a Knebworth resident’s view of 11 April Council meeting

Dear all,

Last night, democracy died in North Herts and, despite protestations from the incumbent Conservative councillors about no predetermination and no whip, the process was a thinly-veiled, self-serving atrocity.

Cllr David Levett’s presentation of the results of the consultation was choreographed to mislead and manipulate. His main lines of argument were as follows :

1. That the representations received were not actually representative of the sentiment in the District, at only “1.9% of population and 4.4% of households”. This despite >96% of the 5,675 representations counted being objections. More worryingly, data had been aggregated, sameness ‘de-duplicated’ and individuals grouped into “responders” in an attempt to marginalise. A public concern regarding a number representations having been omitted was given short shrift. The weight of negative public opinion on the representations was glossed-over by Cllr Levett and he had to be reminded of the significant and damning objections raised against the Local Plan by Herts Country Council.

2. That there had been no substantial changes since the decision was made in July 2016 to put the draft Local Plan forward for consultation, which serve to now make the Plan “non-compliant”. This was probably the most blatant disregard for the overwhelming negativity identified by the consultation.

3. That the Local Plan is good for the Green Belt, increasing it from 14,247 hectares (38% of land) in North Herts now, to 15,597 hectares (47%) after adoption of the Local Plan. Cllr Levett’s assertion was that Green Belt’s purpose is solely to prevent coalescence and urban sprawl, and therefore that Green Belt is a moveable object, able to be adapted on a whim. This was a gross abuse of his position and a travesty for the environment within the District. No consideration was given to Green Belt being necessary to protect habitats, protect against flooding, or preserve areas of outstanding natural beauty. And the disproportionately high percentage of identified development sites being on Green Belt (>80%) was completely obscured, by an emphasis that building on Green Belt was a necessity or fait accompli. This was met with consternation by the viewing public, and our concerns that sites on Green Belt have been ‘identified’ purely for the benefit of the landowners volunteering them – and the developers looking to cash-in on them – were by no means allayed.

4. That a failure to adopt and implement a Local Plan would lead to a relentless “wild west” of “hostile developments” which the NHDC would be “powerless” to prevent. This was scaremongering in its most base form, ignoring the planning powers that councils already have and making somewhat false promises that subsequent developments proposed on ‘windfall’ sites not among those identified in the Local Plan would somehow be automatically ineligible. This is just not true. Identifying sites in the Plan will not preclude windfalls, as we have seen all too well in Knebworth recently, under an “emerging” Local Plan.

5. That a new Garden City or Garden Village is unachievable in the given timeframe. Cllr Levett postulated that such a development would require over 10,000 homes from the outset, just to be viable, and would take 20 years to get off the ground. This is a distortion and ignores the achievements of other planned settlements, such as Milton Keynes, which – under the auspices of a Development Corporation – took just 5 years to become a tangible reality.

6. That the Local Plan should be voted in favour put forward for Examination by the nominated Inspector, because the Inspector will highlight its deficiencies and somehow assist with sculpting the Plan to perfection. This was perhaps the biggest lie of the evening and is predicated on pure fiction – as was pointed out by Cllr Steve Jarvis who drew the assembly’s attention to the actual legislation, which states that the Inspector’s underlying objective is to get the Local Plan into place quickly, and on the assumption that it has met the approval of the District Council by virtue of the fact it was voted for. Worryingly, in the subsequent speeches given in by Councillors in the debate, a common theme of trusting this assertion was apparent. Many Councillors had swallowed this line – that the Inspector will help to perfect the plan – and by collective acquiescence had demonstrated a clear dereliction of their moral and civic duty : to represent the best interests of their constituents by ensuring the Local Plan was fit for purpose before voting for it.

As you can tell, I was bitterly disappointed. Not solely by the outcome of the vote (which for a moment was even under threat of not being a formal recorded vote!), but by the total collapse of a process that was meant to be positive, transparent, balanced, progressive and democratic and which has proven to meet none of these objectives. The Local Plan has been highjacked and misrepresented, and despite having been widely condemned, has now received District Council backing purely as a result of capitulation to the attritioning effects of fear and manipulation, made possible by a complacent and largely-unopposed majority party contingent.

Our only hope now is that enough citizens of North Herts are galvanised into action and come together in strong legal opposition to this flawed Plan.

I weep for democracy, and for the future of our District.

Yours,
Gareth

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