Departures, retirements & a ‘Special Purpose Vehicle’ -Ward report from Cllrs Hargreaves & Parry

Following the departures from the council of the Chief Executive, and the Head of Planning last month, there was a further announcement at the full Council meeting on 18th May that the UDC Legal Officer will be retiring in August. The new planning head will be Gordon Glenday, currently working his notice as Head of Planning and Development at Brentwood Borough Council, and for now there is an interim head of planning called Derek McKenzie, whose responsibilities will include the Local Plan.

The new chief executive Dawn French, in position since the end of February, has asked councillors to show her round their wards and wants to know what issues residents have, so Jo and I are taking her up on that. Unsurprisingly getting a date in her diary is not proving easy, although I think we now have a slot in August

Our concerns over the process and progress of the Local Plan remain. Jo is on the Plan Working Group and our party, Residents for Uttlesford, and the LibDems continue to pressure for improvements to the process. In particular, despite requests going back over three months, officers still have not issued a complete chart containing all the required activities, with their interdependencies, deadlines, and who is responsible for delivery of each. This was scheduled for a meeting last month, put on the agenda, and then not provided to the meeting. The new Plan has been in progress for over a year without this essential project management tool in place, considered standard practice elsewhere, and we fear that there may be further delays on top of the 9 months recently added to the end date.

The Call for Sites process seems particularly shambolic. The initial call had a deadline of June 2015, and after removing a significant number on an initial assessment, UDC now have vastly more sites than needed for the Plan. Despite this a whole new tranche of sites has recently been accepted for assessment, including for example redeveloping a very large area in the centre of Walden including the Boots and Saffron Building Society car parks, Rose & Crown Walk and Emson Close and its car park. It seems a waste of time and resources to go on accepting sites for review from developers when it is not necessary and the deadline expired almost a year ago. No more sites have been put forward for Quendon.

Another example of the poor process is that the Kier site on the East of Walden, strongly opposed by residents, rejected by the Planning Committee, rejected at appeal by the Planning Inspector, and rejected a third time by the inspector of the failed Plan, has gone straight back into the call for sites and been given an approval by UDC in the initial assessment. We now have a Members workshop (all councillors) scheduled for the 28th June, and it is understood that the Plan Working Group will take the vital single settlement vs dispersed decision on 12th July. At present the evidence to support such a decision has not been brought forward to the Working Group.

All the concerns that we have about housing development and in particular the lack of supporting road infrastructure, school places, doctors capacity and our sewerage system remain, and with the exception of a new classroom under construction at Newport primary school, have got worse.

Development in Newport will impact these capacity issues for Quendon & Rickling. So you may be interested that the Call for Sites figure for Newport is 400 houses passing UDC’s initial assessment. These are in addition to the 395 houses either under construction, given permission, or with applications in progress, up from 160 last year. Newport currently has about 972 houses. The London Road application for 94 houses and a commercial unit opposite the petrol station remains undecided, and it is now sometime after the deadline date for its determination. The officer tells me there is continuing negotiation over various matters including affordable housing and access.

Returning to Quendon, the Cala Homes Ventnor application for 12 houses is under consideration and is open for comment until 1st June. I’ve put in submissions on a number of matters, including not allowing occupation until local school places are confirmed as available, a request for UDC to enforce its own policy on financial contribution for sports provision and drawing attention to ribbon development (Stansted about to extend north, Ugley has just done so, and Newport expanding at both ends, as well as the Quendon developments)

People’s individual submissions are not shown to the Planning Committee. Instead the officer summarises them for the committee (who can look at the original letters if they wish but I believe rarely do). The officer makes their recommendation based mostly on UDC and national policies and the facts, most of which are provided by the applicant. Residents raising objections have most impact if they tie them into specific breaches of policies and errors of fact or omissions (eg ‘no place shown for wheelie bins’). More subjective matters such as ‘out of scale with surrounding properties’ or inappropriate design in or near the Conservation Area can also be effective. Long letters tend to be summarised down to a few words or lumped together with other comments.

I think in general the planning system both nationally and locally is poorly structured and mismanaged, and the consequence is irreparable damage.

For example CPRE say that in England there are half a million housing permissions given but not built. You would think that the most effective way for the government to deal with the housing shortage would be to bear down on developers with every stick and carrot to get them built. But they aren’t, instead they are continuing the pressure on councils to add yet more permissions and allocate yet more sites. House builders restrict the speed of building to restrict supply and keep prices high. And building at a slow rate also reduces competition for labour and materials which keeps builders costs down. So it’s no good the government expecting builders to step up voluntarily.

Something the village may want to consider is what it may gain from having a larger population. There is a comment on Facebook about the same people volunteering, and similar sentiment expressed at the parish council about not having enough people to do various things. Shops have gone and I think there is a lack of youth groups? Just a thought!

Finally although we hear about turmoil in local government finance, UDC currently has lots of cash and has even created new categories of reserves to put it away into including something called a Special Purpose Vehicle. This I understand is a scheme to allow UDC to run profit making operations separate from normal activities and we are waiting to see what these may be. UDC made a surplus in the financial year ended 31 March 2016 of about £4m (subject to audit) and this was placed in this new reserve. The New Homes Bonus from the government, which is £8k for each completed house, is the reason for UDC’s wealth but the government is scrapping the scheme. It does however continue for this year.

And the good news in that, funded from this, Jo and I will have another £3000 each to give to good causes in the Ward.