County council ‘at best naive and at worst totally destructive’ as former Fenland leader delivers Estover blow
- Credit: Archant
Former Fenland Council leader Alan Melton launched a blistering attack on Cambridgeshire County Council, accusing it of being “at best naïve and at worst totally destructive”.
In a speech widely applauded by a packed council chamber – with many residents standing- he criticised the county council over their approach to development in March.
At a meeting at which the future of possible housing in March NE – and particularly at Estover – dominating the debates, Cllr Melton began by supporting the Local Plan which he had steered through prior to his removal as leader.
Describing the Local Plan as “one of the best” he found the suggestion “insulting” that councillors had not understood its implications for growth.
And he said windfall had always been used in Fenland, dating back to the 1980s when he was chairman of the planning committee to tackle sites which came forward. Indeed he was building 56 homes in Chatteris on a windfall – or unallocated- site which would boost social housing.
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But on the county council’s approach to Estover he said that “what is totally different and so annoying is being cynically exploited by a body that should know better and is trying to ride rough shod over elected members who made that decision in this chamber”.
Cllr Melton added: “That is what is wrong with it. I can understand a developer coming forward and trying it on but a responsible public body should know better.”
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He said one of the key aspects in Estover and March NE was the lack of infrastructure in and around Station Road.
“That was the key and what made me think hard and move the amendments to stop it,” said Cllr Melton who, as leader, had led his cabinet to remove 450 homes originally planned for March NE from the strategic allocations.
Councillor Martin Curtis had used infrastructure issues to oppose an application for Drybread Road, Whittlesey in 2010 “and the same arguments can be used if anyone put in an application in March NE.”
Cllr Melton said: “A public body has a duty to consider the well being of a community but a public body also has a duty to look at getting best value for council tax payers.”
He said he needed no lessons on finance (he handled both on his times on both Fenland and the county council) and “both are strapped for cash. I can understand the county council proposing this if there was no other way forward.
“But let me remind members including county councillors here in this room, the county council are freeholders of substantial tracts of land around March, particularly around March West, which is allocated and can be brought forward.”
In recent years he had spoken with leaders and chief executives of both councils and advised of the capital receipts available – and Fenland Council “could do with the section 106 monies.”
Cllr Melton said at least three major developers were after the county council land in March West and urged county councillors to press for officers to “start talking to developers and get that land sold and the asset value released for the community, particularly March”.
He added: “The county council is being in this instance at best naïve and at worst totally destructive.”
Councillor Gavin Booth detailed how windfall had been interpreted by many other councils – none of which allowed it on the scale proposed in Fenland. Even Peterborough, he said, only allowed 114 homes a year under windfall but most authorities agreed windfall was for up to four homes, and on previously developed land.
“The crux of the issue is how open and transparent have we been on this policy- we have not,” he said,
Councillor Peter Tunley insisted that “members were never directly advised windfall could mean 249 homes anywhere in Fenland”.
The protracted debate concluded with officers being asked to look again at the implications of revisiting the Local Plan and to bring forward a report on the “relevant issues”.
The council also endorsed a motion – drawn up by Cllr Tunley but amended by Cabinet member Fred Yeulett-which endorses the 2013 motion on the Local Plan which removed the March NE allocation of 450 homes.
What happens to possible windfall will be back on the council’s agenda in the New Year.
Councillors questioned whether a supplementary policy on windfall could be brought in – two councillors receiving blank looks when they asked if this was possible since the council had committed itself to a “flexible” Local Plan.
Legal advice from corporate director Alan Pain said there was no short cut to amending policies in a Local Plan and to remove any development at all from March NE would be illegal.
However after the meeting many councillors felt the debate had put paid for now – and possibly for years to come- any likelihood of an application for housing in March NE.
And even if an application did come forward March Town Council could use their newly emerging neighbourhood plan to thwart or delay development. It is likely that any housing proposed for March NE would end up for resolution on the desk of the secretary of state for housing.