Uttlesford Council: Either we build 10,400 homes by 2031 or Eric Pickles will do it for us

Uttlesford District Council headquarters on London Road, Saffron Walden.

Uttlesford District Council headquarters on London Road, Saffron Walden. - Credit: Archant

Government Minister Eric Pickles told councillors to “get on with the job” – and that is what they did last night by ratifying a plan to build 10,400 homes by 2031.

More than 100 residents turned out to see whether councillors would approve the Local Plan.

More than 100 residents turned out to see whether councillors would approve the Local Plan. - Credit: Archant

In the face of heckling, sneering remarks and a round of applause for dissenters, the Local Plan that ­campaigners claim was rejected by 99 per cent of residents was forced through.

That figure was disputed by the leader of Conservative-run Uttlesford District Council, who argued that objectors only amounted to 6.5 per cent of the electorate.

When one member asked why the council had not stood up to the Government and said “the south east is full”, leader Jim Ketteridge argued that a delegation of councillors had twice tried to pressure the Minister into lowering housing requirements.

“His advice was to get on with the job,” Cllr Ketteridge said of the Communities secretary Mr Pickles.

Cabinet member Susan Barker added: “If we do not have a plan in place, Eric Pickles will overrule any housing application we reject.

“Nick Boles [the parliamentary under secretary of state for planning] said: ‘You build houses’. Even if some of the infrastructure is not in place.”

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The Tory-heavy administration did not have it all its own way. Six Conservatives defied what opponents said was a party whip – and even the allegation of bullying – but the plan was still approved 23 votes to 14.

“Shame on you”, “long live ­democracy” and “role on May 15”, in reference to next year’s elections, rained down from the balcony.

The audible disbelief from more than 100 members of the public echoed throughout the council chamber.

“The council is in disarray,” one public speaker said, a claim given weight by the suggestion from one councillor that it would be better to hold meetings behind closed doors.

Cllr Vic Ranger sparked uproar when he cited the heated meeting, which was interrupted by a series of outbursts and applause from the public gallery, as justification for discussions about the future shape of Uttlesford to be done privately.

It did little to quell the public discontent about the way the Local Plan process has been managed. There have been three public ­consultations but many residents feel their views have been ignored.

Cllr Ketteridge said they were “consultations, not referendums”. A “total sham” was how Liberal Democrat leader Elizabeth Parr described the latest one.

She said: “Thousands objected to the plan and were ignored. What is the point of a consultation if the responses aren’t listened to? I can only assume it was a box-ticking exercise.”

Rejection garnered cross-party support, including a number of Saffron Walden Tories. Cllr David Watson called it “a plan by stealth which is hopelessly wrong – morally, legally and with absolutely no public mandate”.

He said the dispersal strategy, for 1,000 homes in Saffron Walden, 1,350 in Great Dunmow and 2,100 in Elsenham, would “guarantee the most harm to the most people in the most places”.

A number of public speakers implored councillors to reject the plan at the 11th hour, raising a plethora of concerns about the irreversible impact it would have on the district, but it was to no avail.

Cllr Barker was one of only two cabinet members who braved the flak from the audience. She dismissed the argument by some campaigners that large-scale housing should be built on land in Great Chesterford – stating that no landowner had offered it up for development.

Cllr Keith Eden, Saffron Walden’s mayor, said the council was “between a rock and a hard place”.

“The worst possible position for us to be in would be to have no plan,” he said, despite admitting he had been critical of the housing strategy.

“The best way to test whether the plan is sound is by the Planning Inspector judging it. We are taking a gamble but I believe that is the best way to do it.”

Cllr Simon Howell said having no plan would lead to “wholesale development in Uttlesford”. He added: “The consequences of doing nothing and rejecting the plan would be severely worse than what we are doing now.”

And with that, the end of what has been a seven-year saga finally appears to be in sight. The vote campaigners branded “the most important decision facing the district in several generations” went against the wishes of the majority of the public present.

The plan will go out for pre-submission public consultation between now and June on whether it meets the “four tests of soundness” as set out in national planning policy. It is expected to be examined by the Planning Inspector in October and formally adopted in early 2015.