Call for a referendum on Local Governance

Guildford Greenbelt Group (GGG) Press announcement 13 June 2014

RESTORING DEMOCRACY

GUILDFORD GREENBELT GROUP TO SEEK PUBLIC REFERENDUM TO REMOVE GUILDFORD COUNCIL’S EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE AND RESTORE DEMOCRACY

 Move is result of Executive Committee’s failure to follow procedures and respond to its own Scrutiny Committee’s demands for revisions on housing numbers ahead of Guildford Plan consultation

 Guildford Greenbelt Group (GGG), the organisation representing residents concerned by Guildford Council’s plan to build major developments on Surrey’s Green Belt, is to petition for a referendum to remove the council’s Executive Committee and restore a more democratic system.

The Group says it has been left with no alternative following the Executive Committee meeting on Wednesday 4 June which ignored demands by the council’s own Scrutiny Committee to revise the Plan’s inflated required housing number of 652 per year before the Plan goes to public consultation.

Instead the Executive Committee went ahead and approved the current Plan for public consultation – meaning that the public will be told that 652 is the required figure for housing each year.

Susan Parker, Chair of GGG, said: “The Executive Committee has ignored calls from the council’s own Scrutiny Committee to review the housing target and the housing requirement calculations it is based on.

“As a result, we feel we have no option other than to petition for a Referendum to return the Council to a more democratic structure which will better respond to residents’ and councillors’ concerns.

“Guildford area residents who want to ensure the Council’s decision making process is more accountable and transparent, and that the law protecting the Green Belt is properly applied, can start now by signing this petition which will be posted on our website at http://guildfordgreenbeltgroup.co.uk/

The Metropolitan Green Belt was created in the public interest by national planning policy to prevent urban sprawl and stop towns merging into each other. An inflated housing number is not in the public interest and jeopardises the permanence and credibility of our Green Belt.

Under the Localism Act, councils have to hold a referendum if five per cent of the electorate sign a petition calling for one – in the borough of Guildford, that would require 5243 signatures.

The referendum will enable the people of Guildford to choose to support either the Executive system in place at present or a committee structure where the decisions of committees shape policy.

At present, the Council is governed by an Executive system, which means the Leader (appointed by the largest party) and nine other councillors (appointed by the Leader) make all the significant decisions.

Under the committee system all elected councillors are able to participate in the process of local government, which would mean that the decisions of councillors would be followed and respected.

Since 2011, when the Localism Act came into force, nine councils have scrapped the executive for a committee system and at least seven others are considering it. If enough signatures are collected in the borough of Guildford, a referendum vote must be held.

BACKGROUND

On Wednesday 4 June, the Guildford Borough Council (GBC) held an Executive Committee meeting which unanimously approved the Local Plan for public consultation with an unchanged housing requirement figure of 652 houses per annum, which, backdated to 2011, gives a minimum new housing number of 13040. Over the next 17 years that would result in the housing stock in the borough increasing by approximately 25%.

 

On 15 May, GBC’s Scrutiny Committee voted to revise the housing number. It was agreed that this revision should to take place before the Executive Committee meeting on 4 June. GGG therefore considers that Executive governance has ceased to work in Guildford.

 

Cllr Phillips, who proposed the formal recommendation from the Scrutiny Committee that the numbers in the draft Local Plan be revised, asked at the Executive Committee meeting as the first speaker in the Councillors’ part of the debate:

 

I was pleased that the joint Scrutiny Committee accepted my suggestion… to have another look at the housing numbers. …It was hoped that we would have an answer by today. Can you tell me, has this happened? Have you looked at this yet? If you have, what is the housing number and has it reduced as we were hoping it would be?”.

 

It was confirmed that the meeting had not yet taken place. Cllr Juneja indicated that a meeting would take place on Friday 6 June, that the number had not been reduced at present but would be “challenged” by the Executive.

 

That meeting has now taken place and there is still no change to the proposed housing number. It seems that 652 will be included as the housing target in the draft Local Plan.

 

GGG is concerned that the Executive Committee has chosen to ignore the valid recommendation from its own Scrutiny Committee in terms of the plan process.

