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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Master Vision for Guildford

The Master Vision document – commissioned from planners Allies & Morrison – has now been published and you can read it here:

http://www.guildford.gov.uk/media/17154/Item-7—Guildford-Town-Centre-Vision-2014/pdf/Guildford_Town_Centre_Vision_2014.pdf

This sets out a number of issues including proposing housing in the Walnut Tree Close area, protecting the green surroundings of the town, and some issues concerning road traffic, the planning of the Gyratory in Guildford Town Centre etc.

The vision for increased residential housing on brownfield in the town centre is excellent and warmly welcomed.  This document was approved as a draft by the Scrutiny Committee on Wednesday 11 June, so this document will go to consultation to be included within the Local Plan, and it is of course possible to comment on this separately too.

There were 7 public speakers at the Scrutiny Committee.  All but one thought that the Walnut Tree Close area should be used for primarily residential development and was a potentially very sustainable site for medium density housing, which could present a very exciting opportunity for  Guildford both as a town (more cohesive, less poor quality land in the centre of town) and as a borough (the potential use of previously developed land in the town centre could allow protection of the Green Belt).  Even the spokesman for the business community, who wanted office usage near the station, agreed that it was a poor site for industrial units and that there should be HGVs going along Walnut Tree Close, and that those existing industrial units could constructively be moved. So the public response was unanimous in agreeing that industrial units should be moved from Walnut Tree Close.

 

 

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

GGG open letter to councillors 29 May 2014

Dear Councillor

You may have seen the summary of the agenda for the Executive Committee on 4th June. If you are not on the Executive Committee, you may not have seen this, or yet taken the time to read it. GGG feels that it merits serious criticism, and actually represents a serious failure of the democratic process.

We would therefore ask you to challenge it, as it requires reconsideration.

You will be aware that planning is a matter of major concern nationally, with many people terrified about an apparent assault on the countryside and apparent reluctance among house builders to consider the prioritisation of brownfield land. This has been a topic that has led to comment by a number of significant experts, including Sir Simon Jenkins, Dame Helen Ghosh, Shaun Spiers, Sir Andrew Motion, Sir Richard Rodgers and others. Civic Voice has expressed concern regarding a democratic deficit in the planning process. Greg Mulholland MP has a private member’s bill requesting a revision of the NPPF, with a second reading on 6 June 2014 (GGG has asked all 4 MPs to vote in favour). There is a parliamentary select committee currently reviewing the efficient operations of the NPPF. You may also be aware that there is much comment about a housing bubble in London and the South East, likely to be near the top of the market at present and that mortgage approvals are currently falling; house building is at a periodic high, where the current constraint on the number of homes being built is the national supply of bricks. Not all those homes will be lived in: 18% of homes built in London are sold to non-resident buyers and stay empty; this too calls into question the real need, national or local. Further there are, nationally, 1 million empty homes (not 2nd homes).

This situation is currently fluid and there is scope for political decision-making as part of this process, as the Scrutiny Committee noted. It is arguable that the impact of concern about this issue has already affected elections, both locally and the European elections. As you may be aware, both the Green Party and UKIP are staunch supporters of the countryside and, from different standpoints, oppose greenfield building; and the impact on the recent elections of this matter has perhaps not yet been fully considered by the main political parties. This is not a simple and straightforward procedural planning matter. It requires your judgement.

For your information, we are including a note on the use of brownfield land in Guildford prepared by GGG, which we consider indicates that there is substantial brownfield land within the borough that could be utilised for the purposes of development. It is an illustrative brief document, but we are in the process of preparing a more detailed work. We do not consider that there is a need to consider greenfield sites in preference. Conversely, there is precedent that Local Plans have been subjected to judicial review if there has not been a proper review of the alternatives to use of the Green Belt. We would also note, if you were not aware, that Mole Valley initially considered that it needed to plan to use 2% of its Green Belt for housing, but MVDC is now implementing its Local Plan well in excess of its housing target using only brownfield areas.

If you are not on the Scrutiny Committee, you may not have seen the results of that Scrutiny Committee, and so for your information we are attaching a GGG press announcement summarising the conclusions of that meeting.

The draft local plan report is here: http://www.guildford.gov.uk/media/17112/Item-3—Draft-Local-Plan-Reportpdf/pdf/pdf46.pdf

Scrutiny Committee decision disregarded
We note that agenda item 8 reiterates the conclusion of the Scrutiny Committee:
“To express concern over the housing number as set out in the Draft Local Plan and to ask the Head of Planning and the Lead Councillor for Planning to review the housing number before going to Executive for consideration on 4 June and Council on 19 June 2014″.

The officer response does not indicate that such a review has been carried out, but states: ” A meeting is being arranged [ie has not yet taken place] between the Lead Councillor, the Head of Planning Services, the Executive Head of Development, the Head of Housing Advice, the Managing Director, members of the Policy Team and appointed advisers such as GL Hearn and Edge Analytics to review the housing number for inclusion in the draft Local Plan. A full and detailed explanation of how the housing number was arrived at is attached to this note as Sub Appendix A”.

The Scrutiny Committee required review of the planning number. That has not taken place and there has not even been a preliminary meeting. It is not clear how the Local Plan can be processed for approval by the Full Council without the revision of the housing number as required by the Scrutiny Committee. We would question what the function of the Scrutiny Committee is when its conclusions can be wholly disregarded by the Executive Committee. Far from being revised and reviewed, the number is unchanged, with an intention to hold a meeting at a future date and a series of apparently spurious justifications given for not revising the number as the Scrutiny Committee required.

