning? And to “win” some much needed popularity?

Then on 29th May 2013, Full Council met, in theory, to discuss the recommendation of the Local Plan Sub-Committee.

However, the Cabinet Member for Planning put forward an amendment to his Leader’s original recommendation (which at the time he had supported with enthusiasm!) and this is what was subsequently voted through after an amendment from the opposition groups was defeated:

The Council RESOLVED – that  

(1) the Council’s Local Plan should allocate 455 homes per annum for the next six years thereafter 655 from 2019 for each year to 2028-2029 inclusive;  

(2) strategic allocations be determined in light of the outcome of a review of the SHMA;  

(3) the Council refers these matters to a future meeting of the Local Plan Sub-Committee;  

(4) the sum of up to £100,000 be agreed as a supplementary estimate for the production of studies and other evidence to support the above. This is equivalent to £1.81 on a Band D property of the Council Tax; and  

(5) The Local Plan be treated as a material consideration in the determination of planning applications having regard to the advice in the National Planning Policy Framework. 

Action groups like SAV and VAG have understandably given this a cautious welcome – but they are not daft either! They can work out for themselves what is likely to happen if/when the 655 houses p.a. commences – not too long after the 2015 elections!

In the debate it was interesting to note that almost all opposition members referred to the fact that Ford Airfield had been excluded and should be reconsidered. The Conservatives on the other hand appeared not to have noticed this! It will be interesting to see if the Planning Inspectorate will be more observant?

I can’t help thinking that, once again, Arun’s Conservatives have delayed facing up to their responsibilities, and that their main motivation is to save/prolong the careers of the Leader and Cabinet Member for Planning (the two architects of this farce!), at a price of £100,000 to the taxpayers.

Oh – and to try and “win” some short term popularity! Quick!

It is clear that UKIP are now a threat to the Conservatives. In fact, there are no safe Conservative seats anymore! Arrogance and complacency has been replaced by fear!

Finally, I make no apologies for the political nature of this post. Politics play a major part in the Local Plan and we all need to be mindful of the potential ducking and diving of our local party politicians! I am, by the way, politically independent!

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