 

Councillors at that committee appreciated constituents’ and residents’ groups’ genuine concerns at the calculation of the housing numbers, and argued cogently for a consequential revision.

 

The figure for Housing Need is set out in the Local Plan Evidence base in the Strategic Housing Market Assessment or SHMA prepared by GL Hearn. Following public demands for a review of the evidence base, Edge Analytics have reviewed GL Hearn’s original SHMA, and only given it “an amber tick”. Residents and campaign groups have questioned the calculations behind the housing number, and noted specific errors. Despite this the housing target number has only gone down by 18 houses per annum (from 670 to 652).

 

As a result the extent of the reliance that can be placed on the Executive’s challenge is limited.

 

This is not the first time that the process of democratic decision-making within the council has been set aside as a result of the decisions of the Executive.

 

Previously, on 13 January 2014, GBC agreed by formal vote that

 

The Council will enable full public involvement in this reappraisal of the evidence base, especially the Green Belt and Countryside Study, by holding a special joint meeting of the two Scrutiny Committees”.

 

In response to this on 4 March 2014 GBC held the Local Plan Scrutiny Forum to discuss the evidence base.

 

The Forum consisted of two parallel mass workshops, each lasting around 2 hours, with no formal record of the comments made. GGG does not consider that this met the undertaking of full public involvement in the reappraisal of the evidence base, but instead represented a measure of tokenism which has been previously displayed in the consultation process.

 

As a result, GGG is calling for a change in the operations of local government and will present a petition calling for a public referendum on the governance of Guildford Borough Council.   This formal petition is available to download from http://guildfordgreenbeltgroup.co.uk

 

-ends-

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Full steam ahead

Last night (4/6/14) the Executive Committee at Guildford Borough Council voted unanimously  to approve the draft Local Plan.

The draft local plan still contains the housing number of 652 homes per annum, which, backdated to 2011 (why?) gives a total until 2031 of 13040 homes to be built – which represents approximately one quarter of the existing number of homes in the borough.

It seems that the Scrutiny Committee requirement to revise the housing number has been disregarded.  At the Executive Committee, Cllr Phillips, who proposed that revision as a recommendation, said:  “I was pleased that the joint Scrutiny Committee accepted my suggestion… to have another look at the housing numbers. We have in here in Appendix A the detail of how you arrive at the housing numbers and [that].. a meeting has been arranged..between the lead councillor, the head of planning services, the managing director.. [etc] and members of the policy team and appointed advisers such as GL Hearn and Edge Analytics to review the housing numbers. It was hoped that we would have an answer by today. Can you tell me, has this happened? Have you looked at this yet? If you have, what is the housing number and has it reduced as we were hoping it would be?”. It was confirmed that the meeting had not yet taken place,. Cllr Juneja, the lead member for planning, noted that the number had not been reduced at present but would be “challenged” by the Executive.

A private meeting was held on 6 June 2014 to review the housing number.  Anne Milton MP arranged for some of her constituents to meet with GL Hearn, the consultants who prepared the report; but those who are not Mrs Milton’s constituents were not been invited to that meeting.  (Mrs Milton seems not to have realised that the parliamentary constituency of Guildford, and the borough of Guildford, have different boundaries, and other MPs’ constituents are not included in that consultation.)

The numbers may change – but they will not change before the draft that goes to public consultation. And, at a guess, substantive change may be unlikely thereafter.

We were also told  at the Executive  Committee meeting by Cllr Mansbridge and others that:

  • electrification of the North Downs line is possible (or maybe probable)
  • brownfield land is being considered, and that there will be a parallel document to consider the brownfield land “by the river” (this may be the Walnut Tree Close area, or perhaps Slyfield) as a master vision document, to be consulted on possibly in parallel with the Local Plan
  • there may be prospects from the Highways Agency for new and improved roads (location unspecified – and actually that doesn’t excite me at all; roadbuilding is not an enticing prospect)

You can view the webcast of the meeting here:

http://www.guildford.public-i.tv/core/portal/webcast_interactive/137661

Executive Committee agenda for 4 June 2014

Guildford Borough Council will be holding an executive committee meeting on 4 June 2014.

