There was good news and bad news on local planning in the final week of 2020.

The good news is that Essex Highways comprehensively panned Bloor Homes’ plans for 168 homes on Pennington Lane, which was again submerged under flood waters at the weekend. It criticised the lack of data and mitigation measures, stating “the application does not contain sufficient information for highway authority to determine whether the impact on the highway is acceptable.”

With the application not yet brought before the planning committee, we’re not out of the woods in dealing with one of the most contentious planning applications we have seen in this community. But the letter is damning of Bloor’s total disregard for the points raised by Stansted Parish Council and others on the unsuitability of the site on a one-lane track. Essex Highways supports the position taken by the parish council, which has adopted a level-headed, meticulous and consensual approach to planning matters – in sharp contrast to the brazen populist competitive Nimbyism seen at Uttlesford District Council.

The Highways letter maybe more of a temporary reprieve than a resolution as we can expect Bloor to come back with a strengthened application and continue to press the case for unsuitable development in that corner of the village.

Bad News: UDC Non-Determination Creates “Hellsenham” by Stealth

The bad news is that entirely due to Uttlesford District Council’s abject failure, the government planning inspector approved 350 homes proposed by Fairfield, which will massively increase Elsenham’s population and put the local area under severe strain.

UDC did not even bother to determine the application. It did not refuse permission or approve with conditions to mitigate the impact. It simply did nothing. It reneged on its responsibilities and threw the parishes of Elsenham and Stansted under a bus by failing to determine the planning application within the statutory time limit.

A letter I wrote to the Bishop’s Stortford Independent, November 2019, highlighting the problems of housing development without mitigation in Elsenham

Both communities’ parish councils had made strong statements of opposition based on the quality of the highways survey, the lack of infrastructure and the impact on the polluted Grove Hill bottleneck in Stansted, which is on the cusp of being declared an Air Quality Management Area (AQMA).

The failure is entirely political and demonstrates that the Residents for Uttlesford Party (R4U) has not only failed in its mission to “give residents a voice”, it has actively denied a voice to the parishes of Elsenham, Henham and Stansted.

The residents of Elsenham and Henham must be particularly disappointed in the representatives they elected in a by-election in February 2017 and re-elected the subsequent local elections of May 2019: UDC Deputy Leader Cllr Petrina Lees and planning committee member Cllr Gary Le Count.

It is notable that WeAreResidents – the precursor of R4U – supported Fairfield’s plans for 800 houses in Elsenham, stating in 2012: “Fairfield seems to have a better grasp of public opinion and UDC’s own evidence than UDC do themselves. UDC’s evidence states that a new settlement is the best and most sustainable solution for the district. In the December 2011 SHHLA, sites at Stumps Cross and near Elsenham came up as the locations preferred by UDC for a new town. A new town allows provision of all new infrastructure, and so overstretches existing communities much less.” The comment was quietly removed from the WAR website when R4U contested the Elsenham by-election!

Development Control Appeals Costs Are Soaring Amid Weak Political Leadership

Source: Uttlesford District Council, Freedom of Information Request

The failure to determine the “Helsenham” application comes amid soaring costs of planning appeals. With half its members having served fewer than two years on the council, the planning committee appears to have a total distrust of professional planning officer advice. On six occasions since the May 2019 local elections, the planning committee has overruled officer advice and refused planning applications or failed to reach a determination, only for an appeal to find in favour of the developers.

The policy of saying “no” to all housing development, instead of seeking to impose mitigation conditions, is costly and yielding nothing for residents.

The mistrust of officers has ensured that development control appeals costs have soared to one of the highest – if not the highest ever – levels in the last financial year as the council employed expensive lawyers to defend refusals, often against planning officer advice. In FY2019/20 in R4U’s first year of office, development control appeals costs, including hiring expensive lawyers, reached an eye-watering £274,508 – an increase of 750%!

The current financial year could see costs soar even higher. Uttlesford awaits the imminent result of the appeal against the refusal for 150 houses in land east of Thaxted Road in Saffron Walden – a refusal that again overrode officer advice.

Yet, planning applications are coming in thick and fast, following R4U’s decision to withdraw rather than review the local plan and leaving the council with no local planning policy. Developers are using the policy vacuum and lack of political leadership to drive through speculative developments. With no five-year land supply, there is little to stop more unsuitable development. This is why the campaign to save Pennington Lane cannot let up.

Uttlesford’s Malaise Augurs Existential Crisis

The planning issues raise more fundamental questions about the chaos of the Residents for Uttlesford regime, which currently exists under a pall amid a police investigation and the refusal of the auditor to sign off a governance statement – the public are not being informed what is going on and R4U guillotined a debate on an opposition motion to seek answers.

There are serious questions of leadership, transparency and accountability that are pushing R4U and the council itself towards an existential crisis. R4U have so far failed in their mission, both on planning and governance.

Some conscientious R4U councillors along with senior council officers need to get a grip of the situation otherwise their reputations will be in tatters and heads will start rolling – if not in 2021, then definitely in the 2023 local elections.

The public may not like what they see as tit-for-tat political point scoring, but in this case our problems are political and require political solutions.