Uttlesford cabinet baffled by actions of housing campaigners

Campaigners outside the offices of Uttlesford District Council.

Campaigners outside the offices of Uttlesford District Council. - Credit: Archant

Councillors were left dumbfounded when protestors got up and walked out of a meeting just seconds after calling future housing plans “dismal”.

Uttlesford United Residents, an amalgamation of campaign groups from across the district, made a stand by today (Friday) urging the cabinet at Uttlesford District Council to rip up the authority’s draft Local Plan.

Spokesman Matt North said residents had lost confidence in the process and demanded the plan be started again from scratch.

He said: “We believe the process of developing Uttlesford’s Local Plan has reached a new low. We have no confidence in the current process to deliver the plan and consider the output so far to be flawed.”

Mr North said the “dismal plan” should be stopped and “a brand new process begun which involves listening to residents and parish councils”.

Before leader Jim Ketteridge could speak campaigners were already heading out the council chamber door. He called the behaviour “extraordinary”, while finance portfolio holder Cllr Robert Chambers said it was “cowardice”.

Explaining the group’s actions afterwards, Mr North said: “The reason we left is that under the system we are denied any right of reply and all that Cllr Ketteridge would do is say that the current process followed all of the standards we have requested and we wouldn’t have been able to respond.”

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The meeting continued and cabinet members unanimously approved revised housing figures – 10,460 homes between 2011 and 2031 – and additional sites, including 2,100 homes between Elsenham and Henham.

Responding to campaigners, Cllr Susan Barker, whose portfolio includes the Local Plan, said: “We cannot go back to the beginning because this Government is insisting on these numbers.

“[The message from Government is that] we must build out way out of the recession. Arguments about lack of infrastructure, green belt land, areas of natural beauty or just ‘We don’t want houses’ will not work and [planning] inspectors will reject the plan.

“We would then be unable to resist development and could not liaise with developers about affordable housing, schools and sports facilities.”

Cllr Howard Rolfe defended the Local Plan process and the council’s original decision to plan for 2,680 homes fewer than it is now.

He said: “I’m proud of the process to date and I think it was incumbent on this council to go for as low a number as we could. That was the wish expressed by residents and that is what we have done. However, circumstances and the wish of the Government have brought the numbers to the position they are today.”

He added: “I think it’s important everyone in Uttlesford understands we are carrying out a statutory duty and if we don’t do it then somebody else will. At the end of the day, these homes have got to go somewhere, whether we like it or don’t like it. This is a very sensitive area and you don’t win friends by doing this but we are carrying out a statutory duty.”

Uttlesford United Residents is made up of Saffron Walden-based WeAreResidents.org, Save Newport Village, SaveOurVillages (Henham/Elsenham), Save Stansted Village, Takeley Parish Council and a number of residents from Great Dunmow, Thaxted and other settlements in the district.

The group’s aims are:

1. To see the Local Plan development process be stopped and the current draft plan discarded.

2. For a brand new Local Plan development process to be put in place, that meets the following standards:

- It is strategic: it works to an agreed set of objectives and reviews options against these objectives. It takes account of existing infrastructure capacity and needs as well as the infrastructure requirements that accompany new households before deciding where to put houses;

- It is evidence-based: up-to-date evidence is gathered first before decisions are taken;

- It is open and transparent: information is provided in a timely and accessible manner to stakeholders. That all decisions and discussions related to the local plan are open to public scrutiny;

- It includes early and meaningful engagement with local organisations and parish/town councils and that concerns and ideas of individuals and organisations in Uttlesford are properly considered; and

- It is timely: that a robust time-frame for development of the plan is put in place and accountability for meeting the time-frame established. We also believe a new plan can be done in less time than the current 2015 timescale.

A public consultation on the additional sites will run from November until January 2014. Residents who have taken part in previous consultations on the plan will be contacted directly for their comments on the additional new homes and proposed sites.