The agenda has been published in relation to that meeting, and it can be viewed on a webcast.

This is the page with the agenda and supporting documents:

http://www.guildford.gov.uk/article/12314/Special-Meeting—Executive—4-June-2014

Note that this is the discussion on the deliberations of the Scrutiny Committee, including the revision of the housing number (item no. 8)

http://www.guildford.gov.uk/media/17116/Item-34—Appendix-4a—Joint-Scrutiny-Committee-resolutions-and-officers-responsepdf/pdf/pdf46.pdf

with the Appendix A which is referred to:

http://www.guildford.gov.uk/media/17117/Item-35—Appendix-4b—Sub-Appendix-A-Joint-Scrutiny-Committee-Resolution-8pdf/pdf/pdf46.pdf

The housing number has not yet been revised from the planned 652 per annum.

GGG open letter to councillors dated 4 April 2014

Dear Councillor

I feel I need to write to express my view on some specific advice you were given by the planning department yesterday evening, since I was not permitted to express this view in the council chamber.

St Albans

It was stated yesterday evening that the St Albans (Hunston) decision only relates to a specific planning decision.

This is correct, but its interpretation of the law relates also to local plans. So that you can read the Appeal Court decision in full and form your own view, I am sending this to you again.

See in particular paragraph 6 (my highlighting):

“6. There is no doubt, that in proceeding their local plans, local planning authorities are required to ensure that the “full objectively assessed needs” for housing are to be met, “as far as is consistent with the policies set out in this Framework”. Those policies include the protection of Green Belt land. Indeed, a whole section of the Framework, Section 9, is devoted to that topic, a section which begins by saying “The Government attaches great importance to Green Belts”: Paragraph 79. The Framework seems to envisage some review in detail of Green Belt boundaries through the new Local Plan process, but states that “the general extent of Green Belts across the country is already established.” It seems clear, and is not in dispute in this appeal, that such a Local Plan could properly fall short of meeting the “full objectively assessed needs” for housing in its area because of the conflict which would otherwise arise with policies on the Green Belt or indeed on other designations hostile to development, such as those on Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty or National Parks. What is likely to be significant in the preparation of this Local Plan for the district of St Albans is that virtually all the undeveloped land in the district outside the built up areas forms part of the Metropolitan Green Belt.”

Further I would note that paragraphs 27-33 are relevant, especially paragraph 29, which notes that the objectively assessed housing need is what should be considered, but that this should be considered in the context of the geographical area:

“29. But there may be other factors as well. One of those is the planning context in which that shortfall is to be seen. The context may be that the district in question is subject on a considerable scale to policies protecting much or most of the undeveloped land from development except in exceptional or very special circumstances, whether because such land is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, National Park or Green Belt. If that is the case, then it may be wholly unsurprising that there is not a five year supply of housing land when measured simply against the unvarnished figures of household projections. A decision-maker would then be entitled to conclude, if such were the planning judgment, that some degree of shortfall in housing land supply, as measured simply by household formation rates, was inevitable. That may well affect the weight to be attached to the shortfall.”

As a result I think that the assertion made by Carol Humphrey (Head of Planning Services) that St Albans has no relevance in the context of the Local Plan is not correct. Furthermore I think that recent case law and recent Secretary of State decisions demonstrate that the shortfall in housing supply does not provide a sufficient justification to override the protection of the Green Belt not only in relation to specific planning appeals, but also in relation to any review of boundaries too.

Nick Boles letters

It was stated this evening by Carol Humphrey that the most important letter from Nick Boles was that on 13 March. It was implied that in some way this undermined any advice given in the first letter (which I have sent to you previously, which states “the Framework makes clear that a Green Belt boundary may be altered only in exceptional circumstances” ). You have all been sent all three letters, but I am sending the two letters from Nick Boles to you again. The first letter was clear advice specifically given to planning inspectors. The letter from planning inspectors queried this, and then Nick Boles stated that the advice given was a clarification of existing rulings. You wouldn’t expect a politician to admit to a U-turn in writing, I presume?

