Change of Administation at Amber Valley Borough Council
On Wednesday 22nd May, the first full council meeting since the local election will take place. The new administration sees Labour taking control, who need to create an entire new set of roles and appointments.
One document1 attached to the agenda lays out the intention to cancel the controversial Local Plan of the previous (Conservative) administration, that set out a plan to build on 14 Green Belt areas in Amber Valley.
The new council still has to consider other options and go to a vote. To lose that vote, Labour, who have a solid majority would have to have their own councillors vote to keep the Local Plan in the state which allows for building on the Green Belt. All of those councillors were elected on a pledge to save the Green Belt, so this seems unlikely.
This first full council meeting since the election will see a number of important things dealt with to set up the new council:
- A new Leader of the council and cabinet, will be elected.
- The new Leader will then appoint cabinet members.
- The council will adopt a constitution, under new leadership, bound by the obligations of the council, but revised from the one used by the Conservative administration.
- Chairs and Vice-chairs (still labelled chairMEN) will be appointed to oversee particular areas of council concerns, like waste collection, as will committees and other bodies.
- They will agree the schedule of meetings for the coming year, and deal with all the other machinations of establishing a council.
Then, right at the end, Item 21(a) on the agenda, they will be discussing the Local Plan.
The council will be presented with two options:
A) to withdraw the Local Plan and commence development of a new plan; or
B) to continue to proceed with the Local Plan in accordance with the Inspector’s Note on the Way Forward for the Examination dated 10 July 2018.
The stated aim of the council on this topic is, “The new council leadership has stated a desire to revisit the parameters of the Local Plan, in order to reconsider the need to amend the Green Belt boundary, to delete land from the Green Belt and identify sites for new housing development. It also wishes to ensure that the council can maximise the re-use or redevelopment of previously developed or brownfield land to meet housing need.”
A Local Plan sets out local planning policies and identifies how land is used, determining what will be built, and where. Once adopted they provide the framework for development. The council will still have a duty to prepare a new one, if the old one is scrapped.
The current Local Plan is a draft. Amber Valley Borough Council has not had an adopted Local Plan since 2006. The draft plan also does not demonstrate the required 5-year housing supply, nor has it proved any “exceptional circumstances” required for deleting and building on Green Belt.
The wording of the document attached to the Agenda clearly favours cancelling, and does not provide any unique reasons for keeping it. Financial risks remain mostly the same as they have been for the previous administration, with an increased risk of appeals by developers.
Meeting with Green Belt Protest Groups
At 6pm, on Wednesday 15th May 2019, the incoming council met with local protest groups, many of which are hyperlocal branches falling under the collective umbrella of Save Amber Valley Green Belt.
The purpose of this meeting was to communicate with the public, and establish an ongoing pattern of co-operation towards shared goals. Communication and consultation with the public was stated as an ongoing aim. The intention to listen, as well as inform, was built in to the structure of the meeting, and was the greater part of it.
The meeting was led by Chris Emmas-Williams, who is due to be elected Council Leader, and Ben Bellamy (who is due to be elected as his Deputy). Ben’s portfolio would then include the Local Plan.
Ben thanked the groups for all their hard work,
“Firstly I just wanted to say a big thank you to everyone for all the work you’ve done in your own local areas on all these applications that have been coming in left, right and centre. Some of the hours that some of you have put in have been incredible. People have been literally working full time on rebutting things in the Green Belt, the World Heritage Site, and elsewhere, and I think that’s appreciated by everyone.”
The options being put to the council next week were explained and Ben issued the disclaimer, “We haven’t made the decision yet. We’re not allowed to make the decision yet if we wanted to. But you might be able to guess, by putting this plan in, which way we are minded to go. I think we’ve been very clear all along whenever we’ve been involved in the Local Plan, that the Green Belt is out of order for us and that’s not something we’d want to consider.”
This was a clear indication that the councillors meant to stand by the promises which they were elected on.
There are potential costs and risks attached to cancelling the existing plan and starting a new one. A new plan has an estimated total cost of £1.5m, but as every council has to start work on a new plan as soon as one is adopted, this is simply an ongoing cost that any administration bears, and cannot avoid.
The greatest risk is that new building will be controlled on an exclusion basis, with the council having to deny planning, which can then be appealed, at cost to the council. This is the situation which already exists and has existed since 2006, with the difference being that the Labour administration intend to deny, rather than approve, inappropriate planning.
There was criticism from Chris Wilkinson (Duffield Green Belt group) of the one sided nature of the document attached to the agenda. Although his criticism was about it containing an array of potential threats involved in cancelling the plan, but did not include the potential threat of Green Belt groups taking legal action if the land continued to be threatened by the plan. Which Mr. Bellamy responded to by saying that they take the criticism on board, that the document was created by experts, and restated that cancelling or not is a decision for the councillors.
The councillors were clear in their dedication to protect the World Heritage Site, the Green Belt, and the future of tourism for the whole of the borough. They cited several serious issues which they have with the current plan beyond the inclusion of Green Belt land. These included:
- In a Climate Emergency, it needs to be factored in that green fields soak up more carbon than rainforests
- The brownfield register is out of date, and not fit for purpose
- There’s an oversupply of industrial land, which hasn’t been looked at for repurposing
- The plan focuses on 4 towns, putting the housing supply weight on one side of the borough
- It includes Derby’s 2014 housing need, which despite not being something Amber Valley has to take on, may also not be needed as Derby has exceeded their plan.
- and that the focus of the plan was wrong. This focus was described as asking developers where they want to build, which obviously results in desire for green land, which returns a higher profit margin.
