As regular readers will know, I do not generally write up meetings of Basildon Council’s Planning Committee, but last week’s meeting held on Tuesday 30th June turned out to be an unusually controversial affair.
Firstly, a bit of background on the new enlarged committee, which now has ten members: four Tories – Cllrs Carole Morris (Wickford North, Chairman), Stuart Allen (Crouch), Stephen Hillier (Langdon Hills) and myself (Billericay East, Vice-Chairman); two UKIP – Cllrs Alan Ball (Wickford Castledon) and Mark Ellis (Laindon Park); two Labour – Cllrs Alan Bennett (Lee Chapel North) and Adele Brown (Fryerns); one Green – Cllr Phil Rackley (St Martin’s); and one Independent – Cllr Kerry Smith (Nethermayne). Readers will recall from my blog on the Annual Meeting back in May that the appointment of Cllr Rackley to the Committee was a particular bone of contention among the UKIP Group, who felt the seats should have gone to them (and even staged a walk-out in protest over it).
On this particular evening, Cllr Danny Lawrence (Con, Billericay West) was substituting for Cllr Allen and Cllr Aidan McGurran (Lab, Pitsea South-East), a former member of the Committee, was substituting for Cllr Brown.
There were four items on that night’s agenda – an application for an extension to an Evangelical chapel in Wickford; an application for five properties on land in Dengayne in Basildon; one for sixteen properties on Green Belt land in St Agnes Road, Billericay; and one for the construction of a coffee roasting facility at the former Visteon site on Christopher Martin Road, also in Basildon. It was the second and third applications that caused all the discord, however.
The Dengayne application was for the erection of a short terrace of three houses and two semi-detached bungalows on a hitherto undeveloped but privately-owned plot of land to the east of Dengayne in the Barstable neighbourhood of Basildon – which lies within Cllr Rackley’s St Martin’s ward. The site has been, for as long as anyone can remember, a grassed area of land. It is a relatively small area and contained no play equipment or anything of that nature but was simply a patch of grass that local children had long been accustomed to playing football on and generally used for recreational purposes. The primary objection to the application, therefore, was the loss of this ‘amenity’, even though it was in private hands and not a publicly-owned community asset. This and other issues were all dealt with in the officer’s report, which recommended that the Committee grant planning permission.
It became clear from the start that Cllr Rackley had a major bee in his bonnet about this application (which, as I have said, is in his ward) and he had very obviously been lobbied by local residents (which the Chairman chided him for not declaring). In particular, he pointed to an earlier refusal in 1994 of a development for two properties at the same site, which was dismissed precisely because of the loss of amenity land it was thought such a development would entail. I could fully appreciate Cllr Rackley’s sense of frustration, when a development for two bungalows on half the site was turned down in 1994 and now here we were proposing to grant an application to build five properties covering the entire site. But that was over twenty years ago and, as I pointed out to Cllr Rackley, how much more urgent is the housing crisis in this country two decades later? The demands on our borough for new housing are now very acute (not helped, I dare say, by more than a decade of unchecked immigration allowed by the last Labour Government, of which, at least until 2012 when he left the Labour Party, Cllr Rackley was presumably a supporter). This is not a point, to the best of much knowledge, that Cllr Rackley or his erstwhile colleagues in the Labour Group dispute, they just do not want to see any more built in Basildon. Instead, they reproachfully wish to see it all built on the Green Belt of Billericay, which they feel has been ‘spared’ much development by rotten old Tories like me.
Cllr McGurran framed the issue in his customary ‘Us and Them’ manner, so beloved of Left-wing politicians, saying: “It seems development on open space always seems to take place in the New Town. Other parts of the Borough have lots of green belt land, yet we are not allowed to touch any of it… I would ask members to close their eyes and ask themselves what they would think if this application was in Billericay!”
I ultimately voted in favour of the Dengayne development. I took no pleasure whatsoever in taking a recreational area away from a community, whom have grown accustomed to having that facility on their doorstep. But the inescapable truth is that we desperately need new housing in this borough and if we start turning down viable developments to save relatively small patches of grass, we are never going to get anywhere. For me, the nub of the issue was that the area in question was privately-owned. Its use as a recreational area for local residents, while it had obviously been enjoyed as such for some decades, was wholly informal. Add to that the fact that there were several other areas of open space within the vicinity – including Mopsies Park and Fairlop Gardens – and the site is less than a mile away from Barstable Open Space, for which the developer had pledged £12,500 towards improvements to the ball courts. On that basis, I could see no reason to refuse it but I fear Cllrs Rackley and McGurran did not take it gracefully and roundly denounced those of us who voted for it. In the end, it was passed by six votes to four.
We then came, rather neatly, to the proposed St Agnes Road development in Billericay. This development was an entirely different kettle of fish to the Dengayne application. This one had so many reasons to refuse permission that it was hard to know where to begin. Firstly, and most obviously, it was in the Green Belt but, in addition to that, both Essex County Council and the Environment Agency had raised warnings about possible surface water drainage problems and possible flooding, as had several local residents who had suffered flooding in the area before. ECC also raised an objection due to a deficit of secondary school places (the site lies within the catchment area of The Billericay School – my alma mater – which is already oversubscribed) and there were also objections from the local village council, the Council’s own arboriculturist, one of the local borough councillors, not to mention twenty-two letters from local residents opposing the application. Another major objection I had to the proposal was the lack of any affordable housing provision.
