Ahead of the May 2019 local elections, the “Residents for Uttlesford” Party promised something they said was radically different. Its manifesto declared: “We will encourage parishes and towns to develop Neighbourhood Plans so as to give those communities a stronger voice and more control over their future… We will actively involve town and parish councils in arriving at decisions based on evidence, not on political influence.”
Times have changed after just one year in power. R4U is rapidly retreating from its mandate. It was always a promise that it couldn’t keep because the council will have to make strategic allocations that are bound to chafe with local desires. R4U’s chickens are coming home to roost.
The community empowerment promises that fuelled the R4U election campaign are now being replaced by an increasingly centralised, party political project that looks set to sideline local communities, particularly those not under the control of R4U. Rather than using Neighbourhood Plans as building blocks for the local plan now being drafted by the R4U-controlled council, which appeared to be the policy set forth in the election, the cabinet wants to supercede them with its own designs.
Cllr Alan Storah, the R4U deputy portfolio-holder for planning who will head the new “local plan leadership working group”, remarked at last week’s UDC cabinet meeting: “I would urge the parish council to have regard to the fact that the situation may change, and I wouldn’t want too much time and money to be spent on producing a Neighbourhood Plan which they were comfortable with to discover that it might be superseded by whatever might be in the emerging Local Plan.
“There may be merit therefore… to wait and see what’s in the emerging Local Plan and see how they think their resources might be best employed, whether it’s to progress with the Neighbourhood Plan, or to perhaps, dare I say it, oppose the emerging local plan.”
A Neighbourhood Plan helps local communities influence the planning of the area in which they live and work, including where new homes, shops, offices and other development should be built, protection of local green spaces and influencing the design of new buildings.
R4U has spent months sneering at Stansted Parish Council for waiting to see what happened to the last draft district Local Plan, which UDC withdrew earlier this year after criticism from government inspectors. Having lambasted Stansted for not moving fast enough, the R4U administration is now calling for parishes to hold back while it tries to work out a fourth local plan draft.
The new plan will take another four years – if Whitehall doesn’t step in and take direct control in the mean time. This scenario is a distinct possibility given that UDC has been warned by the government that it must have the local plan in place by end-2023. Six months after withdrawing the previous draft, the administration has not even produced a time table signifying milestones it must reach within the tight deadline.
Stansted Parish Council is now moving ahead and will soon put its Neighbourhood Plan to public consultation, ahead of a referendum. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, no elections or referendums can be held until May 2021, which delays the adoption process. The parish council will not be waiting around while the administration is beset with policy paralysis.
The UDC’s failure to meet the government’s five-year housing supply target means that developers will be flooding the council with planning applications that were previously unthinkable, such as Bloor Homes’ hopes of building scores of houses along the one-track protected lane Pennington Lane. Stansted needs to move with a brisk pace and cannot wait for R4U to make up its mind. It is better to have a plan than have no plan – even if it has to be revised in the future.