Reigate executive backs controversial strategy

Leading members of a Surrey council have decided to back its core strategy planning document which sparked an intervention from planning minister Nick Boles over the possible use of green belt land to meet housing need.

Planning minister Nick Boles
Planning minister Nick Boles

Reigate and Banstead Borough Council's executive had been due to vote on adopting its core strategy at a meeting in March, with the final decision by the full council in April.

But both votes were postponed in the wake of an exchange of letters between the planning minister Nick Boles and the Planning Inspectorate (PINS).

In January, inspector Martin Pike published his examination report which proposed a modification to the plan, suggesting that the authority should "recognise that some loss of green belt to housing development will be necessary" to meet the borough's housing needs.

In a letter to PINS in March, Boles said he was "disturbed" by the inspector's language.

It "must always be transparently clear" in inspectors' reports, Boles said, that if authorities review green belt boundaries, it was their choice to do so, not the inspector's.

Reigate's Conservative MP Crispin Blunt, who has opposed the release of green belt for housing, said the first letter indicated a change in the government's stance and urged Tory councillors to reject the core strategy.

However, in a second letter, Boles said the first letter "did not signal a change of policy or approach" by the government.

And on Thursday evening, the Tory-controlled council’s executive agreed to recommend the strategy for adoption at full council, a spokeswoman confirmed.

An officers' report for the meeting, which recommended adoption, concluded that, following legal advice on the exchange of letters, there had been no change in government policy and the inspector had not "erred in his conclusions on the soundness of the [document]".

The report said: "Events since the publication of the inspector’s report do not affect the robustness of his conclusions or undermine the soundness of the council’s core strategy.

"The modifications he recommends have – in the main – been proposed by the council, and have been debated at examination hearing sessions held in 2013.

"Substantive modifications have previously been considered and agreed by the executive, and have been subject to public consultation."

The report said that if the council wanted to promote a different strategy or a lower housing number, the only option available would be to withdraw the plan and start again.

Officers added that, following the exchange of letters, a meeting was held between planning committee chair Mark Brunt, Blunt, Boles, and chief planner Steve Quartermain where it was made clear that the minister did not intend to 'call in' the strategy.

Boles' first letter said that the secretary of state would intervene in local plans if they were adopted where an inspector has recommended a green belt review not supported by the local authority.

Reigate Council's plan proposes building at least 6,900 new homes up to 2027, or 460 homes a year, with up to 1,400 on two green belt urban extensions as a 'back-up' option.

The document will now go to full council for a final decision on 3 July.

The council agenda can be found here.

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