What the rise of local political parties opposing housing plans means for applicants and authorities

Despite overt opposition to emerging and adopted local plans, residents groups that have emerged as key players in three councils in the wider south east may find it difficult to dramatically revise local development strategies, Planning has discovered.

Residents for Uttlesford: the group seized control of the district council and is considering revising the local plan (pic: Residents for Uttlesford)
Residents for Uttlesford: the group seized control of the district council and is considering revising the local plan (pic: Residents for Uttlesford)

One of the striking features of this month’s local elections was the success of several residents’ groups in making sometimes spectacular gains. Below, Planning examines three councils where such groups have made the biggest advances and examines what their impact on planning and development is likely to be.

UTTLESFORD DISTRICT COUNCIL

Independent residents’ association Residents for Uttlesford (R4U) seized control of the council from the Tories, having taken 17 seats from the incumbents pushing its total up to 26. At the heart of the group’s campaign was its opposition to the local plan, which contains proposals for three new garden villages, including the 5,000-home North Uttlesford Garden Village.

Despite R4U’s tough stance on the plan, which was submitted for examination in January, commentators believe the realities of power and national planning policy is likely to mean any changes are less dramatic. "It’s often the case that when you settle down into a position of leadership, after a couple of months reality starts to set in," said Martin Curtis, associate director at public affairs consultancy Curtin & Co. "It may be that it’s not as chaotic as it first appears." Another consultant who knows the area well added: "In practice, it’s unlikely to manifest itself in a significant change in direction of the local plan given that it is quite far advanced."

John Lodge, the new leader of Uttlesford District Council, said R4U has yet to decide how to proceed with the local plan. "On the one hand, we could start again and do the job properly," he said. "The problem with that is that the area would be exposed to predatory applications from developers." On the other hand, he added: "We could say that we don’t like the plan and it’s not perfect, but we’re going to have to get it through the inspector at some stage. Hopefully, we could get it right by working with the inspector."

GUILDFORD BOROUGH COUNCIL

The Lib Dems represent the largest group on Guildford council, but independent group Residents for Guildford and Villages (R4GV), which campaigned on a brownfield-first policy and a promise to review the local plan, won 15 seats and is the second-biggest group. In addition, the Guildford Greenbelt Group (GGG), which opposes green belt and greenfield development in the borough, won one seat increasing its representation to four councillors. The Lib Dems are leading the new administration but have formed an agreement with R4GV, who hold two positions in the newlyformed 11-strong executive, while GGG holds one.

Guildford’s local plan, which controversially includes three green belt site allocations for 5,200 homes, was adopted in the week preceding the elections. This makes any changes to the plan by the new administration difficult. But R4GV, which wants the plan to include less green belt release and better infrastructure provision, said it is considering legal options around the issue. Joss Bigmore, leader of the R4GV group on the council and the finance and customer service portfolio holder, said: "It’s law, so it’s pretty tricky. We’ve pushed for fresh legal advice to see what we can do within the constraints of the law, whether that’s kicking off an immediate review or going to the secretary of state to see if he can exercise any of his powers."

Catriona Riddell, strategic planning specialist at local authority group the Planning Officers Society, said: "Legally, it is going to be very difficult for them to unpick the local plan because it has been adopted. That doesn’t mean there won’t be a legal challenge from the residents’ group in the High Court, but at this stage a challenge has to have very specific reasons."

TANDRIDGE DISTRICT COUNCIL

Tandridge’s local plan, currently undergoing examination, is bitterly opposed by the Oxted and Limpsfield Residents Group (OLRG), which saw three of its candidates elected and, in an alliance with affiliated independent councillors, now holds 13 seats, making it the second-largest group on the council after the Tories. It is unclear how the new administration will be formed, but the OLRG has said it will not work with the Tories. OLRG is opposed to a proposed 4,000 garden village on green belt in South Godstone, which forms a key part of the local plan, and has submitted representations against the document to the examination inspector. However, OLRG councillor Catherine Sayer said the new settlement is just the tip of the iceberg – something the group will make plain to the inspector. "It’s more about the whole plan," she said. "We do think South Godstone is wrong and we expect the inspector to say it is undeliverable, but there is also an infrastructure deficit across the district. There hasn’t been a holistic approach, so you haven’t got the strategic infrastructure put in up front."

However, Riddell does not expect OLRG’s representations to make much difference. "I think that Tandridge has gone through so many different deliberations in terms of what the plan should and shouldn’t do that they probably have got to a position where whoever throws it up in the air again will probably end up with a similar answer," she said.


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