TBAG’S REPORT FROM THE FULL PARISH COUNCIL MEETING 25 JANUARY 2024
Theydon Bois Action Group (TBAG) Committee members attended the Full Parish Council meeting last Thursday, 25 January 2024 and the main interest in doing so was to hear the discussion around the planning decision taken at the Plans East meeting (held in EFDC’s Civic Offices’ Council Chamber) on 17 January for the development of Land at the end of Forest Drive. There was a good turnout of supporters and residents who were also keen to hear why both our District Councillor and County Councillor had not represented residents in person when this landmark planning application was decided.
Unfortunately, District Cllr John Philip, who had been invited to attend the Parish meeting, was not in attendance but instead had, that morning, sent an email to the Chairman of the Parish Council sending his apologies for absence. TBAG have had sight of Cllr Philip’s email (a précis of which was given at the meeting) in which he states that “I had approached the developer early in the process for their first application …”. This was the 2021 application for 28 dwellings that never had a hope of success because the land was then Green Belt. He goes on, “However, as I had met with the developer that alone would have been sufficient in that context to make it necessary, according to the EFDC planning protocol, to declare a prejudicial interest and to leave the meeting and not take any part in the discussion.” How is his approach to the developer of assistance to Theydon Residents if he then cannot represent us at Plans East? Cllr Philip makes it clear that “I am also a friend of Mark Anderson who owns the company putting forward the application. That too would trigger the need to declare an interest and absent myself.” The Chair of the Parish Council meeting, Cllr Gooch, explained that he had checked on that situation and that doesn’t appear to be the case. He confirmed that so long as a Councillor doesn’t actually provide a view of which way they are going to vote, then any Councillor can speak to any developer in the interests of the village. However, Cllr Philip seems to contradict himself when he then says “I make it clear that I have no specific relationship with the development company.” The application merely shows agents as applicants, but the covering letter submitted with the application shows Anderson Group Limited as having commissioned the revised application for 38 dwellings. Cllr Philip concludes by saying “Had there been another application to be heard on Wednesday last, I would of course have been there to declare my interest in this application.” TBAG Committee members who were present at the Plans East meeting noted that Forest Drive was the second application to be heard by Committee that evening. In the event, the first application was not heard because the Plans East Chairman declared it as withdrawn and deferred to a later meeting. But Councillors were only now being told this, so we must assume that Cllr Philip had privileged early information on the withdrawal of that application. Cllr Philip finishes by saying “I realise that being absent did not allow for residents to understand why I could not take part in the discussion due to the constraints of the planning protocol.” Both TBAG and Cllr Gooch maintain that Cllr Philip would have been able to highlight to the meeting this application’s deviation from adopted policy and its many other shortcomings. Instead, he chose to prioritise attendance at a local Parochial Church Council (PCC) meeting, rather than attending Plans East. TBAG have been reliably informed that Cllr Philip made no presentation or undertook any significant role at that PCC meeting, so his presence appeared not to be a priority. It was asked why Cllr Philip was not in attendance at this Parish Council meeting and County and District Cllr Holly Whitbread later informed us that Cllr Philip is undertaking a course of training on Thursday evenings to become ‘something like a vicar’ but she didn’t know the exact title.
Cllr Whitbread was in attendance at the Parish meeting and said that she had not attended the Plans East meeting due to being “ill … genuinely ill”. We were, therefore, surprised to learn later that Cllr Whitbread spoke at an assembly at Epping Primary School the following morning, Friday 18 January. Commenting on the application, she said that it did sound like there had been a considerable lack of consultation which is unacceptable and that was something that she would have raised if she had been there on the evening. TBAG had circulated an email of the major shortcomings of this application to all Plans East Councillors before the meeting so they should all have been aware that this application was far from satisfactory. Cllr Whitbread then went on to make the point that objectors could have ‘stood-up’ at Plans East and had the matter referred to District Development Management Committee (DDMC), but that they had not. Once again, our information conflicts with this in that District and Parish Cllr for Theydon Bois, Clive Amos, DID stand up, but was told by his colleague Cllr Paul Keska (sitting next to him and also Chairman of DDMC) that he was out of order and could not stand up. The Chair of DDMC seemed to be under the misapprehension that one could only stand up if the decision was to refuse permission and this is wrong. Further, neither the Plans East Chairman, the Democratic Services Officer nor the Planning Officer presenting acknowledged Cllr Amos’ attempt to stand up.
Cllr Whitbread was keen to confirm that she had no personal relationship or friendship connections with the developers and had not “taken any dinners” and she wanted to put that on record in terms of her personal integrity. Cllr Whitbread then went on to make some wider points in defence of the, rushed through, Local Plan and to explain the amount of work that had gone into it, but she didn’t comment on the use of out of date 2014 Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures used to determine the housing numbers in the Local Plan which could have been halved had the more recent 2018 ONS figures been used.
TBAG pointed out that EFDC had also been given a second, golden, opportunity in December 2022 to reduce the housing numbers from 11,400, when Michael Gove MP (Secretary of State for Levelling up, Housing and Communities), with a Government rethink, issued an instruction that Local Authorities who were nearing the end of their work on their new local plans (eg EFDC), would be allowed two more years to reconsider their housing numbers in the light of any local “constraints”. For our District, the acknowledged constraints are that we are 94% Green Belt land and also the detrimental impact that excessive development would have on Epping Forest, Special Area of Conservation (SAC). Unfortunately, EFDC chose to completely ignore this opportunity and the majority party District Councillors unanimously voted through and adopted the new Local Plan on 6 March 2023.
With respect to Epping Forest and the SAC, Theydon Bois Parish Cllr Morris who is also an Epping Forest Verderer pointed out that EFDC are the legal body responsible for compliance with policy and suggested an official review of their actions on this. Cllr Gooch said he would approach EFDC and make enquiries about this point.
Finally, TBAG would appeal to all parties involved in this application to remember that, while it has now been granted, it DOES NOT MEAN IT HAS TO BE BUILT OUT. The developer https://www.landiplomacy.co.uk/ is at liberty to start again with a fresh, more appropriate scheme tailored for the village, only this time with full public consultation and community engagement, ultimately to design a scheme that would integrate well and be welcomed by the village instead of the carbuncle currently proposed. We shall have to wait and see if they are true to the very first statement given on their website: “We believe there is a better way”.
Stop Press: Shortly before publication of this report to Supporters, TBAG attended this week’s Parish Planning meeting where it was decided that, amongst other things, our Parish Council would reconsult with Solve Planning, their professional consultants in this matter, to see if there are any avenues open to them following the decision at Plans East. Some residents have indicated to TBAG that they would be willing to contribute if there were anything that could be done. Furthermore, the Parish Council is to consider registering an official complaint to EFDC and, if necessary, follow this up with the Local Government Ombudsman. This is welcome news for the village and we shall continue to report to supporters on developments.