by Alan Dean on 12 October, 2020
My To Everest or to spitefulness post last Monday has stirred up some reaction from the Residents for Uttlesford (R4U) party and its allies. They think I am acting bitterly and unfairly by challenging and criticising their handling of Uttlesford’s Local Plan since R4U were elected into office with an overwhelming majority in May 2019.
But this story is far more serious. It is about the integrity of the politicians in charge of a small, largely rural district council. It is about bad governance; how the rules didn’t matter; how they kept the Council in the dark and how they brought on a crisis in planning that will scar our rural towns and villages for future generations.
In British democracy, the role of the Opposition groups is to challenge and hold to account those responsible for good and often difficult decision making, including when the ruling party bottles out from making hard decisions.
The Residents for Uttlesford Party started out as a single-issue group opposed to the then Conservative administration’s Local Plans – whatever the Tories put forward. Now R4U are in charge of Uttlesford District Council, it is the Liberal Democrats’ democratic responsibility in opposition to hold them to account. We will congratulate R4U if they do the right thing; we will hold them to account when they fall short.
And over the planning for the district’s future through a Local Plan, R4U have fallen far short of what is expected.
Falling short on openness, sound democracy and good governance is what R4U seem to have done in their second month in control of the district council in June 2019. On the 11th day a letter was received from the Planning Inspectorate. It can be read here.
One of the key extracts from the letter is this: The Act (of Parliament) requires the Council to submit a plan which it thinks is ready for examination. The clear implication of this is that the LPA (local planning authority) should only submit a plan it considers to be sound. The letter concluded: if the Council no longer supports key aspects of the plan it has submitted, the appropriate action would be to consider withdrawing that plan from examination. We would be grateful if the Council could confirm its position in writing by no later than by the close of play on 27 June so that the Inspectors and all participants are aware of the Council’s stance.
I would have expected all Council Members to have been informed immediately of this letter’s receipt, straight after the Leader of the Council had been told. That would have allowed an emergency meeting of the Council to be called, either to accept the inspectors’ challenge to remove the Local Plan from the following month’s Examination in Public, or to affirm its continued backing for the Plan. After all, it was and remains the Full Council that is responsible for such decisions. (Instead, it looks like the Leader of the Council blocked that possibility.)
Residents for Uttlesford councillors could not, in all honesty, have voted to back the plan, given their promise to the voters to replace it. So they ducked having a vote!!
Amazingly, if not shockingly, the 27th deadline arrived, most of us were still in the dark, and a letter went to back to the inspectors saying “no change”. The letter can be read in full here.
The crucial sentences are: Where matters are reserved to Full Council, only Full Council can make decisions on these matters. The Act…does not impose any continuing duty on the Council …to revisit the decision….The Examination will end when the Council receives the Inspectors’ report and it is at that point that the Council will next consider the Local Plan. There are no plans to bring a report before the Council until that stage is reached….The Council has made the decision to submit a Local Plan for Examination in its decision of 9 October 2018….there are no plans to revisit that decision.
I have read few letters that are as disingenuous, yet that’s the message that R4U must have instructed the Chief Executive to put in the Council’s formal response.
Yes, the legitimate decision-making body, the Full Council of all thirty-nine councillors, was side-lined and kept in ignorance until it was too late to involve it!
So, here is the shocking sequence of events since the beginning:
Why? One must assume that the Residents for Uttlesford party didn’t have the courage of their convictions and promises.
Appallingly, the consequences are:
An unelected R4U advisor said on Facebook at the weekend that I sound bitter. Bitterness is normally the case when one has personally missed out on something individually important. No, I am not bitter, and rarely do bitterness. However, Uttlesford’s residents will be left with a bitter taste in their mouths when they digest how R4U has mismanaged their top manifesto pledge. I am ashamed to be a Member of a Council that gets away with undermining its own democratic decision-making processes. I am appalled at the behaviour of R4U, as displayed at last Thursday’s Council Meeting. They were defensive, offensive and aggressive towards any councillor who challenged them with ideas to try to help R4U, if that councillor was not one of their own political persuasion.
The R4U dominant
(yes, there are exceptions, some good and sensible R4U councillors, who don’t play party politics for the sake of it)
culture is “join us, agree with us, don’t rock the boat, or get out; but please provide us with scapegoats for our own mistakes”.
UPDATE October 19th: last week, at a private meeting of the Local Plan Leadership Group (that R4U promised would meet in public), R4U councillors were hesitant to begin the new Local Plan process with a Call for Sites exercise in which landowners and developers are invited to put forward potential development land. It seems that they want to find a new name for the exercise to disguise what they will be doing.
Would a fresh description Not The Local Housing Plan win the competition for the prize that was announced – a Not the Leadership Cake? With power comes responsibility for making difficult decisions and the need to provide leadership.
(To be continued.)