Nothing in the second letter undermines the clarification in the first. The first letter states that Green Belt is a policy that indicates development should be restricted. To quote again:

“local authorities should meet objectively assessed needs unless specific policies in the Framework indicate development should be restricted. Crucially, Green Belt is identified as one such policy”

As noted in my open letter to you, this is a word for word quotation from paragraph 14 of the NPPF. So Nick Boles is right, it is clarification not change. The second letter from Nick Boles confirms that the NPPG “provides useful clarity on the practical application of policy. It should provide helpful support for Inspectors and should not normally be considered a reason for extending examinations.” I don’t see that this is a withdrawal of the original advice. He is stating that it isn’t the policy but the Inspectors’ interpretation of that policy that has been wrong. The fact that Nick Boles is suggesting that the rules were always as they are now doesn’t mean that his guidance on the current rules should be ignored.

The extremely clear statement about the Green Belt in these letters are that Green Belt is a policy which restricts development – and, as Nick Boles rightly notes, that policy is stated in the NPPF. You should be entitled to rely on this guidance from the Secretary of State, which he put out as an open letter with a view to its influencing local plans and the inspection process.

With kind regards

Susan Parker

GGG open letter to councillors 12 March 2014

Guildford Greenbelt Group

12 March 2014
Dear Councillor

Planning issues

GGG has been criticised publicly for not discussing matters with Councillors. We welcome any opportunity to do so. The formal debates that have arisen in the context of petitions have not allowed exploration of many points of detail.

As a preliminary, we feel it may be helpful to prepare a digest of some recent cases and statements to send to you in an open letter. We feel these are material in the context of the Local Plan. We would be pleased to meet any councillors to discuss local concerns in some detail, in an informal discussion; please let us know if you would be willing to meet us.

We would note that we have also proposed having a detailed working meeting on the SHMA (Strategic Housing Market Assessment) which is currently being revised. GRA (Guildford Residents’ Association) have agreed to join with us in proposing a combined meeting in order to meet the Council’s undertaking for full public involvement in that reappraisal. We have asked Cllr Mansbridge to hold such a meeting , involving the SHMA consultants GL Hearn, together with such members of the executive committee as Cllr Mansbridge feels appropriate.

Some of the key recent developments are:

NPPG

The National Planning Policy Guidance has been recently revised (on 6 March 2014). The weblink, if you wish to read this guidance in full, is here: http://planningguidance.planningportal.gov.uk

The changes include lower CIL charges for developers of brownfield sites as an incentive to build on brownfield land. The covering Parliamentary statement written by Nick Boles notes:

The Coalition Government is committed to reforming the planning system to make it simpler, clearer and easier for people to use, allowing local communities to shape where development should and should not go. Planning should not be the exclusive preserve of lawyers, developers or town hall officials.
We are also committed to ensuring that countryside and environmental protections continue to be safeguarded, and devolving power down not just to local councils, but also down to neighbourhoods and local residents.

The new guidance also includes scope to block potential development of greenfield sites if the infrastructure is insufficient, including sewage outflows.

The comments in the parliamentary debate by Greg Clark giving the definition of sustainability are also useful:

“We followed the suggestion of the Communities and Local Government Committee and used the classic Brundtland definition, which is about protecting the ability of future generations to enjoy the benefits that the present generation enjoys. We have also included the five principles of the UK’s sustainable development strategy. In practice, the policies outlined in the national planning policy framework will determine, in each case, what is and is not sustainable. For example, it is not sustainable to have a shopping development outside the town centre and it is not sustainable to build in the green belt.”
Saltford Decision

This decision was a decision called in by the Secretary of State in relation to an appeal by Crest Nicholson (who you may know are partners on the M3LEP (the Local Enterprise Partnership covering Surrey and Hampshire) Land and Property Group and developers of a large site in Waverley), advised by Pegasus (who of course prepared GBC’s Green Belt and Countryside Study). Crest Nicholson’s appeal was rejected.
See the letter sent by the Secretary of State on 4 March 2014 in relation to this:
https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/286967/14-03-04_3-in-1_Manor_Road_Saltford_2195351.pdf
The Secretary of State considered that a site of 99 houses in the Green Belt adjacent to a settlement was a significant development within the Green Belt and so was calling in this policy.
Note that Bath and NE Somerset has an inadequate land supply and does not have a 5 year supply of housing land.

