Lib Dems quit over housing plan ‘soundeness’

Cllr Steve Sollitt and Sarah Bain

Cllrs Steve Sollitt and Sarah Bain: “It wasn’t an easy decision to take”

Two members of Eastleigh’s ruling Liberal Democrat group have resigned from the party citing concerns over the ‘soundness’ of Eastleigh’s emerging local plan.

But Cllr Sarah Bain and Cllr Steve Sollitt say they will continue to represent their wards as ‘Independent Liberal Democrats’.

Both councillors had joined fellow Lib Dem Cllr Mark Balaam and Conservative opposition members in voting against a cabinet recommendation at last month’s council meeting which identified land North and North East of Bishopstoke and Fair Oak (local plan options B and C) as the preferred sites for thousands of new homes in the borough.

The meeting on July 20 was well attended by residents most likely to be affected by a large scale development in their immediate vicinity. During the meeting representatives from environmental groups, local community groups, parish councillors and Eastleigh’s MP Mims Davies – all spoke against the development which would be in close proximity to environmentally sensitive sites at Stoke Park Woods and the River Itchen.

Residents in Cllr Bain’s ward of Eastleigh North would be among those most likely to be affected by a proposed link road that would run from Fair Oak to Allbrook.

As well as being Cllr Steve Sollitt’s Mum, Eastleigh’s Mayor Cllr Maureen Sollitt also represents Eastleigh North and she abstained from voting on the recommendation along with fellow Lib Dem Cllr Des Scott who represents another potentially affected ward – Fair Oak and Horton Heath.

Maureen Sollitt’s abstention and Cllr Bain’s opposing vote meant that the only member representing Eastleigh North to vote in favour of ‘noting’ options B and C was Deputy Mayor Chris Thomas while none of Fair Oak’s councillors voted in favour either.

As well as Cllr Scott’s abstention Cllr Rob Rushton sent his apologies and Cllr Nicholas Couldrey withdrew and took no part in proceedings because, according to council minutes, he has a disclosable pecuniary interest as a landowner in the area marked option B.

For the record Lib Dem Cllr Clifford Morris also withdrew due to a disclosable pecuniary interest as he is employed by a company who is assisting the Council in developing plans for option B – although it’s stated he is not directly involved.

The motion was passed by 27 votes to 8 plus the two abstentions.

In 2011  Lib Dem councillors Rupert Kyrle and Cathie Fraser sided with local residents and voted against housing plans for Boorley Green without resigning nor suffering sanction from their party group despite Fraser’s position as a cabinet member – last year Suzy Hamel was sacked from her cabinet post for speaking out against council borrowing.

The Liberal Democrat Group leader Keith House told Eastleigh News that following the latest votes there had been ‘no suggestion’ of withdrawing the whip from councillors who had voted against cabinet recommendations.

Eastleigh News asked Steve Sollitt – who was until recently also a cabinet member – why he and Cllr Bain had felt it necessary to resign:

“Both Sarah and I felt we couldn’t support this plan in its current form and knew that when we come to vote again we couldn’t either.    On the basis of this we felt the only way forward was to remove ourselves from the group.   It wasn’t an easy decision to take.   I have been a Councillor for 19 years but I felt so strongly on this issue that I took a stand.”

“We believe there are serious issues with the proposed Strategic Growth Option B and C that seriously put into question the soundness of the emerging Local Plan.

“We would urge the administration to look again at these options to ensure that the plan put forward for public consultation is one that can be robustly defended to an inspector in a public inquiry.”

In a statement released by Eastleigh Borough Council, Keith House said:

“A number of councillors have decided to reach a decision on the Local Plan before all of the evidence is available to take an informed decision.

“That is their right and their decision but in the process they are ruling out tackling chronic traffic congestion to improve the quality of life of Eastleigh residents.”