Today was a day of muted celebration as an undemocratic and half-baked attempt to rush through Outline Planning Permission was defeated 13-0 in the Council Chamber.
The overwhelming result came after a number of surprises. First, Councillor Phil Bullivant admitted that he had a family member standing to benefit financially from the development. This is the same Phil Bullivant who, up til now, has been robustly defending NA3 on ‘practical’ and ‘community’ lines, particularly in the Mid Devon Advertiser. He has also been writing terse emails back to constituents along the lines that the application was nothing to be alarmed about, and aren’t they a bit stupid for thinking it is? So Phil, having finally admitted his family will be quids in when the concrete pours, left the chamber. Can't remember seeing 'declaring your pecuniary interest at the last possible moment' among the seven Nolan Principles.
At least Phil turned up, even if we’re not sure why. Because the big news today, and the reason for the unlikely final score, was that the Conservatives who have backed this plan from the beginning, were, to quote Councillor John Nutley, ‘conspicuous by their absence’. So convinced are they of the moral imperative of their case for building on the Wolborough Hills that they didn’t even show their faces today.
Also conspicuous by his absence was ‘Business Manager Strategic Place’ Simon Thornley, who presumably had some biscuits to eat. Having lobbed this incendiary of absolute nonsense at the people of Newton Abbot, he’d chosen to bunker down and send the hapless Rosalyn Eastman along to defend the indefensible for him. Rosalyn gave us a moment of derision by saying she didn’t think the environmental concerns needed to be considered at this stage, and that they could be ‘worked out’ the way you might put in a new downstairs bathroom and later work out what curtains to put up. Her planning associate, who understands ‘sites’ and ‘spaces’ and how to ruin them, said that if it was refused then they might appeal, which would cost the District ‘a six figure sum’. If you’ve ever heard an abusive husband saying to his wife ‘Why do you make me hurt you?’ then you have some idea of where this sort of logic derives. The first rule of wielding power irresponsibly is: Don’t even take responsibility for that.
Even Cllr Chris Clarance, the plan’s only real defender, realising he was as popular as a pig at a barmitzvah during a swine flu outbreak, tried to mitigate his position by saying he was well aware that the housing figures were wrong, and set way too high. ‘So why not refuse to obey them?’ the gallery asked. No answer, but thank you Chris. We now have that on record. The ONLY argument in favour, heard over and over again, was ‘But it’s in the plan’, an argument that’s sounding weaker and shriller and now has all the rational force of ‘God told me to do it’.
It’s a bum steer anyway. As Paul Evemy reminds us, the Department of the Environment “Best Practice Protocol for the Operation of Planning Committees” states “The planning committee’s role in relation to the local development plan is to approve the local development plan before it is passed by resolution of the council.
“The planning committee should also ensure that the local development plan is monitored annually, particularly in terms of the availability of housing and economic development land, and that it is reviewed every five years, giving consideration to whether there is a need to change the plan strategy or the zonings, designations and policies as contained in the local policies plan.”
So ‘It’s in the plan’ WILL NOT DO. For the Wehrmacht, invading England was in the Plan. For David Cameron, a ringing public endorsement of EU membership was the Plan. Sometimes you have to change the Plan. There are countless examples, across the UK, of sites being taken out of the Local Plan. This pretence that The Plan is sacrosanct – forged as it was with incorrect ONS figures and with economic growth expectations that have withered and died - is ridiculous.
There were strong arguments from Sam Watson, a professional ecologist, and resident / NSN member Paul Sampson who set the mood of the day by calling it 'a basket case of a plan'. Councillor Mike Pilkington, ill and off duty for so long, made sure he was there to see this idiocy put to bed. There were great speeches from Cllrs Nutley, Parker and the Hooks. In fact all 13 councillors had something useful to add on this. Kevin Shantry, who put a lot of years into fighting NA3 before resigning from the Teignbridge Tories in disgust, was here too – all the way from Wiltshire. But where was the Tory executive? What are they playing at? (Here’s what one of us thinks they’re playing at. It’s not good...)
Let’s not forget: This was not part of the usual slow grind of planning procedure and local politics. This was a cynical and expensive attempt to circumvent democracy by putting through an identical plan to an EARLIER plan that has already been turned down subject to appeal. Rather than wait for the chamber to reach a conclusion under public scrutiny, this was banged through with a week’s notice in the hope that nobody would spot it and opponents would not be able to organise.
In fact, ALL this absolute farce achieved was to bring together a huge number of objectors of all ages, all backgrounds and all specialisms, who then mingled and forged new methods of combatting this madness. We spoke to the press and BBC Devon, and all in all it was an absolute gift for NSN and its supporters.
So thank you, Simon Thornley. We would still rather you hadn’t wasted public money on something even your own friends in council couldn’t get behind, but thanks.