Whitchurch decision

This decision (5 March 2014) was recovered for the Secretary of State’s determination because it involved proposals for significant development (295 houses) in the Green Belt, which was re-considered on the basis that the proposal was reduced to 200 houses. This letter was also addressed to Pegasus (see above). The written Ministerial Statement on the Green Belt of 17 January 2014 is a material planning consideration in this regard. There is no 5 year housing supply, there is significant and acknowledged shortfall in the 5 year supply, and the local plan is not yet finalised, with housing policies not yet up to date. This appeal was rejected, and planning permission refused, because of the substantial harm to the openness of the Green Belt, the visual harm to the Green Belt, and harm to the character and appearance of the area.
See
https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/287070/14-03-05_3-in-1_Stockwood_Lane_Whitchurch_2199958.pdf

Natural England letter re Thames Basin Heath Special Protection Area

Natural England have noted general objections to developments in the TBHSPA.
A letter is attached in full as Appendix 2. This notes the obligation to protect the habitats of the nightjar, Dartford warbler and woodlark in the TBHSPA. This covers much of the northern part of the borough from Ash to Effingham.

Letter from Nick Boles to Planning Inspectorate

In addition to the revision of the NPPG, Nick Boles has written a letter (3 March 2014) to the Head of the Planning Inspectorate (attached in full as Appendix 1). This notes that protections for the Green Belt remain in force through the NPPF. In particular, it states:
“The Framework makes it clear that a Green Belt boundary may be altered only in exceptional circumstances and reiterates the importance and permanence of the Green Belt. The special role of Green Belt is also recognised in the framing of the presumption in favour of sustainable development, which sets out that authorities should meet objectively assessed needs unless specific policies in the Framework indicate development should be restricted. Crucially, Green Belt is identified as one such policy”.

St Albans case: Hunston Developments

The Discussion, especially paragraphs 26 and onwards, is of particular relevance. As you will note, St Albans had a very out of date plan and no five year housing supply; therefore the developer contended that the green belt provisions could be set aside to justify building. The Court of Appeal has revised the High Court decision and determined (to quote):

28. The crucial question for an inspector in such a case is not: is there a shortfall in housing land supply? It is: have very special circumstances been demonstrated to outweigh the Green Belt objection? As Mr Stinchcombe recognised in the course of the hearing, such circumstances are not automatically demonstrated simply because there is a less than a five year supply of housing land. The judge in the court below acknowledged as much at paragraph 30 of his judgment. Self-evidently, one of the considerations to be reflected in the decision on “very special circumstances” is likely to be the scale of the shortfall.
29. But there may be other factors as well. One of those is the planning context in which that shortfall is to be seen. The context may be that the district in question is subject on a considerable scale to policies protecting much or most of the undeveloped land from development except in exceptional or very special circumstances, whether because such land is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, National Park or Green Belt. If that is the case, then it may be wholly unsurprising that there is not a five year supply of housing land when measured simply against the unvarnished figures of household projections. A decision-maker would then be entitled to conclude, if such were the planning judgment, that some degree of shortfall in housing land supply, as measured simply by household formation rates, was inevitable. That may well affect the weight to be attached to the shortfall.
30. I therefore reject Mr Stinchcombe’s submission that it is impossible for an inspector to take into account the fact that such broader, district-wide constraints exist. The Green Belt may come into play both in that broader context and in the site specific context where it is the trigger for the requirement that very special circumstances be shown. This is not circular, nor is it double-counting, but rather a reflection of the fact that in a case like the present it is not only the appeal site which has a Green Belt designation but the great bulk of the undeveloped land in the district outside the built-up areas. This is an approach which takes proper account of the need to read the Framework as a whole and indeed to read paragraph 47 as a whole. It would, in my judgment, be irrational to say that one took account of the constraints embodied in the polices in the Framework, such as Green Belt, when preparing the local plan, as paragraph 47(1) clearly intends, and yet to require a decision-maker to close his or her eyes to the existence of those constraints when making a development control decision. They are clearly relevant planning considerations in both exercises.
Hunston cannot appeal since they technically won the case, which has been referred back to the PINs with the specific guidance that they must decide the case on the basis of the law as defined in this case. The law may be subsequently varied, but only by primary legislation, a subsequent Court of Appeal judgment, or a Supreme Court judgement.

