A year ago when the UKIP/Labour/Independent administration took control of Basildon Council away from the Conservatives, a Local Plan prepared under the leadership of Phil Turner was on the table and almost ready for submission to the Secretary of State. The plan was never made public but based on what we have heard from Councillors it was a big step up in numbers from the Draft Local Plan that had been consulted on in 2016 with a target of 15,260 houses. The council had commissioned masterplans for South West Billericay, East Basildon and Gardiners Lane South. To support these changes the Conservative run council had held another public consultation to introduce "New and Alternative Sites." Many of these had been incorporated into the new plan.
This included about 500 homes at the Pound Lane site in North Benfleet increasing the number of new homes for East Basildon from 2,000 to 2,537. The expanse of new sites proposed around South West Billericay had grown to enough land for 2000 additional homes to support a relief road that Essex County Council insisted had to be financed by developers (ECC are blowing their entire road and transport budget for the next decade on infrastructure to support the North Essex Joint Strategic Plan for Braintree, Colchester and Tendring.) There was also an expansion of the site at Thomkins Farm in Nethermayne to 600 homes and options for further development at Noak Bridge, Dale farm and Hovefields.
The plan at that stage retained its claim that 255 new traveller and gypsy pitches were required with as many as possible accommodated on council owned sites at Wickford, South East Pitsea and Gardiner's Lane. Many more were to be added to the existing huge developments at Crays Hill, Hovefields and Cranfield Park as detailed in the 2015 Draft Local Plan. Implementation of this plan would have raised the borough's 20-year housing target to over 20,000 in keeping with rising numbers for the region's assessed development needs which the Basildon Tory Group under Turner were keen to meet, despite a last minute promise to review the loss of green belt when they knew they were set to be kicked out.
Jump forward a year and things have moved on. Linda Allport-Hodge as chair of the Infrastructure Growth and Development committee oversaw a reduction of the housing target by 2000, removing some of the developments at the East and West of Basildon using the justification that these would result in coalescence with towns in neighbouring authorities. She also reduced the target for traveller pitches by nearly 200 down to just 56. Of course residents including many campaigners fail to appreciate this effort having not seen the unpublished 20,000 home plan they started from. Cllr Andrew Baggott played the standard opposition game of attacking the administration and promising to fix the plan with little regard for its real history. Such is the ignorance of his group that one of the few places where the actual numbers in the unpublished 2017 plan appear is in their own campaign literature where they accuse the opposition of setting a target of 20,000 homes rather than the reduced 18,000. In a leaflet currently being circulated for the Pitsea South East by-election they write of "The perverse decision to build traveller sites and 2500 homes between Eversley and Pitsea" despite the fact that this number of homes only ever appeared in their "East of Basildon High Level Development Framework" and the traveller pitches were put in by them in 2016.
Cllr Turner has been snubbed by his own party with no policy making role and Cllr Baggott as the replacement leader finds himself having to defend his election promises. The council has not started the pre-submission consultation that it had agreed to. Tomorrow an extraordinary council meeting will recind the council's approval of the Local Plan to reconsider a few of its policies. This is what I think of what they have announced in the meeting agenda:
"Reconsider the merits of including 300 homes in H18: South West Billericay, in addition to those recommended in the Higher Level Development Framework 2017"
300 homes were added to H18 to enable a longer route for the relief route. When this was reverted to avoid the loss of a corner of Frith Wood the 300 homes were left in. Removing them now may seem justified but people are forgetting that other homes were removed from sites around Billericay in the 2015 draft plan. Furthermore, the housing target is below the assessed need and any further reduction needs a solid justification on planning grounds. From a residents point of view the fact that it is on green belt would seem sufficient reason but that is not likely to satisfy the planning inspector at examination.
