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The Pickles Effect – Forest Heath throws out planning application in Newmarket

June 2, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

BBC Look East carried a story tonight with presenters in Suffolk and in London stating that this was the first planning test of the Coalition Agreement ‘s declaration that the RSS housing targets would be abolished and the controversial letter that was issued by Eric Pickles on 27 May to all council chief planners in the UK.

Tonight BBC Suffolk carries the decision at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/suffolk/10221305.stm

Here is an extract of  Forest  Heath District Council’s Report Update to Members dated 1 June including Counsel’s Opinion 

Eric Pickles, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has issued a letter dated 27th May 2010 addressed to all Council Leaders. This is also enclosed with this update. The letter sets out the coalition government’s intention to abolish Regional Spatial Strategies “rapidly”. Your Officers have sought Counsel advice on the implications of this letter, in respect of its impact upon the proper determination of the Hatchfield Farm application, and what material weight can be attached to the letter.

The opinion advises that “the policy support for housing development at Hatchfield Farm is no longer something that is ‘just’ based on Regional Strategy: this is not the case, for example, where a council has rather out of date development plan documents but a high unmet demand for housing provision based on the (shortly to be abolished) Regional Strategy.

In Forest Heath’s case there is a specific, extremely up to date, locally approved part of the statutory Development Plan documentation which expressly supports the principle of development at Hatchfield Farm. I refer of course to the freshly adopted Core Strategy, a planning policy document produced by the Council itself, which has gone through the statutory process. While it is of course fair to say that that policy document was produced against the background of regional strategy and numerical allocation requirements which prevailed at the time, it is still a very recently (and locally) approved part of the formal statutory development plan.

I am not aware of the new Government having said anything about an intention to ‘unpick’ locally approved development plan documents. Accordingly, as a matter of professional judgement I would have to say that, even with the new Government’s policy announcement about regional strategies, I would not expect the Council to be successful in upholding on appeal a refusal based either (or both) on the review of targets etc. which it has just ordered, or on the impending disappearance of the Regional Strategy which underlay elements of the Council’s Core Strategy. Things have gone too far at Forest Heath for matters like that to be a tenable basis for a refusal being upheld, in the face of the new Core Strategy itself, which can be seen as specifically supporting the principle of the development.

However, Counsel does advise on one further potential hypothetical argument as a result of the Secretary of State’s letter, albeit “it is not the view which I would professionally advise.”

“What it would involve would be arguing that the whole recent process leading to the Core Strategy was totally predicated on the need to meet the numerical requirements of the relevant regional strategy; the new Government has now indicated that it is wrong for councils to have these requirements imposed on them from on high, and is committed to abolishing that system. Local Planning Authorities and the Inspectorate have been asked to have regard to this change of stance by the Government in current decision making – and that is what the Council is doing here. To this extent the aspects of the new Core Strategy which were based on the discredited Regional Strategy should be discounted. But the Council is not just ‘sitting on its hands’ and hoping the problem will go away. Immediately after the change in Government, and at the same time as feeling obliged to adopt the Core Strategy which it had previously promoted, once that had been approved by the Inspector, the Council set in train a review process aimed at establishing appropriate new housing targets etc. on a local basis. So it would be wrong in these circumstances, at this time, to approve large scale development at Hatchfield Farm, even though it might appear to be consistent with the Core Strategy.

If a set of arguments like that can be mounted, with the addition of various other important matters not yet having been satisfactorily resolved, in my view that could be seen as amounting to at least a valid and arguable basis for refusal now – whatever might be the eventual decision on an appeal.

Members will note the advice that this latter argument is not one which Counsel professionally endorses but it is a matter which Members should have regard to in reaching a decision.

According to this web site   

“The 1,200-home scheme called Hatchfield Farm near Newmarket was turned down last week by Forest Heath council, in part on the basis of Pickles’ letter.”

A statement by Forest Heath said that “in view of this [Pickles’ letter] and in advance of our forthcoming review of housing figures, it would be inappropriate to approve this application.”

Furthermore up to 40 councils have taken action to halt schemes, change planned housing numbers or delay planning inquiries since the government wrote to them two weeks ago effectively telling them to ignore regional plans, according to the House Builders Association (HBA).