Conclusion

Our view is that, taken in conjunction, there is much protection for the Green Belt which should be recognised in the Local Plan. We think the Council should not plan on building on Green Belt areas to meet housing need, and that to plan to build most new housing on the Green Belt is in contravention of planning guidance. The requirement to utilise brownfield land for housing, and to utilise it efficiently, has recently increased. We think this must become a material consideration in the context of how this resource is viewed and how the Local Plan is applied.

It perhaps seems time for GBC to consider formalising a brownfield site review along the lines of the Green Belt and Countryside Study previously undertaken, to be undertaken in conjunction with the progress of the Local Plan. GBC has spent much of our money in funding a Green Belt study; and has just reacted to this proposal by suggesting that it is our (GGG’s) responsibility to suggest brownfield sites. This is not the responsibility of the public or its representative groups, but the duty of the Council acting for its electorate. It is the legal responsibility of the Council, under NPPG, furthermore, to consult with the public in relation to matters of policy, such as the priority to be allocated to brownfield land in relation to development.

Yours faithfully,

Guildford Greenbelt Group

Appendix 1

Letter from Nick Boles to the Planning Inspectorate 3 March 2014

Appendix 2

Letter from Natural England re Thames Basin Heath SPA

The council has issued a statement on the consultation

Guildford council has published the following statement on their website:

Local residents hand in petition

“We are consulting on the issues and options facing the borough for the growth we know is needed for current and future generations. The Government requires us to consider sites across the borough for potential future development, but our priority will be to look at brownfield sites first. Local people who are suggesting that the Council is proposing to ‘concrete over the green belt’ have misinterpreted the consultation.

Unfortunately, there is also a misconception that development in some areas of the borough, such as the Horsleys, Fairlands and the Hogs Back, is definite and in the pipeline. No decisions have been taken about the level of development, or where it will go.
 Today, a large group of approximately 150 local people accompanied the presentation of a petition, to show the Council their strength of feeling about the borough’s future. The full Council considers any petitions with over 500 signatures from borough residents. We will let people know at which meeting in the New Year this will be discussed.
 Sue Sturgeon, Managing Director of Guildford Borough Council, says: “People are passionate about where they live and work, they have every reason to be and every right to make their views known to us. This is all part of local democracy and we welcome everyone’s contributions to help shape the future – and their feedback on important issues between 2015 and 2031. That is what this stage of consultation on the new Local Plan is all about.
 “We have been impressed and delighted with the number and variety of comments we have received from organisations and individuals within our community. We are now going to spend time reviewing these responses and starting to draft the new Local Plan.
 “There will be continuing consultation with the public at every stage. Not everyone will be happy with all of the outcomes, and we recognise that there are some very strongly held views about some of the options that we may need to consider.
 “However, as our population grows, we must accommodate the increasing needs of our community and the next generation. It must be a priority to provide decent and affordable homes for workers and people of all ages. Young people also need employment and more opportunities to work and live here, rather than move away.”
We will publish the results of this consultation online early in 2014. We will also make them available to view elsewhere and publish regular updates on the next stage of developing the Local Plan”

Published on 29 November 2013

The link to the article is here;

http://www.guildford.gov.uk/article/5848/News-and-information-releases?faqdetailid=11957&inplace=true

Attend the Shere Parish council meeting Friday the 22nd November

Attend the Shere Parish council meeting

This is on Friday 22 November at 7.30pm in Shere village hall. Please come. You can also write to the parish council and express a view.

Our Parish councillors are the lowest tier of local government. As such they have a legal right to express a view which must be taken into account in planning matters.    We need to tell them what our views are so that they can be taken into account. Historically we haven’t bothered doing this so the local councillors express their own views.

In our parish, unlike some others, they are not representative because they are nominated not elected, because they are unopposed. They need to remember that – as with the borough councillors – they represent us and they have to understand our views.