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Letter: Councillors Do Not Have the Luxury of Power Without Responsibility

Published on: 3 Nov, 2022
Updated on: 3 Nov, 2022

From: George Potter

Lib Dem borough councillor for Burpham

In response comments on his opinion piece Sitting Tight On the Local Plan Is Still the Safest Option – For Now

It’s deeply disappointing, but unsurprising, to see the highly predictable response from Messrs Paton, Cranwell, Roberts and Laub. An old adage about empty vessels spring to mind.

The most laughable assertion made is that the Lib Dem position on the Local Plan is somehow unclear. That is absolutely ridiculous given that, unlike some other parties, we have never shilly-shallied or changed positions on it. But, a close second for sheer ridiculousness, is the claim that I have not evidenced my positions. In fact, unlike Messrs Paton, Cranwell, Roberts and Laub, I have always provided full evidence for the statements I make, and for the conclusions I draw.

I will also add, as I have said before, many times, just because I’m pointing out the reality of the situation does not mean that I like it. It just means I’m more honest than the type of politician who panders to people by telling them exactly what they want to hear, knowing it’s impossible to deliver it (see the Conservative manifesto on the “benefits” of Brexit and the promise not to erect a border in the Irish Sea or on the island of Ireland).

But let’s start with the Liberal Democrat position on the Local Plan. We have always had the exact same position. We want to do the best possible for residents of the borough, guided by the evidence.

We would not have written the same Local Plan that the Tories came up with, indeed we tried, unsuccessfully, to remove 2,000 additional houses that the Tories had added to the Local Plan above and beyond the minimum required, just as we also tried to get the adoption of the Local Plan deferred until after the local elections, see: Guildford Local Plan is Not Ready for Adoption.

However, once a vote on adopting the Local Plan was forced it then became impossible to amend the Local Plan any further. Either it needed to be approved or rejected, and rejection would have meant no Local Plan at all, with the result that developers would have been able to win planning permission on appeal. That’s not conjecture on my part, that’s a proven fact as evidenced by this being the precise mechanism used by Solum to get planning permission at the railway station and by Berkley Homes to get planning permission in Effingham.

Is it any wonder that Caroline Reeves, as councillor for the ward in which the Solum development was taking place and where more development was threatened, voted in favour? And it is any wonder that Liz Hogger, as councillor for the ward where the Berkley Homes development was taking place, chose to abstain? My party does not “whip” our councillors to follow a party line, and the entire group voted on the Local Plan according to their individual consciences.

Mr Paton loves to trot out the same old line, repeatedly, that the Lib Dems supported the Local Plan. But repetition does not turn a falsehood into a fact.

In our election manifesto (published in The Dragon in 2019) we quite clearly stated that our position was:

“A “brownfield sites first” approach to the Local Plan, requiring infrastructure improvements for new developments to be put in place before new houses are occupied, and creating a town centre masterplan to open up the riverfront.”

This is precisely what we have done on the council, especially through the development of the Shaping Guildford’s Future project, through our supplementary planning policies to regulate development, and it is what we are continuing to do through the upcoming green belt policy.

Furthermore, last year we quite clearly stated our party position on a review of the Local Plan, and it can be found here.

So at this point, the Lib Dem position is not just clear, it has been restated ad nauseam.

Messrs Paton, Cranwell, Roberts and Laub also claim that my assertions aren’t evidenced. Well, in my letter I have quite clearly linked to the government’s officially published methodology for calculating housing need, in which they quite clearly mandate the use of the 2014 figures. I’d have thought that was quite sufficient for evidence and facts, but apparently Mr Paton disagrees with me.

Therefore, further evidence can be found in the form of the legal advice provided by Mary Cook of Town Legal LLP, the second piece of independent legal advice commissioned by the council since the election (with the legal professionals handpicked, on both occasions, by R4GV), which the council very helpfully published here.

The council also published a report giving the full context and background to the legal advice:

In addition to this, Mary Cook held a confidential question and answer session with all councillors a month before the council meeting where the decision was made not to do an immediate review of the Local Plan. The whole point of the Q&A session was to allow councillors to query and interrogate the legal advice to ensure it was sound; and that’s precisely what councillors from all parties did.

Personally, I’d have thought that people as interested in the Local Plan as the above gentlemen would have actually bothered to read the relevant independent legal advice.

In the council debate: “One R4GV councillor said “Delaying a review of the plan will be unpopular, but doing it earlier would be reckless, risking a requirement to build more homes, not fewer, and putting more pressure on green belt, not less”, and R4GV leader Joss Bigmore voted against an early review of the Local Plan and argued against one, saying that to do so would be “ill-judged”.

So if Mr Paton maintains that an “anonymous” R4GV councillor claims that the Lib Dems are preventing a review of the Local Plan then I can only refer him to what the most senior R4GV councillor has said on the record about it.

Mr Cranwell claims there were “no grounds” for the removal of land from the green belt in the first place. He is entitled to his opinion, but the Planning Inspectorate quite clearly disagreed or it wouldn’t have allowed the removal of land from the green belt.

Mr Laub asks for an explanation of the exceptional circumstances used to justify the removal of land from the greenbelt, but given that Mr Laub is an architect and sits with me on the Burpham Neighbourhood Forum (which oversees our Neighbourhood Plan) there really is absolutely no excuse for his failure to look up the planning inspector’s judgement on the Local Plan from 2019 where the exceptional circumstances were discussed at length.

But, for the benefit of those unfamiliar with the planning system, the “exceptional circumstances” were that the government had imposed housing targets which could not otherwise be met without the release of green belt land. The planning system judges housing “need” to be more important than green belt protection. It’s as simple as that, and Mr Laub, given his profession, has no excuse for ignorance of that fact.