No constraints applied, with no justification given
In Appendix A it is stated, as if a matter of fact, that
“If it can be demonstrated that we can meet our objectively assessed housing need over the plan period, using suitable and deliverable land, then a housing number lower than our objectively assessed housing need will not be found sound at examination.” This assertion is not demonstrable from the evidence of other areas and is not necessarily valid. No evidence is adduced for this statement. It would appear to contradict ministerial advice and the letters sent to our MPs by Nick Boles and the written advice from Nick Boles to the Planning Inspectorate in relation to the application of constraints arising from the Green Belt. It is a further demonstration that there has been no attempt made to apply any constraints whatsoever to the planning process. No such constraints have been applied relative to the number generated by the revised SHMA.

Conversely, there is precedent that Local Plans have been subject to judicial review if there has not been a proper review of the alternatives to use of the Green Belt.

It would appear from ministerial advice that there is not a requirement to meet objectively assessed housing need in full if Green Belt constraints apply (see letters from Nick Boles previously circulated). There is no suggestion in those letters that these requirements are just transferred into an adjacent area, but that Green Belt is a justification for actual reduction of objectively assessed housing need. This might arguably seem to be a grey area in terms of ministerial advice, but is certainly not merely a process of reallocation to adjacent authorities as the officer’s report would seem to suggest. This, like other remarks made on an advisory basis by the planning department, does not seem wholly accurate. Councillors should note that there is a precedent for judicial review of a Local Plan on the basis of poor advice by a planning department, if that advice is not demonstrably accurate and impartial. It is not clear that this advice is accurate.

Objectively assessed need was inflated, but has not been revised
In any event, it had been extensively argued at the Scrutiny Committee meeting, by councillors, that the objectively assessed housing need as arrived at in the SHMA is overstated. The numbers use an inflated trend – if necessary we can reiterate these arguments. This conclusion has been disregarded. The ONS data has been revised and the preliminary conclusions from The Guildford Society on their website indicate that this would give rise to an even lower estimate of housing need than should have been considered. However, this is not taken into account in the documents, which were published on the same day as the ONS data and therefore presumably have not yet taken these into account. Case law differentiates between housing need (the core data), housing requirement and housing targets. Constraints apply to the housing requirement (as generated by the SHMA) to arrive at the housing target (lower than the SHMA almost everywhere, but not here- the numbers are the same; the applicable constraints are not applied). The preliminary view that housing need can be justified at a SHMA number of around 470 should fall therefore, and with the application of constraints the combined residents’ view that the housing target numbers should be 300-345 remains constant.

5 year supply of housing land not in place
It has also been argued to the Council that there is in fact a 5 year supply of housing land and the arguments set out in relation to this matter have been ignored. Existing planning permissions are, by definition, available, suitable and achievable (with some small exceptions). When these are added to student housing permissions, there is already a very substantial supply of housing, before any new sites are considered. If the available brownfield sites within the town are included, even taking into account only those available within the initial 5 years, then there is a 5 year supply.

Existing planning permissions total 1480 (source: revised SHLAA). Student housing permissions total 2121 (source: UniS planning officer) (these specifically count towards the housing total, per Nick Boles’ letter to Sir Paul Beresford). The total is therefore 3601 (1480+2121=3601). Using the SHMA number (itself overstated) of 652, with a 5% uplift, gives a total of 3423 (652 x 5 x 105% =3423). It is therefore demonstrable that existing permissions exceed even the high objective assessment of need (3601>3423). Why, therefore, is it repeatedly stated that there no 5 year supply? Even if some of the existing planning permissions should be deferred (which must in itself imply that the developers are engaged in land banking which will distort the planning process) there is surely some land that is available so that a 5 year supply can be recognised? This is clearly the case.

The reiteration that this supply does not exist as if it is a given fact seems to imply a predetermined choice of course of action, and seems to suggest some desire to uplift the requirement by 20% to distort the decision making process, which is not acceptable.

In addition, there has been an elaborate game of double and negative circular counting to demonstrate that the current estimate of need should be backdated to 2011 to create a shortfall that could never have been anticipated. This is patently ridiculous, and throws the whole assessment and calculation into disrepute. Who are the numbers designed to persuade?

It is clear that using the previous local plan numbers and then the agreed interim measure of 322 – as agreed by the High Court – means that for the 10 year period to 2011 (or, if you prefer, the 10 year period to 2013) there was no historic shortfall. These numbers too can be supplied again if you wish.

Lack of revision as required by Scrutiny Committee
As we have seen previously, both in relation to the proposed involvement of the public in the scrutiny of the evidence base and the revision of the SHMA, the later drafts of parts of the Local Plan documentation seem to be revised remarkably little from the initial drafts, and the process of consultation and review, either with councillors or members of the public, does not appear to result in any modification.

This is unacceptable. It has been repeatedly stated by council officers that planning is not a referendum. Neither, however, is it the preserve of the planning department alone. The Localism Act enjoins a duty of consultation, and the right of communities to be heard. This does not mean that consultation with those communities should be an empty process.

Furthermore, and even more significantly, the choices of elected representatives should not be ignored. The decisions made by the Council should not just be set aside as if merely consultative.

It is not clear whether this failure to respond to the decision of the Scrutiny Committee is an abuse of Executive Committee power within the council, or whether the Planning Department are acting independently without the Executive Committee’s remit. In either event, we consider that the formal decisions made by councillors at the Scrutiny Committee should be followed and respected. As accepted by the Chief Planning Officer at that committee, political decisions are a matter for elected councillors, but, once made, they must be carried out and not ignored.

If there are areas within this document that you would like to discuss further, do please contact us.

With regards

Guildford Greenbelt Group

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.