Core Strategy adopted in 20-minute meeting

The Council’s Core Strategy was formally approved this evening.

This had been postponed till after the recent local election, and an Extraordinary General Meeting of full Council was called for the purpose (apparently this doesn’t happen very often – a Councillor who has served for 12 years can’t remember it happening before in his time).

We had assumed there would be a debate on this incredibly important issue, and were surprised that the meeting lasted less than 20 minutes.  We had planned to speak but were only allowed to deliver very short summaries of what we had intended to say (see below), with the Mayor barking at us to “be brief” throughout.

The three Green Councillors voted for the Core Strategy to be adopted, as did every Councillor except one (a Residents’ Association councillor from Nork, who abstained).

Earlier this year when the Planning Minister Nick Boles made a surprise intervention saying that Councils were at liberty to make their own decisions, we briefly hoped we had an opportunity to amend the draft Core Strategy, reduce the housing numbers and strike out references to the ‘sustainable urban extensions’. But having digested and discussed all the advice provided by the Council and independent sources, we were less optimistic.

Despite Boles’ words, the Government still insists that local authorities have to demonstrate that they have approached the task of meeting their ‘objectively assessed housing need’ seriously.

In Reigate & Banstead’s case, our ‘objectively assessed need’ is far higher even than the 460-new-homes-a-year target we’ve got in the Core Strategy.  We were consistently and robustly advised that any significant change to the emerging strategy would lead to further delays in getting it in place and leave us very vulnerable to speculative planning applications and ‘planning by appeal’.

Authorities who do not have a plan, or an identified five-year supply of housing sites, are vulnerable. We experienced that last year when an Inspector allowed 50 houses in rural land near Horley, despite the Council having refused it and putting up a strong defence. The Inspector accepted the applicant’s arguments that the Council couldn’t demonstrate it had a five-year supply of housing land.  This kind of thing is happening all over the place and is a real threat if we delay signing off the Core Strategy any longer.

So we decided the right thing to do in the short-term was to adopt this Core Strategy, and meanwhile keep working for a change of government and yet another change of planning policy, and other changes to bring to bring about a saner approach to planning and development.

Anyway, here are the notes for the speech I was planning to give (if I’d realised they would be published rather than spoken I would have polished them more!)

Speaking notes for 3 July Extraordinary Council Meeting

We’re faced with both short-term and long-term problems here.

The short-term problem is whether or not we adopt the Core Strategy.

I have considered the advice from the Council officers and their legal counsel, and sought independent advice from the LGA and the Planning Advisory Service, and after considering all this advice, I believe that in the short-term, adopting the core strategy is the best way to defend our environment in the short term and I will be voting for it tonight – even though I have argued throughout the process and during the hearings last year that we should have a lower housing target and not plan for Green Belt release.

It’s a bad and near-unbelievable state of affairs that we are accepting a Core Strategy that includes a housing target that none of us are happy with, and gives the prospect of building housing on Green Belt, which none of us want.

The Government said its planning reforms were about giving communities more power over development, but they’ve taken away the power we had before and put us in a position where we have no real choice but to adopt a Core Strategy that not a single councillor seems to like, and that our residents have organised a petition against. 

We’ve been forced to accept amendments from a government Inspector – including changing wording saying that “urban extensions would be needed only if other sources of housing land supply have run out” to “urban extensions will be needed only when other sources of housing land supply have run out”. I was glad to see the ‘if’ creep back into the Executive’s resolution agreed two weeks ago and hope that the Policy and Regeneration Manager can make this modification to ensure clarity prior to publication, as per Resolution (ii) of our Agenda tonight.

So in the short-term, I will vote for the Core Strategy.

And I take some comfort from the Executive resolution but we have to be strong and proactive on this.  We have to seek and promote housing in the urban areas, such as above shops, in unused offices, etc.  

Empty properties and sites are not being put into use at the rate they could be if new build on greenfield sites was ruled out, and they are not properly incentivised by government.

But we must also keep our eyes on the long term. 

We need long-term measures to stop population growth in the south east, and turn around the skewed south-east-centric economy which means everyone wants to live here while large swathes of the country are struggling with lots of empty housing and no jobs. A national spatial strategy could address this and take the heat off areas like ours.

And we need long-term measures to plan housing development based on genuine ‘housing need’ figures.  Not ‘housing market need’ based on house prices, which remain high due to bank mortgage lending policies and the ‘buy-to-let’ boom.

We need to challenge the huge subsidy from the government to private sector landlords to pay for inadequate homes. I believe the national housing benefit bill is running at over £20 billion per year. That money would be better spent on providing decent social housing, not lining the landlords’ pockets.

And we need a balance between rural and urban land use which respects the importance of both. Urban extensions on greenfield sites will take away agricultural land, they will take away land which tends to waterlogging in rainy periods, reducing flood risk. They will damage biodiversity, reduce land for allotments, woodlands and orchards, and generally undermine our capacity to be a more self-reliant country.

So in the short term I will vote to adopt this Core Strategy, while hoping and working for a change in government and another change in planning policy so we can bin this Core Strategy and write one that we and our residents actually want.

 

 

 

 

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2 Comments

  1. S Webster
    Posted Friday, 4 July 2014 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

    there’s no way the debate should have been cut off like that. you should check the procedure rules or ask the borough solicitor for an opinion on the validity of the procedure. if a decision wasnt taken properly it would be challengeable and they’d have to hold the meeting again, this time doing it properly.

    • Councillor Sarah Finch
      Posted Sunday, 6 July 2014 at 9:38 am | Permalink

      Hi there. I have checked the council procedure rules in the Council’s Constitution. In the section which deals with Executive Recommendations, paragraph 2.13.4 (a), it says, “A member may speak for or against a Recommendation”. No time limit is mentioned. I have asked the Chief Executive to clarify.

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