Wealden councillors clash over planning reform campaign group

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Yesterday (Wednesday 23rd), Wealden councillors debated a motion from Green Party Leader Patricia Patterson-Vanegas, which called on the Council to ‘lead the creation’ of a campaign group to include councils from across the South East or even further afield.

This group, the motion said, would call for changes to the way housing targets are set and abandon the ‘duty to cooperate’ between councils.

It would have also called for either a suspension or major readjustment to the five-year housing land requirements, through which national planning policies give a presumption in favour of sustainable development.

Cllr Patterson-Vanegas said:

At this time planning legislation is doing a great disservice to nature and a number of stakeholders in our community. Many residents are unhappy.

Planning applications keep on being approved, while much-needed infrastructure like sewerage or GP practices lag behind. We build, build, build only to face even higher housing prices.

We have local residents who cannot afford homes and local councils that cannot afford expensive land to build much-needed homes.

If our Local Plan is left to developers’ choices and the viability calculation, will it ever meet the needs of our local community? The balance is skewed against residents and nature.

Cllr Patterson-Vanegas (Green) at 1:14:11

Cllr Patterson-Vanegas went on to say the campaign group would target its calls to Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.

While the motion saw support from a number of opposition groups, it saw significant criticism from the majority Conservative group, which argued it was asking the council to replicate lobbying already being undertaken in a less effective way.

As a result, an amendment to the motion was put forward by Wealden’s Lead Member for Planning Ann Newton.

She said:

I cannot agree to leading a campaign with other authorities in the South East or the whole of England.

Not every authority is unhappy with its housing number. Remember the example we had at the recent training, where an authority chose to up its numbers.

I do already have regular meetings with my counterparts at our neighbouring authorities in East Sussex, as do officers with theirs.

We have written joint letters to Government on the subject and I only on Friday sent a further letter to Michael Gove. We are all singing from the same hymn sheet already.

I don’t think, however, leading the charge would do us any good at all. In fact across a wider area it may well dilute our case, which may be selfish but very valid in this instance.

Cllr Newton (Cons) at 1:23:58

Cllr Newton also called on other opposition councillors to join in the lobbying efforts and criticised the ‘hypocrisy’ in their approach to planning in Wealden, pointing to both the Green Party and Liberal Democrats national manifesto pledges on housing.

Cllr Newton’s amended motion dropped the calls to create the campaign group, but committed the Council to ‘continue lobbying’ on the three areas highlighted by the original motion (although with more specific wording on the duty to cooperate).

But, it also mentioned two other lobbying aims: for the government to suspend the use of the housing delivery test, which sanctions councils in areas where house building does not meet targets; and to remove the ‘affordability factor’ from its housing target calculations.

The amended motion also sought to highlight the Council’s previous lobbying efforts, particularly in relation to a recent meeting between Cllr Newton, council leader Bob Standley and Mr Gove.

The amendment saw criticism from a number of opposition groups, with several arguing it removed the point of the original motion.

Among those to raise criticism was the District Councillor for Crowborough Jarvis Brook Gareth Owen-Williams, who said:

In the short time I have been here, I have seen this pattern many times.

Cllr Patterson-Vanegas puts up a motion and the ruling party sucks all the point out of it, puts an amendment that is totally bland and meaningless, it’ll get voted through unanimously and we will go on as before.

We are clearly stronger as a regional force. That is obvious. On our own we are vulnerable and the events of the last five years have demonstrated that I think admirably.

Cllr Owen-Williams (Lib Dem) at 1:39:27

He later added:

It is not a motion I would support 100 per cent, but compared to the amended one which basically is saying ‘let’s do what we are already doing’ I think it is eminently preferable.

Cllr Owen-Williams (Lib Dem)

Following further discussion, the amended motion was approved.

Click to watch a video of the meeting of Wealden District Council (from 1:13:27).

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