The Green Belt groups sought clarification on the main risk of cancelling the plan, and whether it was legal to do so (it is). Mr. Bellamy responded,
“It can be taken out of the council’s hands, and it’s noted as a risk in this paper. People have to make their own assessments of that. At this stage I think it’s very unlikely, but it’s a possibility. My view at the moment is that the plan is so bad that I would rather it was taken out of their hands and started from scratch again, than putting these sites in and knowing we’re going to lose some really important sites.”
The council is bound by certain restrictions and there is a high likelihood of appeals to planning refusals, from aggressively demanding developers like Peveril, who have the money to appeal any ethical decision, with the intent of maximising their profit margins.
The Fight Continues…
Mr. Bellamy highlighted that the work for the local groups was not over.
Ben said, “One of the reasons I wanted everyone here together is that you’re at the front of fighting these plans. I’d hope that you can get together, and when inappropriate developments come forward, anywhere in the borough, you can use your expertise together. Then you’ll be really really strong. because there are rules against building on Green Belt. There’s rules wherever you build. Just because you haven’t got a Local Plan, it doesn’t mean “yes you can build.” I think sometimes there’s that thought that “Oh well, you haven’t got a five year housing supply, so you have to say yes.” But that’s not actually correct. There still have to be acceptable circumstances for deleting Green Belt.”
Mr. Bellamy highlighted the rule that land had to be planned with consideration for future generations, and that the Climate Emergency has to be taken into account in that regard.
Contaminated land and the register for it was raised. The register is out of date and no recent assessment of contaminated land (of which there is much in this historically industrial area) has been done. It was asked why this can’t be done. Mr. Bellamy asserted that it can be done, it just hasn’t been.
The question of why they weren’t trusting the inspector to reject the plan was raised. Mr. Bellamy explained that there was a solid risk of the inspector rejecting some of the sites, and approving others.
There was some anger at the suggestion that the council wouldn’t be able to save all sites that were requested for building. This misunderstanding of the power of the council is not unusual. The council cannot just stop anything they choose, they are bound by legislation imposed by national government. They are also limited in finances.
Mick Wilson, who is due to become Chair of the new Planning Board, said, ” What was happening in the previous administration was, the planning board itself was a vehicle for people to get plans through. What was happening was that places were coming in and getting through on the basis of A) that is was a Conservative led administration B) that they constantly battered the planning board with the “you haven’t got a five year supply, so you have to err on the side of it” argument but C) what they didn’t do is satisfy … the five tests for building on Green Belt. They wavered them. They didn’t even get involved in any of the paperwork. All the risks are still there that’s in that paper. What we’re hoping is that the inspector will see that democracy has had its say and that people are very concerned about the Green Belt. And one of the reasons why I stood for the Chair of Planning is … that there might be more rigor in the system. Trust me; I know some of these people that are developers and I’ve had a lot of dealings with them in the past in other worlds, and the first thing they will do is say, “have we got enough money to take THIS case to a hearing.” That will then open the floodgates. The test of that will be the first one that comes through the planning board. If it gets rejected, what will the developers do? Will they just take it away and go somewhere else, or will they take it to the High Court? That’s going to be the test of what we’re doing. I think that you’ve got to have a good planning board, and I’ve just spoken to our chief solicitor about how we need to change the training, and how we need to make sure that we’ve got routes both to accept plans, and routes to reject if they are inappropriate. That training starts next week.”
The Planning Board of the previous administration has been a target of hefty criticism from the local groups, and this continued in the meeting.
Questions were raised about houses that were already committed to in the borough. It was revealed that this only accounted for about a third of the housing required under the existing assessment (which includes Derby’s excess and out of date need). The fact that we don’t have to supply Derby’s need was raised. As was the suggestion that this pressure from Derby makes any ethical plan for the borough impossible.
Labour confirmed that the plan was based on out of date population projections and with up to date data on population growth (which are lower figures), and with challenging Derby, they can easily fill the housing need for Amber Valley by maximising density on existing sites (not allowing luxury homes in low numbers, like Duffield), delivering affordable housing for future generations in this area. “We can do it with what we’ve got. We don’t need to kill the Green Belt.”
Chris Emmas-Williams said that calling a Housing Market Assessment, with Derby co-operating with Amber Valley, was high on the list of things to do. He also said, “I’ve been and spoken to the executives and told them, that from now on, we expect a minimum of 30% Affordable Housing in all the sites that come forward.” He stated that a lot of the sites which were approved went through with 10 – 15% Affordable Housing.
There was strong focus from groups on restriciting plans to only supplying what Amber Valley itself needs.
Ben repeated that groups need to be ready for when applications start coming in. That people are still going to have a battle on their hands. The council can’t protect all the sites alone.
Outside of the meeting Ben told Nailed,
Clearly we can’t predetermine this decision, and it will be taken in light of all of the evidence. As with any council decisions, we have to look at the evidence, and then make a decision – but I can say that pending that decision next week, we have been clear and consistent from the start that allocation of sites in the greenbelt or world heritage buffer zone is unacceptable to us, and Labour are minded to go for option A. This would mean withdrawal of the current local plan and commencement of the development of a new plan.
United We Stand
The ultimate summary of this meeting is that Labour want the people of Amber Valley to know that their fighting is appreciated, that they intend to fulfil their election pledges and protect the Green Belt, that they have a plan to fight developers, but that they will still need the community to help. Until rules imposed by national government change, it’s still going to be a fight. But that fight should happen.