What is behind the decision of the Conservative group on Lewes District to withdraw from the group reviewing the local plan?  On the face of it, this is an extraordinary decision at a time when the Council is under huge pressure from national government.

To uncover their motivation we need to go back a few steps.

STEP ONE

Some years ago the government started requiring district council to draw up local plans.  Then they started setting targets for councils for the numbers of houses they had to allow to be built in future years. You needed to identify the sites where houses could be built.  If you could show in your local plan that there were not enough possible sites to build that number of houses you were allowed to set a lower target.

But here is the catch.  You have to get your plan agreed by a government-appointed inspector.

If you could not get your plan approved by the inspector then it was pretty much open season.  Developers could apply to build on any site they liked and it was hard to refuse them.  You can see this in nearby Wealden who have not been able to get a plan approved. Now every week sees the advertisement for new building all over their area. Many of them will get built.

STEP 2

Even if, like Lewes District, you managed to come up with a plan which the inspector passed then the government had something else to trip you up.  In 2018 the government decided that you had to review your plan every five years. That meant that every five years you had to go back, invite developers to put forward sites (like the Eton Mess) and decide again which sites were suitable for development. 

Then you have to put it past the inspector again.  If the inspector does not agree you are in the same situation as Wealden are now in. 

And just to make things more fun, in areas where housing is expensive, compared with local incomes, the government has decided to set new higher targets for new houses.- but that does not mean that the houses have to be homes that local people can afford!  The government just argues that if there are more houses then prices will come down. The Eye thinks this unlikely.

CLEFT STICK

So the Council is in a cleft stick. The fewer sites it identifies for development the more likely it is to get its plan rejected- so developers can build anywhere.   But if it identifies new sites for development it risks agreeing to new houses where there should not be any.

It’s a fiendishly difficult job- as the government no doubt intended. It makes it easy for the government to blame local councils.

So council members need to be heavily involved to make sure the least-worst decisions are taken and their constituents’ views are protected.

SO WHAT ARE THE LOCAL CONSERVATIVES DOING?

They will be aware that the government’s planning policies are deeply unpopular.  They will have noted that the Conservatives nearly lost the Chailey County Council seat in the recent election.The Chailey diversion contains a substantial amount of the rural part of Lewes District.  They will now be aware that the Conservatives lost the Chesham and Amersham parliamentary by-election by a huge amount on the back of their planning laws.

Taking part in the process of revising the local plan would have forced the Conservatives to confront the implications of the government’s policies directly.  It would force them to join in the difficult decisions the government is forcing councils to make.  But it would also enable them to protect their constituents’ interests. For example, they could have voted on whether or not the land owned by Eton College in Plumpton should be developed.

By choosing to step aside from the process they can snipe from the side lines in an attempt to court popularity they fail to protect the people who voted for them.  Let us hope local people see through that.

Article date 18/6/21