The issue of exceptional circumstances, and returning land to green belt, were also considered in the independent legal advice received by the council.

I do have to ask why Messrs Paton, Cranwell, Roberts and Laub are so supremely confident that they are correct in their opinions when literally dozens of highly trained and highly experienced experts, both in and outside the council, not to mention literally decades of planning inspectorate precedent, say the opposite.

But, I suppose it’s unsurprising that there will always be some people who demand that reality complies with their personal preferences, and become enraged at anyone who has the audacity to explain to them that the real world doesn’t work like that.

I am a councillor. My job is to represent my ward, and to do what I judge to be in the best interests of the people of my ward and of the borough as a whole. The same is true of all of my colleagues.

We listen to advice from experts, we ask questions, we listen to the concerns of our residents, and we also listen to the advice and expertise of residents outside the council who often have a wealth of experience themselves and sometimes have more expertise than the paid professionals.

We listen to all of these, we weigh up the evidence, and then we make a judgement call on what we think is the best (or least worst) option. And then, if residents think we’re getting it wrong, they vote us out, or they re-elect us if they think we’re getting it right. That’s how democracy works.

And our judgement, thus far, is that it not in the interests of the borough to rush into a premature Local Plan review and risk getting saddled with higher housing targets. The moment the official housing methodology changes in our favour, or the moment sufficient precedent emerges that the planning inspectorate will no longer uphold the official methodology, then we will support an immediate review, but not before that.

This is also the official position of every other party on the council except GGG, who’s raison d’etre is to oppose the Local Plan at all costs, and to hell with any consequences. That should tell you something.

So where does all this leave us?

Well, Mr Allen quite correctly points out that there are significant infrastructure problems which stand as impediments to the possibility of delivering the housing targets we have. The planning system does not recognise this reality, and the regulators are asleep at the wheel, but sooner or later reality always becomes unavoidable.

The ideal solution to this is a change in the government methodology for housing targets (if only our MP showed any interest in advocating for this), which would allow us to update the Local Plan to be something much more sustainable and deliverable.

But until then the most effective thing is intensive scrutiny of all planning applications and strong challenge to any optimistic infrastructure assessments made by developers. Lack of supporting infrastructure, regardless of the Local Plan site allocations, is a legitimate reason to refuse planning permission.

That scrutiny and challenge is precisely what is happening on a case-by-case basis with planning applications (and which is especially aided by public comment on planning applications), but obviously that’s a lot less exciting and dramatic than demanding an early review of the Local Plan.

I am sure that Messrs Paton, Cranwell, Roberts and Laub are going to continue to shout and scream and throw tantrums at anyone who points out the reality of planning law to them, but I’m afraid that that is the privilege which comes from not having to actually make decisions or take responsibility for them.

Because I can guarantee this: if we held an early review of the Local Plan and got saddled with higher housing figures, the above gentlemen would be the first to scream and shout and blame councillors for allowing it to happen. They want to have their demands enacted, without taking any responsibility or interest in the consequences of those demands.

So what they want, in short, is power without responsibility.

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Responses to Letter: Councillors Do Not Have the Luxury of Power Without Responsibility

  1. David Roberts Reply

    November 3, 2022 at 5:36 pm

    As I seem to have touched a raw nerve, I’m happy to reassure Cllr Potter that I seek neither power nor responsibility!

    I am struck, however, by his assertion that Lib Dem policy on the Local Plan has not changed since 28 May 2021 despite abundant new evidence of the plan’s defects. This seems a pitiful manifesto for next May’s local elections. But his party leader just won’t engage on the issue.

    From a position of greater political experience, may I also ask Cllr Potter to tone down his personal attacks? It is the job of public servants to understand and respect others’ views, not to insult private individuals in the press.

    Unfortunately, as Brecht observed, there is a certain kind of politician that thinks it might be “be simpler for the government to dissolve the people and elect another”.

  2. Ben Paton Reply

    November 3, 2022 at 7:09 pm

    Why not just set out transparently the computation of the Housing Need according to the Government Formula setting out the assumptions used? It would save a lot of verbiage.

    Probably because it reveals that Cllr Potter’s position is predetermined and prejudiced.

    The people who fail to recognise the infrastructure constraints are the Lib Dems. Logically, if you accept that there are infrastructure constraints, you should seek to revise the Local Plan.

    Instead, they continue headlong to pursue the Mansbridge/Juneja “trajectory” that they backed all along.

    It all reminds me of another, albeit former, Lib Dem – Mrs Truss.

  3. Jules Cranwell Reply

    November 4, 2022 at 6:37 am

    Methinks he doth protest too much. I wonder if Potter’s boss, Cllr Julia McShane, is happy with his tendency to sling such insults at concerned residents. Is it proper for an elected representative to call such residents “empty vessels”?

    He does though have form as a bit of a potty mouth, having said to me on social media “Julian you don’t half talk a load of bollocks don’t you”. Most erudite from an elected representative, I’m sure.

    But then we have heard nothing from Cllr McShane on the subject of the most challenging issue facing the borough, the Local Plan. Why is she so silent on this most critical issue? Since Cllr Potter seems to have taken on the role of Lib Dem spokesman on this, perhaps he could elicit an opinion from her, and on the impact the legal precedent from North Herts will have?

    As to the value of the legal advice, from my long experience in the legal industry, I have found that lawyers tend to offer the advice the client wants. The legal advice given to North Herts is clearly at odds with that accepted by GBC.

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