Seminar leads to Elmbridge Councilors’ to resist officers advice to release Green Belt in Local Plan

Likely to be the most kept on advice since that given to Castlepoint by Keith Holland, look what happened to them by the way, they almost lost control of their local plan and were branded ‘failures’ as a result by their own chief executive. Planning Resource. As with St Albans, Sevenoaks etc. etc.

Guildford Dragon

Elmbridge residents are asking their councillors to “be braver” and stand by their manifesto promises to protect the green belt.

The borough’s delayed Local Plan, which will set out how places develop over the next 15 years, was due to be discussed at cabinet last Wednesday (July 7), but was put on the back burner “to allow for further collaboration between councillors and officers”.

The council’s current document requires 225 new dwellings a year between 2011-2026, but changes to national policy last year suggest 633 dwellings will be needed each year, leading residents in the borough to fear green belt land may be at risk of development.

“Pretty damn near all of our councillors at the election and the election before campaigned on no green belt release, so they’ve all gone back on their election promises,” said Paul Bartlett at last month’s meeting of Elmbridge Community Assembly, a monthly meeting of residents discussing local issues.

Cllr Karen Randolph

He claimed councillors elected on this pledge were being “kept out of the Local Plan process”, which planning portfolio holder Cllr Karen Randolph, who was not present, has denied.

But, she said: “The officers cannot be bound by what we say in our manifestos.”

Mr Bartlett told the meeting that Cllr Randolph “repeatedly” said in Thames Ditton and Weston Green Residents’ Association meetings this year “she does not know what is in the Local Plan and she will have to wait like all the other councillors to see what the officers bring forth”.

“That, to me, tells me there is a fundamental breakdown in what should be a close collaborative relationship,” he said.

“They are being shut out – either they’re not making the effort to get involved with the officers, or the officers aren’t engaging with them; whatever’s happened, that relationship is not working and we’re going to end up with an officer-led Plan presented.”

His comments were supported by Elmbridge resident Tony Charlesworth, who said: “The danger is that they can be manipulated by officers. My worry is that we don’t actually have truly independent councillors.

“The officers it seems to me have an awful lot of sway over these councillors and I worry that there isn’t enough backbone; they maybe want to do the right thing but could be talked out of it and I worry that the system doesn’t prevent that.”

Della Reynolds, who was hosting the meeting, said: “They’re not showing the courage and the leadership.”

Thames Ditton resident Catriona Riddell, a strategic planning expert who advises councils, said: “It’s like Chinese whispers, it comes back into the council and says, if we don’t meet our [housing] needs we’re going to lose control of our Local Plan and that’s how it plays out, and actually that’s not the reality.

“What we need is some brave councillors. We need some brave leadership to say, ‘We hear what you’re saying, professionals, but is there a different way we can do this to make it more acceptable?’”

She added: “The buck stops with the councillors. Whatever the officers recommend, if the members don’t like what they see, that is their job to show some leadership.

“We’ve got a whole load of new councillors at Elmbridge and that may change but at the end of the day it has got to be the council’s plan that is presented to examination and if what Paul [Bartlett] is saying is true then that’s very worrying.

“I’ve never known a situation in the way that Paul’s described and I’ve worked with a lot of councils. It has always been a collaboration.”

Lead councillor for Planning, Karen Randolph (Thames Ditton and Weston Green Residents’ Association) told the Local Democracy Reporting Service that councillors and officers did work together in a Local Plan working group.

“Mudslinging doesn’t get anybody anywhere,” she said. “What they don’t realise is that conversations have been going on behind the scenes for a number of years, but the process needs to be transparent so there are things that need to be brought out into the open.

“We have asked officers to provide options. We need to know before making up our minds if we don’t develop on green belt what the consequences would be for our urban land, which we value very greatly.

“There’s got to be a recognition that councillors don’t have the expertise or detailed knowledge, that is what we rely on our professional advisors for.”

The draft Local Plan is now expected to go to cabinet in the autumn. It will then have to be examined by a national planning inspector and is hoped to be adopted in autumn 2022.

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