Indeed, as the Chairman said in her own remarks, one of the major objections to this application was the lack of information provided by the applicant. Both ECC and the Environment Agency stressed the need for evidence of the viability of surface water drainage at the site, including watercourse modelling, there was no attempt by the applicant to mitigate the shortfall in secondary education provision, there was no investigation into potential ground contamination from the various existing garages and outbuildings presently on the site, there was no tree survey, but most egregiously of all, there was no viability study to demonstrate why the Borough’s 30% affordable housing contribution could not be met. I stressed this point because, as someone who grew up in Billericay and would like future generations who grow up in Billericay to actually be able to afford to live in Billericay as adults, I think the 30% affordable housing contribution is really important.
Most disobligingly, when he spoke, Cllr McGurran all but called me a liar, asserting that my concern for the lack of affordable housing was “disingenuous”. You see, Cllr McGurran – who is a deputy editor of the Left-wing Mirror newspaper – is a typical lefty pedlar of petty, mean-spirited, ‘us and them’ class war. To his way of thinking, it is impossible that a Tory could actually care about provision of affordable housing (even a working class, comprehensively-educated, public sector worker, son of a car mechanic Tory like me – but to people like McGurran, Tories like me don’t exist; much easier to keep up the lie that we’re all rich toffs who hate the poor). This is despite the fact that the late Tory-led coalition government built more social housing nationally in five years than the last Labour government did in thirteen and, locally, it is the current Tory Administration on Basildon Council that is actually building council houses for the first time in decades, something previous Labour administrations never even attempted. But, hey, why let facts get in the way of a well-practiced polemic? This is precisely what I’d expect from an editor of the Mirror, frankly; typical character-assassination of a Right-wing politician by a lefty Fleet Street hack.
Anyway, the St Agnes Road application was, quite rightly, recommended for a refusal by planning officers, on various grounds but most notably its manifest inappropriateness given its green belt location, but that did not stop Cllr Rackley stating quite bluntly to the Committee that he would be voting in favour of granting planning permission in retribution at the Committee’s decision to pass the Dengayne development. In the end he abstained, but only after the Chairman reprimanded him and threatened to report him to the Standards Committee for his blatant and shameless political bias. It was a shameful and disappointing display, as Cllr Rackley is someone I had come to respect and even sort of admire. I mean, he is an utterly irredeemable Marxist but, apart from that, he has always seemed a pretty decent chap and at least you know where you stand with him. The clarity and indefatigability of his trenchant left-wingery is actually quite endearing. So to see him tell a room full of local residents ‘I’m going to vote this through to spite you’ is a pretty rum thing to do. I did think it was particularly bizarre for someone who has recently taken the ‘Green’ whip, to profess an intention to vote through a Green Belt development out of revenge was pretty bizarre. Certainly, it was not what one would expect from a man with any integrity – and I had thought that even an old communist like Rackley had a bit of integrity. I think he let a fit of pique get the better of him.
Fortunately it was all for nought, as the application was refused unanimously, with three abstentions (Rackley, McGurran and Cllr Ellis). Still, it proved a salutary lesson on the precisely the kind of problem I spoke about in my motion to Full Council back in April, following the Planning Committee’s decision to vote through a Solar Farm being built on 26 hectares of Green Belt land on Outwood Farm in my Billericay East ward. I said then that there were too many councillors playing politics on the Planning Committee, with votes going down party lines and opposition councillors seeking to carve up the Green Belt in Billericay as a form of partisan retribution.
To end, let me just say this: despite Cllr McGurran’s accusation that I ‘always vote through developments in Basildon but never in Billericay’ (which is both unfair and demonstrably untrue), the simple fact is that I will always defend the Green Belt and he has made clear in his comments his feelings – shared by his fellow partisans in the Labour Group – that not only does Labour not believe in the Green Belt but they are determined to see all the Borough’s housing needs met by the Green Belt in Billericay. For my own part, while I defend the Green Belt, I have never set my face like granite against Green Belt developments. Our housing needs are acute and in a borough that has so much green belt land, as ours does, it may be necessary to release some green belt for development. But… and it’s a big BUT… it must be done properly and in a considered, thoughtful, and managed way through the Local Plan process, where decisions can be taken in a transparent manner and include public consultation, open and democratically. It must not be done in a sloppy, ad hoc fashion through reckless local planning decisions that casually disregard and discard existing Green Belt policy. This is something that has been happening all too often on our Planning Committee recently and it would be folly to think that developers are not watching this and starting to think that, if the politics is played right, all the Borough’s Green Belt may be up for grabs. Cllr McGurran and the Labour Group may not care about defending the green lung of our nation… but I do and I always will! That is what the Green Belt is there for and we must protect it where we can.