Okey-dokey. So clearly I need to say a few words about the Draft Statement of Consultation on the Local Plan that was published last month, which has inevitably generated strong opinions, a certain level of indignation, as well as the customary rumourmongering and imputations of misconduct against councillors.
I shall start with a disclaimer. Firstly, I reiterate my previous declarations of interest that, under the probity code, I have a perceived conflict of interest due to a close relative owning land under consideration in the Local Plan. For this reason, I have not participated in any debates or votes concerning the Local Plan, nor do I attend any meetings where it is discussed. So I do beg the forbearance of residents, as I do not receive the same member briefings as other councillors. I am writing this blog purely for the purposes of providing information to my constituents and offering up my own personal viewpoint. I am a backbencher, so my views are my own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Basildon Council or the Conservative Administration.
OK, so now that is out of the way, I think the first thing I want to remind residents of is that this is a legally prescribed process. This is not something councillors are doing for the fun of it. Cllr Richard Moore (Con, Burstead), Cabinet Member for Planning, is just about the most harassed and put upon man in the whole Borough of Basildon. I can assure you it is a process that nobody is enjoying! Nobody really wants a Local Plan. Nobody is relishing the thankless task of putting one together, least of all Councillor Moore. Angry residents to the left of you, disgruntled developers and landowners to the right. I would not trade places with Richard Moore for all the tea in China. But the fact remains that Basildon Council is legally required to produce a Local Plan. This responsibility, therefore, falls to the Conservative Administration and that poor chump Richard.
To deal with the politics of this – Party political broadcast alert! – residents should be in no doubt whatsoever how very lucky they are that we have Richard Moore and a Tory Administration producing this plan. Firstly, nobody should be in any doubt the sleepless nights Councillor Moore has had over this, how passionately he cares about getting it right, or how minutely he has mastered this brief. The statutory process that the Council is required to follow is an intricate, befuddling minefield, clearly put together by some sadistic Sir Humphrey Appleby character in Whitehall with perverse glee but, somehow, Richard has managed to get to grips with it.
Secondly, the alternative is too horrible to contemplate. Nobody should doubt for one second that if Basildon Labour were back in charge, we would be seeing considerably more development land being earmarked in Billericay. Labour have made no secret of the fact that they think Billericay is being let off lightly by the Tories in the current Draft Local Plan. Basildon UKIP have said much the same thing. Their priority is and always has been protecting West Basildon, where they have most of their seats. Over the last two years, UKIP have demonstrated time and again that they do not understand the statutory requirements and I am in no doubt that they would make a complete pig’s breakfast of the whole thing and produce an unsound plan or no plan at all. This would leave the whole Borough – including West Basildon! – vulnerable to speculative developers.
Both UKIP and Labour are parochially ‘Basildon-centric’ parties, because they only hold seats in Basildon New Town. Only the Tories hold seats in Basildon, Billericay and Wickford. Only the Tories have a stake in the whole Borough. Only the Tories have and will take meaningful steps to mitigate the impact on Billericay, as we are the only party that represents Billericay. But, as Tories, we have been absolutely clear throughout this process that Billericay cannot be immune from the requirement to meet the Borough’s housing needs. We are in a housing crisis and Billericay is a growing town itself and people born here are going to need places to live when they are older. Many of them, not unreasonably, will wish to live in their home town. That is why the Conservative Administration took the decision to prepare a Local Plan that spreads development across the whole borough. It would not have been fair to try and meet all of our objectively assessed development needs just in the New Town. Billericay and Wickford must do their share too. That is only fair.
The second point that I think needs to be made is that, in the public discourse surrounding the Local Plan, there seems to be some confused language. People talk in terms of ‘Basildon Council want to build all these houses’ and ‘just think what’s going to happen when the Council begin building’, etc. Let us be clear – the Council is not proposing to build anything (other than possibly a few relatively small projects through Sempra Homes). It is not the case that, if and when the Local Plan is eventually passed, the Council is instantly going to build tens of thousands of new homes and overwhelm our infrastructure overnight. That is not going to happen. The Local Plan is simply a blueprint designed to satisfy the Planning Inspectorate that Basildon Council, as the Local Planning Authority, has identified where development could be accommodated, sustainably, over the next 30 years or so. That does not mean that all the areas identified in the plan will be developed. Landowners and developers would still need to bring specific schemes forward and these would still need to go through the normal planning process, demonstrate their sustainability, address infrastructure concerns, and win approval by the Local Planning Authority in the usual way. Just because a particular area is identified in the Local Plan as having potential capacity for, say, 200 homes, does not mean that 200 homes will ever ultimately be built there.