 

Decision Making at Rochford District Council – Change or No Change?

June 1, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

The Rochford Independent has run a series of articles over the last week which have focused on the new policies for local government that will be introduced by the New Lib/Con Coalition Government.

In many of these what we are wishing to do at the Rochford Independent Web site is firstly inform and then to put the issues, risks and impacts to Rochford District that we see on record and open to public scrutiny.  In certain instances we will be a campaigning voice with a point of view that we think will be supported by many residents.

In this case the Coalition Government is offering an optional basis for change to Rochford District Council.

We will allow councils to return to the committee system, should they wish to.

If you wish to see change then you will have to nudge this so please write to me at mailadmin@rochfordessex.net

But the article needs to set out some facts. Sources are quoted.

The Labour Government through the Local Government Act 2000 imposed changes on local authorities that were designed to streamline and modernise their political structures. The act was intended to end the old committee system of local government which, it was argued, was slow and ineffective although, others may counter, democratic and accountable.

Rochford District Council chose the option of a leader elected by the council, with a cabinet of between 2 and 10 councillors either selected by the leader or the full council.

But it could have chosen a modified committee system.

Since then the costs of administrating the council have increased hugely mainly because much greater monetary allowances for the leader and cabinet members have been established although it must be said that there were far more modest monetary increases to the basic allowance.

 In 2004 the total sum for allowances was £111,000 and in 2008 it had risen to £233,000.

If you want to see the data it is here(http://news.bbc.co.uk/nol/shared/spl/hi/uk/09/english_council_allowances/data/allowances.xls) courtesy of the BBC.

It is hard to escape, with hindsight of course, the notion that the Labour Government years promoted the “more for me” culture in the public sector which should have run against all Opposition Party principles but then again we have also seen, and continue to see, the product of that culture in the MP’s and Lords Expenses scandals some of which are being heard in the Criminal Courts.

If you wish to see lower cost, greater transparency and greater democracy in RDC then you will wish to push for change.

In April 2009 the BBC’s expose journalist Donal MacIntyre on his Radio 5 Show reported as follows (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/8017582.stm);

 Rochford District Council in Essex had the biggest rise in its allowances bill – of 110 per cent over the four years. Although it is still well below the level of many other councils.

The leader of the council Terry Cutmore was paid almost £10,000 in allowances three years ago. By March 2009, his allowance had gone up to £25,500.

“The reason it’s so high is we have actually gone to the average of Essex councils,” Councillor Cutmore said.

“That’s done through a remuneration panel which is totally independent and the rise has gone through because we were paid so lowly to start with.”

Heather Wakefield, from Unison, said: “I think it’s rank hypocrisy for councillors to have awarded themselves these increases when our members are being offered a pay rise of 0.5%.”

But Ms Wakefield said Councillor Cutmore’s allowance needs to be compared with council employees’ pay.

“A quarter of a million council workers earn less than the amount the leader of Rochford is awarding himself,” she said.

Allowances are voted on by councillors themselves. Initially a recommendation is made to the council by an independent panel made up of people who do not sit on the council.

But the councils can choose to ignore the recommendations. Richard Kemp said that often they will take a lower amount.

“Very few councils actually make a big difference to the recommendations of the independent panel,” he said.

Only the Cabinet Members can speak at or even address the Executive or Cabinet Committee at Rochford District Council.  But other Members of the Council and the Public can listen instead.

When this was first established myself,the Lib Dems in Opposition objected to this publicly but it is believed that many other Conservative Group Members did as well but behind the scenes.

There was no chance of change until now.  Will the disaffected Conservative Members speak up for change?

Because of the Cabinet approach decisions are being made by the Portfolio Holders only in discussion with Officers and other Cabinet Members at best.

Or is it that such consultations and discussions within the Conservative Political Group are being held behind closed doors?  This is not a transparent and democratic approach in my view.

I know that decisions can be called in the The Review Committee but initial open discussion with all Members is by far the best course and better value for money.

With the UK being run by a Coalition Government it is hard to avoid the conclusion that consensus political decision making should also return to local government.

The choice of change is there if the residents of Rochford District want it but you will need to ask or even demand it.

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