Takeley residents are up in arms over Weston Homes’ plans for 180 houses, with a planning bid for the “Warish Hall Development” expected later this year.
The application raises concerns over potential for conflicts of interest for the council. Weston is not a normal applicant, it has a commercial relationship with Uttlesford District Council. Last year, UDC handed Weston £20mn to purchase its Takeley HQ as part of a controversial commercial investment programme that is funded by massive council borrowing. Weston is now a tenant of an office property owned by the council, providing a rental income of more than £1.1mn in the following financial year. The developer had already acquired farmland next door before the deal with the council and, having been given a £20mn cheque, is looking to develop a housing estate.
At September’s Stansted parish council meeting, I warned of the quandary the council could be placed in if Weston submitted a planning application. Cllr Geoffrey Sell said he and Cllr Ayub Khan – both serving as Stansted parish councillors and district councillors – had voted for the investment as they felt it “offered a good yield”, but added “if they do put in a planning application, then this would need to be stated. The Council needs to look at how better they monitor the investments.” Stansted parish council chair Cllr Maureen Caton pointed out that “it was not about monitoring it was about scrutiny as a conflict of interest.”
With financial constraints worsening in the face of recession, government cuts and the costs of the pandemic, questions will inevitably arise over how much the council is willing to come into conflict with a business that is projected to generate up to a fifth of its investment income in FY2021/22. Approval may be seen by many members of the public as capitulation to the council’s commercial interests. Refusal could throw the council headlong into a conflict with a business that represents a major source of its income.
Both UDC and Weston need to convince the public that commercial interests and planning policy are separate and that decisions over the Warish Hall Development have no relationship to or impact on the council’s income stream.
Commercial interests are not the only source of concern. The vacuum in local planning policy is also enticing previously unthinkable developments.
One Takeley resident pointed out on social media that “Developers are trying to get in because we have no local plan in place… some of these sites wouldn’t get included in the local plan!”
Indeed, this is supported by their statement, on Weston’s website, that “Uttlesford District Council should ensure there is satisfactory provision and supply of new homes, to enable local people to access new housing and to ensure people can live and work locally. Currently the Council is working to update its Local Plan to plan for the long term, although in the immediate future it will need to ensure it has a ready supply of small and medium sized sites in sustainable locations, such as Takeley.”
I warned exactly a year ago about about prospect of uncontrolled, speculative planning applications by developers due to the lack of a five-year land supply for housing development, coupled with no approved or draft local plan. I also pointed out the specific vulnerability to Takeley and Elsenham after the planning committee decided to cast aside a key local planning policy, with approval for housing in the Countryside Protection Zone around the airport.
The Warish Hall Development is not the first and will not be the last controversial planning application arising in the wake of the withdrawal of the local plan. UDC is now fire-fighting, struggling to fend off unsuitable development – and rapidly losing public confidence.
Residents of Takeley and the Canfields had been promised a stronger voice in planning matters by the Residents for Uttlesford Party councillors they voted into office in May 2019: Geoff Bagnell, Vere Isham and Maggie Sutton.
In election statements ahead of the local elections, Cllr Isham said, “The residents of Takeley are being taken for granted… I see Residents for Uttlesford as a way for local people to have a greater say in local issues.” His colleague Cllr Sutton said, “I am truly passionate about this area… We need to care for the specialness of our history and archaeology, the uniqueness of our countryside, and we need strong residents’ representation to make sure proper strategic plans are created for our future.” Cllr Bagnell added, “I believe we need local representation at Uttlesford rather than the mainstream political parties if we are to secure the proper future for our communities. There is great support for local decisions on the doorstep.”
Councillors Bagnell and Sutton sit on the planning committee. Cllr Bagnell is also a member of the “Investment Board” working group which approved the acquisition of Weston’s HQ, despite concerns about governance and commercial viability. When Weston’s plans come up for discussion, all three Takeley district councillors will be placed under significant pressure by constituents to prove they are keeping to their word and representing their constituents.