It was business as usual at Eastleigh Borough Council this evening, the first Full Council meeting following the recent revelations in the national media.
Now touring different venues around the Borough as there is no Council Chamber in the new offices at Eastleigh House, the December Full Council meeting was held in the Kings Community Church in Hedge End.
Although Police were in evidence prior to the meeting, which was a little unusual, there was no kind of protest or any attempt to disrupt the proceedings from the dozen members of the public who were in the public gallery. Well not on this issue at least. An improvised digeridoo was heard at one crucial moment, and brought a swift rebuke from the Mayor in the chair…
Cllr Bloom was not in attendance again, but had formally sent her apologies. Although Cllr House was offered the opportunity to comment on the ‘love-triangle’ story, after the meeting, he politely declined to do so insisting;
“I’m interested in talking about ‘news’…”
The much more important news from this Full Council meeting, which Cllr House was very happy to talk about, was that the Borough Council have agreed to re-start the process of developing the local plan, after the Planning Inspector refused to accept the version that was submitted to him earlier this year.
Cllr House in his address to the Full Council, had some scathing remarks about the Planning Inspector and the planning system, which the Councillors on both sides of the political spectrum supported.
The current situation is that the Planning Inspector has postponed the examination of Eastleigh’s local plan on the basis that even more housing is required in the Borough of Eastleigh.
Cllr House explained to the Councillors and members of the public who were present, that;
“Our plan has been in progress for several years and has been taken out to consultation across the Borough on four occasions now.”
“It finally reached clearance with a Planning Inspector appointed by the Government last month.”
“The plan was based on assessed housing needs and sought to meet the wide-ranging needs for our Borough through to 2029. ”
“One of the difficulties with England’s centralised planning system, is that ultimate power is not with democratically elected bodies, but with a single figure appointed by a Government Quango.”
“A Councillor said to me yesterday, does that make the inspector God…? Well frankly, the answer is yes. ”
“An Inspector is allowed to be subjective. Accountability, in theory, rests with the Secretary of State, but in reality it rests on the whim of individuals of the inspectorate”
“The inspectors first whim was deciding that rather than using the strategic housing market data that went out to consultation, he would instead use the housing market data that was published just months ago and has yet to be properly broken down by district. We’ll not even start a strategy for South Hampshire, for the period from 2026, until next summer at the earliest.”
“The inspector decided that this new untested figure could detect market signals, which suggest we should we should inflate that housing market figure by a further 10%.”
“There’s no signs behind the figure, as the inspector indicated himself. It consists largely of responding to demands from house-builders and developers. ”
“The inspectors next whim was to invent planning policy on affordable housing policy on the hoof. ”
“We’ve long pushed harder than most councils to deliver affordable housing. Local plans assess the need for affordable housing and see it delivered in a variety of ways. That’s been the approach adopted across the country for years, including by our planning inspector, yet our planning inspector has decided on the hoof that private rental stock should no longer be accounted for as part of our affordable housing calculation. ”
“We pressed him for an explanation on this point, but none has been provided.”
“The inspectors finding was to suggest that we should make amendments to the plan and bring them back to him within six months.”
“Under pressure, the inspector conceded that this was one move too far and some of the changes he requires, including allocating the land for a minimum of 2000 extra homes could not be achieved without a major round of consultation.”
“We suggested the pragmatic solution would be to shorten the plan period and undertake another review. The inspector was not prepared to allow us. He would rather have planning by appeal.”
“We were left with two choices. Either to totally abandon the plan-led planning, or to start a new local plan process alongside the detailed work that we plan for next summer as part of the revised South Hampshire strategy.”
“And that’s the process that is recommended by the cabinet.”
“We also recommend making representations to the Housing Planning Officer, on the substance of the inspectors God-like conclusions…”
Although the general tone of the meeting was non-partisan, Cllr House, Cllr Clarke and Cllr Kyrle did criticise the Conservatives for delaying the plan by withdrawing the Woodhouse Lane site for political reasons.