The meeting agenda was edited to include a mention of the rest of the South West Billericay development after members of the Billericay Action Group made it clear that a mere 300 homes reduction was not quite what they had been led to expect. As a campaigner I wish them luck, but I doubt it will be possible to remove these developments unless they move them somewhere else such as West Basildon. If they do that it will undermine the council's coalescence case for protecting the green belt and the inspector will be sure to restore all the developments at the examination while keeping the replacements too in order to meet the full need.
"Reconsider the merits of H10, in addition to H11 in Noak Bridge"
It's a little ambiguous whether they are aiming to remove both these close developments or just one. H10 was in their 2015 draft plan so they are probably looking to remove H11 which was part of their New and Alternative Sites consultation. It was included to enable a new primary school. Much as I would like to see this reduction I again think it will be difficult and the development will simply be restored later. At least these changes have the merit of being something that can be done more or less instantly with just the need to find convincing planning reasons. This is not the case for most of the rest of the changes.
"Reconsider the options for meeting the Borough’s Gypsy, Traveller and Travelling Showpeople 53 pitches and 3 plots need, including the ‘hub model’"
This is much more problematical. Nobody wants the new traveller sites proposed for developments in Wickford, Billericay and Pitsea, (even the travellers themselves would prefer a large site somewhere else, it is claimed), but there is strict legislation to comply with. The term ‘hub model’ was first heard at the IGD meeting when Cllr Baggott used it to refer to the policy in the 2016 draft plan which included adding pitches to the existing large traveller sites (as well as their three new sites of course) In a radio interview Cllr Baggott confirmed that he intends to consider returning to this. This problem is that this idea was conceived before a change in government policy made it clear that large sites in the green belt cannot be legal. Let's look at the three main site options:
Oak Lane, Crays Hill: Expanding the site here would effectively mean restoring Dale Farm to traveller occupation making the millions of pounds spent on eviction look like a huge waste of money. Traveller here have complained of unsanitary conditions and there is a lack of safe access to facilities in Basildon across the A127 where two travellers have died crossing the road in separate incidents. If the council authorised the enlargement of this site they would be responsible for ensuring that all facilities are adequately provided for at tax payers expense. Any new presence here would be bitterly opposed by long-suffering Crays Hill residents.
Hovefields: This was another site where the council engaged in expensive evictions and recently the council has fought in the courts to prevent further expansion on the site. Residents have worked on an alternative development plan to end the long-standing problems they face. Allowing expansion here now would open the door to another large influx of travellers who want to move in and would go against everything the council has been trying to achieve there.
Cranfield Park: This site just South of the A127 has attracted less attention except for a notorious recent murder case on the site and reports in national press on the extent of expansion here. It might seem like a better option than Hovefields or Oak Lane but it is next to a proposed new employment area and would be opposed by prospective new business owners who would otherwise like to move in.
For all three sites the following serious problems need to be addressed: release of green belt to enable massive traveller sites, reversing previous policy to restrict site expansions, strong opposition from the settled community and the potential for further uncontrolled influx around these sites. A fourth option might be to build a new "garden ghetto" of 56 pitches somewhere else such as Dunton, but that would face the same issues and would require buying land from reluctant land owners. Whatever they consider will require months of report writing and evidence gathering which would certainly invoke government intervention for the Local Plan.
It is hard to know what Cllr Baggott is thinking of, other than he made a lot of noise about the (more sensible and legal) "fairy dust" model during the election campaign and now has to find some way of making good to Billericay residents. The chances are he will have to back down at some point and much damage may be done before he does.
"Reconsider the options for the Hovefields and Honiley Neighbourhood Area"
"Reconsiders the options for Bowers Gifford and North Benfleet Neighbourhood Area"
Neighbourhood plans can be progressed independently of the local plan so there is no need to delay its submission for these matters. There are reasons why the alternative sites in the neighbourhood plans were not already incorporated into the Local Plan. They would both contribute to the potential coalescence of communities that green belt is meant to prevent. Including them now would undermine the arguments used to restrict the borough's housing target on the grounds of the green belt constraint. Furthermore, neither Neighbourhood Plan is ready. Waiting for them would trigger government intervention.
