DID OFFICERS PULL THE WOOL OVER THE EYES OF COUNCILORS TO GET DEFECTIVE PLAN THROUGH?
Lots of what councils do is routine and unremarkable. But sometimes a subject comes up which is major and will affect almost everyone. One such decision came up at Lewes District Council’s meeting on Monday 28th November.
The council was being asked to agree a development plan for Lewes for the next 20 years or so. These plans are a key part of the planning process. If an area is zoned for, for example, industry, it is very hard to argue against a planning application in that area for an industrial site. You can only haggle about the design and similar minor things. If somewhere is zoned for housing, then an application for housing of a reasonable design must be passed.
Once the plan is agreed and passed by a planning inspector and the secretary of state it is almost set in stone, so the decision is a very important one.
A STRANGE QUIRK OF GEOGRAPHY
The weirdness of planning rules means that the District Council is only responsible for part of its area. It is responsible for Seaford, Newhaven, Peacehaven, Ringmer, Chailey, Newick and Wivelsfield, but not places in the National Park, like Lewes, Falmer or Ditchling. So the plan can look like a mess.
A ROTTEN PLAN
The development plan was largely drawn up by officers of the council although no doubt senior council members took an overview. Now being a planner for a small district council where half the area is the responsibility of another body is not a great attraction for a potential planning superstar, so perhaps the best talent goes elsewhere.
The plan is something of an environmental disaster. Amongst other things it proposes factories on the beach at Newhaven/Tidemills (added at a very late stage). It also proposes a large housing development cutting into the green belt between Burgess Hill and Haywards Heath on land which is part of Lewes District, but where people will go for all their services to these towns- so Lewes gets to meet its government targets for housing without having to worry about significant infrastructure or the views of the residents of those towns. There is also confirmation of a large housing development in Newhaven which is likely to add to traffic congestion in the area and a number of other unsound proposals.
In fact the plan was so bad that even usually cautious council members like Ruth O’Keeffe could not accept it.
You can view the council’s debate and their vote here
The plan was passed by 18 votes to 17 with one abstention.
By and large the Conservatives, who are the largest party, voted for the plan. These Conservatives included Sharon Davey and Nancy Bikerson who represent Wivelsfield. Did they think a lot of houses were good for their areas?
Also voting for the proposals were Seaford West Conservative Council member Liz Boorman. Come District Council elections this coming May electors may want to ask about this.
They may also want to ask Seaford councillors Sam Adeniji (Seaford South) Bill Bovington (Seaford Central) and Linda Wallraven why they were not there to be counted at the vote, since, unless I have missed it, their votes were not recorded.
All the Liberal Democrats present voted against the plan with the exception of Peter Gardiner, who represents Ouse Valley and Ringmer. His South Heighton constituents may want to ask him some questions next May.
(Voters of a liberal persuasion might want to listen to the debate (link above) Some of the Lib Dems opposition to a travellers site as part of the plan in the district appears bordline racist)
Two Greens voted against but Joanna Carter (Lewes Bridge) abstained. Why?
The independents were split. Stephen Catlin (Lewes Priory) voted for the plan as did Simon Barnes, who represents Newhaven Denton and Meeching.
Newhaven residents will no doubt have something to say about that, and Priory residents may want to ask why a member for a ward not affected by the plan voted to inflict misery on others.
However Susan Murray (Lewes Castle) Ruth O’Keeffe (Lewes Priory) Robbie Robertson and Dave Neave (Peacehaven West) voted against.
If one person (for example Stephen Catlin, Simon Barnes or Peter Gardiner) who voted to agree the plan had voted against it it would have fallen. If Joanna Carter had voted no, the plan would have fallen because the chair’s casting vote would have been against. What your councillor did counted.
(MP Maria Caulfield has spoken out against the travellers site but not any of the other issues in the plan)
Some people were clearly voting the party line, but first impressions suggest that officers may have spent quite a bit of time with wavering council members. For example Joanna Carter has already complained on Facebook that she was given a lot of advice by officers that she now thinks may have been misleading.
It would be easy for officers to frighten members by threating them that if they did not support the plan developers would have free reign. This is because if there is no plan developers can put forward any proposal anywhere. This happened in Wealden and Mid Sussex. But in these cases the council took years and years without any plan. It takes developers a long time to get land. But in Lewes there are saved policies from earlier plans and officers had worked up a plan that they could have revised reasonably quickly if it had been rejected.
It would be easy too for officers to say that they could agree the plan but then raise issues when it comes up before an planning inspector, as it must shortly after approval, but in practice inspectors are likely to reject democratically agreed plans only if they do not meet the government’s objectives.
We should not be surprised if officers want the solution that involves the least work, but council members should know better.
The Lewes Eye will keep you up with developments. You may want to read the plan which is here
You may want to remember that all council members are up for election in May and to ask them to explain their actions in some detail to you.