After hours of debate - and some friction - green light is given to controversial Wood View new homes proposal

By Neil Speight

19th Nov 2020 | Local News

AFTER three and a half hours of intense debate – which at times bordered on the fractious – planning permission has been granted for a controversial housing development of 57 houses and 18 apartments on land adjacent Wood View and Chadwell Road in Grays.

The long-running application had already been debated at several meetings of the council's planning committee, where a majority of councillors rejected officers' recommendation to refuse the application.

That culminated in the council's legal and monitoring officer directing the authority to call an extraordinary meeting of the planning committee to thrash the issue out tonight (Thursday, 19 November)..

His recommendation and belief was the decision was unlawful and put the authority at risk of a judicial review. That could still happen, but at the end of a sometimes tortuous debate he conceded that in approving the scheme, councillors appeared to have 'covered all the bases.'

Initially it seemed likely that Mr Hunt's concerns and objections might be debated in secret, but councillors at tonight's virtual meeting elected to listen to his reasoning in public – and at the end of his reasoning agreed to rescind their original decision to approve.

Mr Hunt told the meeting: "I have material concerns and the committee has the opportunity to resolve these issues. Members, where I have grounds the council likely to act contrary to the law I have a duty to report and that is the case tonight, based on the detail of the decision.

"Members are well aware of the reason to give reasons for their decisions.

"The resolution gave a number of reasons for approval, but this does not significantly grasp with the guidance set out that says there must be special circumstances. This omission creates uncertainty in the scope for legal challenge.

"There was some consideration of this in the debate but the resolution as proposed indicates the matter was not adequately addressed. It must be noted the committee did not provide much detail for the weighting given.

"It is not open to members to ascribe weight without rational explanation. Members must have the justification and reasoning."

A planning law expert and QC, Michael Bedford, had been brought in to the meeting by the council to offer his counsel – and he addressed members, saying: "You are all experienced members of the planning committee and you will understand there is a distinction between what your position is before a planning permission has gone out the door and after the planning permission has gone out of the door.

"Where you make a decision, until a decision has been issued to the applicant the application is still on your table. If it appears something has gone wrong in the process it's open to you to fix it and there could be good reasons why it's a good idea to fix it so it avoids issues down the line.

"All that you are being asked to deal with is to make a decision that if there is a problem with the decision made in July, ought you try to fix it rather than leaving it until thereafter?

"There are problems with the decision. What is being said is there is a problem with the adequacy of the reasons for the decision. One way to deal with that is rescind the decision and make it afresh.

"All you are being asked to consider is 'are there problems with the decision?' It is the monitoring officer's and my view that there is."

After listening to the argument, the seven councillors unanimously agreed to debate the whole application again.

Before senior planning officer Matthew Gallagher addressed the meeting with his presentation, which again recommended refusal, committee chairman Cllr Tom Kelly Keeley said it was not the case that Mr Hunt was attempting to over-rule councillors' decision and he praised his openness and honesty when dealing with other applications over which he had had concerns.

The committee was read a statement by ward councillors saying they were against the development, concluding: "This application would bring chaos and devastation to the Wood View estate."

Cllr Angela Lawrence quizzed Mr Gallagher about a contribution towards education in the area, saying is it true the application will put in £600,000.

Mr Gallagher confirmed the applicant would be required to offer 35 per cent affordable housing, it would provide a financial contribution towards health care and the financial contribution to education "is six figures - yes!"

"Our colleagues have looked at the impact that 75 new dwellings would have on school places, it would be mitigation for the impact of the development," he said.

Cllr Lawrence responded: "That sort of money would help with a lot of residents' concerns. It would alleviate a lot of problems and help this borough quite a bit.

"The applicant is willing to put his money in and help the area."

Cllr Kelly opened up debate on the issue, saying: "Being from the area myself and knowing this parcel of land I can't vote for this as it is green belt development. That said, I may not be against this at a future date, I would like to see it go through the local plan and deal with it at that stage."

Cllr Gerard Rice, the leading supporter of the application, then addressed the meeting and said: "In my eyes this is a piece of scrubland, it's of no use to anyone except some people who need homes.

"Here we are with an authority with a ten year waiting list. It's all right for us on this screen - we all have homes, but we will be assisting 26 families get an affordable home if we approve.

"Thurrock is a failing authority and we do not the housing we are supposed to. We don't have a viable, local plan. We have no call to sites and now when you look at the whole area you are within a couple of miles of a growth hub called the Port of Tilbury with many large employers and people who need homes.

"Right question, but the wrong answer"

"We need to start to correct that. This area already has good bus services, a good road network with cycling paths and there are lots of surrounding parks nearby. There are amenities in the surround areas

"We look at green belt but this site is not a protected site, it's not a site of special scientific interest, it's not a heritage asset, there is no flood risk and we are not anywhere near a historic house.