There are a few specific points that have arisen in the various posts and comments I have seen online since the Draft Statement of Consultation was published. Firstly, the allegation that the Council have simply “ignored” the responses to the consultation. This is simply not true. The Statement of Consultation was released in draft form specifically because of the high number of comments received, requiring additional processing time. In total, 3,805 individuals made a total of 21,636 comments. Additionally, a number of comments were received that were ‘inadmissible’ by virtue of being ‘inappropriate’ (directed at Travellers, immigrants, etc) and Royal Town Planning Institute guidelines recommend that we give such people an opportunity to ‘modify’ their comments to make them acceptable. 45% of responses came from residents of Billericay, so none of your councillors are in any doubt about the strength of feeling in Billericay! Issues raised by residents are all addressed in the Draft Statement of Consultation, which I urge residents to read (see link above), but it is important to recognise that this was a consultation, not a referendum. The Local Plan process was never going to stop just because 80% of residents do not like it. A majority of councillors don’t like it either! Councillor Moore is the author of it and even he doesn’t like it! But we are obliged to produce one. Not producing a Local Plan is simply not an option.
There has been a general allegation that, in ignoring the comments from residents, the Council has gone on to propose ‘even more houses!’ Specifically, it has been alleged that the number of houses in H20-23 in the plan is being doubled, that three new strategic sites are being put up in Great Burstead and South Green, and that the Council is bringing the Outwood Farm Road site back into play. This is not the case. Points 7.77 and 7.78 deal specifically with H20-23 in south-west Billericay and point 7.80 deals with Great Burstead and South Green. If you read the document, it makes clear that a number of developers/landowners made representations to the consultation advocating larger allocations (1,920 homes compared to 970 set out in the current Draft Local Plan in south-west Billericay and a further 500 homes around Great Burstead and South Green). Obviously, developers and landowners with a beneficial interest in land in these areas have an interest in having their land included in the Local Plan and the consultation process requires Basildon Council to investigate these suggestions. All the Council is doing, as set out under Actions 3 and 28, is preparing site specific appraisals and a high level development framework to see if what they are suggesting is feasible and deliverable. Action 3 also covers Outwood Farm Road. The Outwood Farm Road site, which is in my Billericay East ward, was already ruled out once before and I very much hope it will be ruled out again but I have to accept that the Council is required to do the necessary investigations and follow the evidence base for the Publication Local Plan, which will be submitted to the Planning Inspectorate. The Council has to demonstrate to the Inspectorate that it has addressed all comments and suggestions submitted through the consultation. There seems to be an assumption though that if a developer/landowner has advocated for a particular site that it will automatically be included in the Publication Local Plan. There is a great deal of work to be done before then and no guarantee that just because a developer/landowner wants their land in the plan that it will ultimately end up in there.
I was asked the other day what the next port of call is for residents. Again, there is an assumption that this is all now a done deal that will be steamrollered through. Not so. Towards the end of this year, the Council will put together the Publication Local Plan. This will replace the Draft Local Plan and become, essentially, the final draft to be submitted to the Planning Inspectorate for the examination in public. This will give residents another opportunity to comment and make their views known directly to the Planning Inspector. The examination in public will be the final forensic examination of the Basildon Borough Local Plan. If the Borough of Basildon does not have a Local Plan in place, it will cause the Council to lose control as the Local Planning Authority and, if that happens, speculative developers will be able to cherry pick land to develop all over the Borough.
So if you are wondering to yourselves, why would Tory councillors do this? Why would they risk the wrath of their electorates in this way? Why would they deliberately do something so unpopular? The answer is that the stakes are literally that high. We know nobody ever wants development in their area but we really cannot afford to fudge this decision. It is simply too important to be worried about re-election or our popularity, etc. Because if we get this wrong, it could spell disaster. We have to produce a plan we are confident will be judged sound by the inspector. Points 7.21-4 deal specifically with housing growth and green belt implications. I recognise that a lot of residents think we should retain all the Green Belt and use it as a mitigating factor for not meeting all our housing need. The strong advice councillors have received – both from our own planning officers and from professional external consultants – is that this approach would be judged unsound by the inspector.
I will not have a vote on it but I do feel for colleagues who may have to put their hands up and vote for a plan many of them may have reservations about but sometimes in politics you are required to do the hard thing and face the consequences. I just hope residents will pay some regard to the difficulties their elected representatives face when having to choose between doing what their electorate wants and doing what their electorate needs. If only that were always the same thing!