Cllr Rupert Kyrle was even more scathing of the planning inspectorate, saying;
“I do believe it is absolutely a disgrace that an inspector who is unelected and therefore unaccountable, can totally ride roughshod over a democratically elected council’s local plan.”
“As a consequence, this will put many further sites at risk of hostile planning applications. On sites which we do not and have not wanted to see development at all, or in the future”
After the meeting, Cllr House told me;
“The planning inspector clearly doesn’t think the plan is suitable for his particular whim, so we will therefore work on a new plan. We recognised that we needed to work on a new plan for post 2027 anyway, so it just means we start earlier. ”
“In the meantime we keep cracking on with the sites that are in the existing plan and we’ll see if we can develop the strategy further, on the same basis as the existing plan, which is that we don’t want to see settlements merge, we want to keep key gaps between settlements, but we also want to make sure that we do genuinely meet housing needs, because there is a chronic shortage of homes in the Borough for our children and our grandchildren.”
“The new plan is going to be from 2011 to 2036 and will take the existing strategy forward right the way through to 2036. That’ll take a while to do. We haven’t yet get an absolute timetable. That partly depends on what the other councils in the area do, because the housing market assessment work won’t be completed until the summer of next year, at the earliest.”
“It makes it all the more important that we do take forward the sites that are in our existing local plan as quickly as possible, so that we can meet our five-year land supply.”
I asked Cllr House why, if the Planning Inspector is a “law unto himself”, why do we bother with the local plan..? Why not judge each application on its merits..?
Cllr House answered;
“Because the local plan is about a lot more than individual housing applications. The local plan is about conservation areas, it’s about employment land & sites, it’s about heritage, it’s about leisure, it’s about infrastructure, a whole stack of things over above the stuff which always excites the press, which is housing numbers. We’ve got to get the housing numbers right, but there’s an awful lot more to planning than just housing numbers.”
“So the local plan matters. The local plan also gives the framework for making it easy for councils to say ‘yes this application is good’ or ‘no this application is bad’. That’s a critical feature of plan-led planning.”
“The alternative, of not having a plan, means you just have a random series of planning applications with a random series of implications as to what actually comes out of that 10, 15 to 20 years later. That’s what creates messy urban sprawl and that’s the last thing we need…”
“Planned development. Right homes in the right places for the right people”
When asked about the Council’s relationships with the planning inspector and the possibility of further conversations with him, Cllr House said;
“The inspector won’t do that. The inspector won’t talk to us. He’s very clear. He has said that he can’t engage in discussion with the council. His only format for taking evidence is at public hearings which he has suspended.”
“So the current inspector has said ‘go away’. What we are actually saying to him is ‘go away too’, because we’ll come up with a plan and we’ll end up with a different inspector as a part of that process.”
“He’s decided not to re-convene the hearings, that were due to start in January, which were due to look for site specific issues, because in his terms, we haven’t allocated enough land for building.”
“Now we can argue the rights and wrongs of that, but he’s entitled to come to his conclusion. Whether he’s right or wrong, we have to put up with it, because that’s a flaw in the planning system. It’s not about democratically made local decisions.”
“Decisions on planning applications are, clearly, most of the time, and if we take decisions that are in accordance with the broad thrust of the plan then we’ll end up with broadly what we want.”
The next question to Cllr House was what can members of the public expect to see happen next. Will it be more of the same..? Cllr House replied;
“Members of the public can expect to see firstly the council go out with a new consultation, probably towards the end of summer or the beginning of autumn next year, looking right the way ahead to 2036. The thing for people to remember when they start to see that is that we’re not talking about instant planning issues. We’re talking about things that could still be 20 years away, so don’t panic, keep calm and think of green fields.”
“They can also expect us to be working absolutely diligently to bring forward sites that are in the existing local plan and see them built out.”
“So the fact that we’ve finally won the judicial review on Boorley Green matters a lot, because it means the developers can now start to get on and properly develop that site out.”
“That is the biggest site in Eastleigh’s local plan, 1400 homes, it links to 250 homes at Pylands Lane with a new distributor road running from south Botley through to junction 8, so it’s a big package that matters and will help the quality of life and relieve traffic congestion in a part of the Borough too.”