I'd like to see residents in these neighbourhood areas have their wishes taken into account but it makes much more sense to progress them independently and reconsider them again when the Local Plan is reviewed. I suspect that a review will be happening much sooner than the usual five years because of the unmet need and the "South Essex 2050 Ambition." Legislative changes in the pipline may even make it possible to activate the Neighbourhood plans without reviewing the Local Plan.
"Reconsider the options for housing development in Ramsden Bellhouse"
It is not clear what Cllr Baggott wants to reconsider concerning the 39 homes planned for this settlement but if he can address issues raised by local residents without undermining the spacial strategy or delaying the Local Plan further then all will be fine here.
"Reconsider the implications of its recommendations for i-iv on the potential soundness and legal compliance of the Plan and take steps to engage with other public bodies, as required and necessary, to discharge the Duty to Cooperate"
Note that they mean the six items i-vi as above but the agenda was illegally edited to add two of them and this typo remains. The Duty to Cooperate is being discharged through the Association of South Essex Local Authorities. The only thing which I think is missing is that other neighbours such as Chelmsford and Maldon were not formally notified of the unmet need, but I doubt that this is what Cllr Baggott is thinking about. If he does not take care he will commit us to looking at the unmet need from Southend, Castle Point and London in addition to our own.
"Reconsider the options for the Community Infrastructure Levy Preliminary Draft Charging Schedule."
Again, I have no idea what they are thinking of doing here. I don't think residents have queried this. Have the developers had a word with the Conservatives or is this some idea of their own? We will no doubt find out soon enough.
In conclusion, Cllr Baggott has promised a serious redraft of the plan, but his initial intent was just to remove a few hundred homes, not much compared to the 2000 homes that UKIP/Labour removed from the Tory plan. If they could reduce the numbers further that would be great, but if it was possible the previous administration would have done it. The planning officers cannot submit a plan for examination that they do not consider sound and they have been informed by a planning inspector. Either Baggott will have to back down or he will remove development from one area and put it in another.
Whatever he does there is no sign that the Secretary of State has given him the go ahead to delay proceedings. I doubt Brokenshire regarded any intent to reduce the target as being consistent with Conservative policy either. Some of the proposed changes are just not possible. Others require a delay and might even lead to the need for a new round of consultations that would push the plan back even further. Any change to the schedule would trigger government intervention. Even the relatively simple changes such as removing 300 homes from Billericay will have consequences for the planning logic used to keep the loss of green belt down.
I am left wondering whether this is being done more out of ignorance or arrogance. Does Cllr Baggott really believe his own bluster that the opposition did not know what they are doing? Will residents ever see through the Tory spin? I was optimistic that the years of campaigning we put in had done something to improve the Local Plan. Now I fear we are about to see it all go up in smoke at the hands of the Tories, voted in by residents we spent so much of our time trying to help, and aided by others who chose not to vote at all. Thanks a lot folks.
Having said that, I fear that our efforts are endangered in the longer term anyway. The six South Essex councils have hatched a plan to build even more houses in the area and Basildon is already signed up to it. They have even renamed their plan from "South Essex Vision 2050" to "South Essex 2050 Ambition" and it appears to know no limits. Their Statement of Common Ground seeks to add new Garden Communities on top of the 90,000 homes South Essex is struggling to accommodate. It's no surprise to see that the Brentwood Council Leader, Cllr Louise Mckinlay chairs the ASELA committee of what is now seven Tory Council Leaders. She is well known for her plan to dump Brentwood's housing need next to Basildon and will no doubt be looking to send more our way in order to protect the Northern parts of her own borough. In the longer term our present Local Plan will become a base onto which they will add more development when it is reviewed almost as soon as it is adopted.
Sadly the residents of our local communities are doing exactly what the government wants them to do. They blame local councils who are forced to follow central government policy that leaves them no choice but to plan for massive levels of development with no guarantee of infrastructure. Everything else you hear and believe is misleading spin coming down from the top.