Thursday, September 13, 2007

The inquiry ploughs on regardless...

Today (Wednesday) at the local plan inquiry I and my fellow Lib Dem Cllr. Chris Rycroft explained WHY (not just how) we differ from Chelmsford council's views about where to place new houses. But, in general, the day's activity largely confirmed my view that this month-long exercise at taxpayer's expense is really just a rubber-stamping exercise of the council proposals.

Key issues of today were:

Is the evidence for the council's proposals credible?

Some concerns expressed that information is being brought forwards late in the day to justify the council's policy, rather than having the evidence first and then determining policy. The Lib Dems expressed surprise that the council's preferred option was to put the houses north of Boreham until July 2003 and then suddenly that option is not on the table at all, despite the council's environmental consultants finding many positive elements, in fact more than for the council's current proposals.

A discussion ensued on whether there was any evidence supporting the alternative site of Boreham gravel pit and airfield (see PDF map). Reference was made to the strong support amongst the comments made. The council said that, because many of the comments in favour were on pre-prepared postcards, this invalidated the comments – conveniently forgetting that is almost exactly what the council itself did when consulting the public.

Is the new housing too reliant on new infrastructure being delivered?

For the Lib Dems I noted that it is deeply reliant on new infrastructure, particularly the station. Without a new station neither the council's proposals or the Lib Dem alternative would be sustainable. Any new development should be based around the concept of easy access to public transport.

Should the Green Belt be reviewed?

It only runs around the south and south west of Chelmsford. Common consent that the public are often confused between the phrases 'green field' sites and 'green belt' sites. When people call for the protection of the green belt in many cases they mean "all green sites".

The Lib Dems confirmed their support for keeping the Green Belt as it is. However, we also made the point that, if the Council does that, there are consequences, and they are housing mainly in one corner of Chelmsford. Big danger of this being urban sprawl unless strong new communities are built. Beaulieu Park is already remote from the centre of Chelmsford (it is quicker to drive north east to Witham). The Council propose 10 more Beaulieu Parks – effectively a new community not an extension of a current one.

Are the housing policies too site-specific?

The Lib Dems and many others drew the stark contrast between the Council's proposals for "North West Chelmsford", which cover a very broad area (in line with Government policy), and "North East of Springfield/Chelmsford", which covers a very narrow area and only one possible location for houses. Despite sustained questioning from various people, the Inspector clearly did not worry much about the apparent inconsistency.

The Agenda for the inquiry is here but that is it from me for now. I am not a highly-paid consultant who can sit there every day for four weeks, but will be back later in the process.

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