“That will help a lot. It is going to be a great scheme. One of the things that we want to do with new development is actually get more of the community to realise that actually, good development equals good communities with good housing.”
“We’re not in the fields of the 1960’s and 1970’s with housing thrown up on the cheap and they were really poor design and wouldn’t last and created problems. The housing we’ve developed over the course of the last ten years has been really good and the quality just keeps on getting better.”
Also present this evening, was Cllr Mike Thornton MP, who undertook to try to raise this problem in the House of Commons, hopefully in collaboration with the other MP’s who are experiencing similar problems in their part of the country. This is not a problem that is confined to the Borough of Eastleigh.
When asked about the purpose of writing to the Minister, Cllr House explained;
“We want to draw attention to ministers, to the fact that the planning inspector has made up national planning policy on the hoof.”
“It is not his job to make up policy. His job is to implement national policy on behalf of the Government of the day.”
“He has decided, for reasons that only he could answer but he refuses to answer, that we shouldn’t take into account private sector rented accommodation in our affordable housing calculations when as we know, a very large percentage of people in housing need use the private sector to rent homes because they can get their rent topped up by housing benefit.”
“So affordable housing is met through the private sector as well as the public sector. There is simply no way that any council in the country can deliver it’s housing need just based on council housing and housing association rental stock.”
“He refuses to answer why he has come to the conclusion that he has, so we’re totally at a slammed door at that point, so the answer is to go to the Minister and actually get the Minister to bang heads together at the planning inspectorate, so that this doesn’t happen to other Councils.”
Cllr House added.
“We know that we are not alone. I woke up a couple of mornings ago to hear a debate on radio 4 about almost exactly the same set of issues being played out in a council in Devon. We know that there are tens if not hundreds of councils that are struggling with local plans.”
“We’re not in an unusual place here. Even those councils that think they’ve got their local plan in place, like Fareham, they’re going to have real problems when their five-year supply comes under scrutiny, because they’re going to be found wanting. There’s no way they are meeting their five-year supply.”
“This will eventually affect every council, so if we can get more debate in Parliament, so that ministers genuinely understand there’s a problem, that’s a good thing.”
I also asked Cllr House if this was one of the instances where it was useful to have the MP for Eastleigh also serving on the Borough Council. Cllr House replied;
“I actually do think, genuinely, that it is useful for MPs to be on their local Council. I know that’s not the standard practice in most cases, but it does mean that the MP has to be closer to what is going on in his local authority. I think it would be quite good if as a matter of routine, MP’s were on their local authority.”
Earlier in the meeting a local resident, Rigel Jenman, announced his plans for developing an alternative local plan, appealing to the council from the public gallery for help to make this possible. Unfortunately, he had to leave before the main debate on the local plan took place.
The Labour PPC for Eastleigh, Mark Latham, also asked questions on the local plan from the public gallery, though was refused the opportunity to ask questions about the Councils spending plans for 2015-16.
There was also some concern about the ongoing costs of the local plan, which was revealed to have already cost the Council many thousands of man hours. With more work now to be done, this was a particularly a concern to Cllr Atkinson.
Cllr Olson proposed a ‘cost saving and efficiency review’ which would reduce the number of Borough Councillors and Cabinet members, consider the future of Local Area Committees, review ward boundaries and hold fewer elections. He argued that Councillors should take their share of the efficiency savings that needed to made in the light of another cut in funding from Central Government.
His proposal was slightly overtaken by events, as Cllr House had earlier announced plans to review the Borough ward boundaries for 2018.
The proposal was also the subject of an amendment which changed the words ‘cost saving and efficiency’ to read ‘good governance’ and was much less specific about what needed to be done. After some debate, the vote carried the amendment, with the Lib Dems voting in favour and the Conservatives against. It was not what Cllr Olson had wanted, but there will be a review.
However there was some good news for Eastleigh’s Council Taxpayers.
Despite another reduction in the grant from Central Government, Cllr House announced the councils intention to freeze the Borough component of Council Tax next year. That decision is expected to be confirmed at the budget meeting in the New year.