Posted: 29.06.20 at 17:05 by The Editor
A CALL has gone out for Thurrock Council to get its planning act together and start to help local businesses – or for intervention from the government.
Christopher Nixon is a Tilbury-based designer and planning agent who is currently working on a number of projects in Thurrock – a borough where the local authority has dithered for many years over drawing up a definitive and workable local planning framework. One of his schemes is a development for older people on Brentwood Road, Orsett.
He believes the borough is being badly let down by an inability of the council’s planning department to gets its vision agreed – and a preference for working with big outside companies, rather than local firms is causing problems.
If things don’t improve, he says: “The sooner Thurrock Planning is put in special measures the better.”
Fulfilment of a local plan would be a huge step forward – but at a planning meeting last week there was speculation that it could be at least another three years before one is put in place – that’s a timeline which is unacceptable to many local people who fear history is simply repeating itself in the borough.
The local plan would be a guideline for developers and builders and would be a roadmap for how the borough might look. Creating a new plan was an immediate directive of the council when it resumed responsibility for major planning projects following the demise of the Thurrock Thames Gateway Development Corporation (DC).
The DC was commissioned in 2005 under Tony Blair’s Labour government which believed that the unitary council in Thurrock had proved itself incapable of managing planning – particularly the large scale infrastructure projects that were need to regenerate the borough.
The DC spent seven years running planning in the borough and among its legacy is the DP World London Gateway port and the High House Production Park at Purfleet.
However, it failed in one of its primary objectives of planning the building of many new homes in the borough. It produced a number of masterplans and development schemes – but despite spending millions and millions of pounds, few housing projects came to fruition.
And when the Conservatives succeeded Labour and took power in 2010 they promised a ‘bonfire of the quangos’ and the free-spending DC was among the first of those to be closed down.
Planning control reverted back to Thurrock Council when the DC finally closed its doors for the last time in 2012.
Despite retaining some of the planning staff of the DC, the council appears to have failed to build on the long term planning vision of the DC, scrapping most of the prospective housing development schemes.
Some schemes that have gone through have featured members of the DC staff who left to work in the private sector and – using their acquired local knowledge – have driven through some schemes. Not all of them have been popular with the Thurrock public but it seems some agents know which strings to pull!
The council itself gave a forewarning of that in March 2016, four years after it regrasped the major planning mantle.
The council launched a public consultation, saying it wanted to engage with local people as it planned for the future.
A statement said: "The council is at an early stage in preparing the new local plan and is looking for people to have their say. Without an up to date local plan in place the council will be at risk of speculative applications being approved on appeal."
Four years and three months on - little progress appears to have been made. The first draft of the local plan was supposed to be published in September - that that now seems unlikely to happen.
It must be pointed out that huge uncertainly caused by Highways England's protracted plans for a new Thames Crossing that will plough its way through the heart of Thurrock has not helped in the forward planning process.
There now appears to be an increasing split between local planning officers and councillors – with a number of high profile planning applications courting big controversy.
Just recently a huge showdown between officers and councillors was played out at a planning committee when legal officers lectured councillors about what they ‘had to do’ – only for councillors to vote by a majority to reject the planners recommendation and give approval to a huge retirement development at Langdon Hills Golf Club.
And last week – in another clash – the officer recommendation to reject a new homes development on the Grays and Chadwell St Mary border was overruled by a narrow majority of councillors.
The councillors’ action was praised as ‘brave’ by Mr Nixon who took to social media to say: “Well done to all the councillors who went against the planning officers on this.
“We have long since run out of non green belt sites in the borough, to the point we have resorted to building on green spaces, parks and playing fields when there are plenty of scrappy bits of green belt land that would make much better sites.
“The planners are thousands of houses behind where they should be and have been scaring away all the local developers and builders as they consistently kick the can down the road over releasing their new local plan.
“The only applications that seem to get approved are from the big developers who ship in endless workers from outside the borough.
“It's the local developers and builders who create jobs for local people and put food on Thurrock tables."
Mr Nixon is also critical of the time it takes for the council to process applications, adding: “They managed just 22 new applications this week. It was consistently 40-50 new applications a week in previous years.
“I have local builders begging me on a near daily basis for jobs to build, but nothing to give any of them as the planners just want to refuse everything in sight.
“The sooner Thurrock planning is put in special measures the better.”
Special measures would see the government once again taking direct control of planning in the borough something that sources within the council believe is now a very real prospect as the council is way behind delivering a five year housing target of 32,000 new homes set by the current Conservative government.
At last week’s planning meeting the council's major applications manager Matthew Gallagher alluded to the problem that officers face as – without a local plan – they are torn between meeting green belt guidelines and following housing targets.
An officer now deeply familiar with the Thurrock planning process and its chequered history, Mr Gallagher, who joined the DC in 2007 and transferred to Thurrock Council on its demise, told councillors that in many instances planners were minded to give planning approval because there were issues that merited great weight but they had to follow strict guidelines and currently, because of the lack of a local plan, ‘green belt’ trumps everything’.
He said: “We haven't got a five year housing supply. With many planning applications you can ascribe positive weight to the housing shortage. But it doesn't outweigh the harm to the green belt.
“The need is recognised - and there is a government policy intention about using small sites to increase housing supply – but when it comes to it, green belt trumps it. You can only give limited weight to the emerging local plan situation and the green belt argument outweigh making effective use of land.”
One of the fierce advocates of allocating more space in green belt for housing is veteran Thurrock Labour councillor Gerard Rice. Earlier this year he told planning committee members they cannot keep turning down developments due to the green belt.
“Sooner or later we are going to have to pass these applications,” he told the committee. “The government has told us we have to build these homes, they are going to have to be built in the green belt, so places like Bulphan will be down for a couple of thousand, Fobbing will be down for a thousand plus - everybody has to make their contribution.”
And when supporting previous applications in the green belt he said: “We have a lot of industry coming into the borough. We do lack high-quality homes for the captains of industry. We have a significant under supply of housing.
“People should not have to live in London, Brentwood or Southend. We should be providing for them in the borough.”
And he warned government intervention may not be far away, saying: “If we do not start approving these applications then sooner or later ministers will put pressure on us. We are a failing local authority when it comes to housing supply.”
Another recent passionate supporter backing green belt development has been Conservative councillor Angela Lawrence.
She lays the blame for much of the problem on a lack of support from senior officers at the council, saying: “Get real. This is not the 1950s. We need to build.
“It’s a shame our own senior officers do not live in the borough. This area is an utter mess and we need to start to moving forward.”
Thurrock Council's planning enforcement policy has also come under severe criticism in recent times. Borough MP Jack Jackie Doyle-Price has been a fierce critic of many aspects of the planning performance - notably damning the team, and efficiency of its officers in drawing up a regeneration plan for Purfleet.
She spoke of her incredulity at the ‘staggering ineptitude’ of council officers.
And recently she condemned the authority again for its failure to act and allow the massive expansion into the green belt of an illegal traveller site.