"This is a small area of land that can have a big impact in terms of social and economic gain."

Cllr Gary Byrne said: "I am going to vote totally against it but if we don't push this through we have wasted two years, I hope people vote the same way. After what this committee have gone through, I cannot see why we are here. This has to go through or we will have to go back on so many other things."

Cllr Mike Fletcher said: "Cllr Rice's reasoning is very sound but not for this development. His points are made about the need within Thurrock for affordable housing. It's the right question, but the wrong answer.

"If we have a shortage of housing let's go and build in the north of the borough and stop p***ing about!"

Steve Taylor who represents the Council for the protection of Rural England said: "This is not scrubland, it is open space and is protected by being green belt.

"The education money is irrelevant as far as I can see. If you have the houses you need it, if there are no houses you don't.

"There are two massive developments going on in Purfleet and at Lakeside. Going for a bit of green belt when you have such huge sites just does not make sense."

Cllr Angela Lawrence reflected on why the debate was taking place, saying: "The main reason we are hear tonight is because we can't agree our decision is lawful. But we are councillors,you can't expect our decisions to be legal all the time, we are not legal people.

"We are here to tonight to make our reasons sound more legal. I don't think they need to be but officers say we do. It's a matter of principle. Every time we disagree with what officers say we are going to be brought back.

"Is this going to be the way it is going to be from now on, that they bring us back? "

Talking to those councilors who disagreed with the decision to approve Cllr Lawrence said: "The next time a planning application comes in your area and your ward you don't agree with, what are you going to do? You think about why we are here. We've been dragged back in again and told off like children!

"This should go ahead because the special circumstance are here because later on, Seevic and Palmers are going to start building, so this an ideal piece of land, they will need teachers.

"And in a couple of years' time it will be allowed to be built on anyway. Why should we turn down this great offer now, when it will be allowed later on?

"It's not up to you to be judge and jury."

"I hope Mr Ian Hunt hears this: Officers and us councillors need work together and try and find a way forward, all sit down so we can send this off and get this moving after all.

"I am getting to the point now where I am feeling really bad about building things. I am trying to do the right thing but officers are making me feel like a bad person."

Cllr Rice chipped in again with a blast at Mr Hunt, saying: "You and your department have sat on this. We made a decision to send this up to the secretary of state and let him decide. It's not up to you to be judge and jury.

"I have gone along with it (rescinding the previous vote) because I have been told to., We are here to decide and you are here to advise. We are failing our duties and we need to correct this. There are families out there that need homes. We have an applicant here ready to give us 26 affordable homes."

However, Cllr Mike Fletcher disagreed that it was a simple matter of putting up a question for the secretary of state to answer, saying: "The secretary is not there to clear up our mess, I would rather clean up the car crash before we hit it."

However, Cllr Rice ploughed on and expounded a number of reasons why the scheme should go ahead.

They included:

  • Thurrock does not have a five years supply of homes or 20 per cent buffer and is failing year on year in in delivering government housing targets.
  • There no up to date local plan with a call to sites so we are faced with applications that we have to consider on each application on its merits.
  • The area is a growth area and we need housing.
  • This applicant is prepared to give us affordable homes.
  • There are employment opportunities in these uncertain times and we need to build homes
  • We have a homeless situation and a housing waiting list. We have a housing shortage with people living on sofas.
  • This is not a heritage, site or a site of special scientific interest, it's not a park and there is no flood risk. This is a small area of land that can have a big impact in terms of social and economic gain.
  • It does not live up to its name as green belt
  • There is precedent in a recent planning decision in Benfleet where a similar application was won on appeal decision in favour of the applicant.
  • This area has good bus services, roads, cycle-ways and amenities including public parks.

Cllr Rice was to go on to repeat, almost ad nauseam, those arguments in favour of the development and repeatedly quoted a planning expert's advice that approval was just and lawful.

He was repeatedly questioned by Mr Bedford about how he might structure a recommendation that would win approval externally but kept repeating the same points, prompting a somewhat exasperated Cllr Kelly to intervene and say: "I don't think you are bringing anything new to the party. Come on, homelessness! This not the wild west, you can't just bring in things like homelessness. Homeless people can't afford to live here."

"Stop blowing your trumpet"

More advice from Mr Bedford was sought by Assistant Director - Planning, Transport & Public Protection Leigh Nicholson who invited him to speak.

Mr Bedford said: "The important thing that has to be kept in mind is that a decision made to approve inappropriate development in the green belt can only be done by properly applied tests. At the moment, without in any way wanting to enter into the debate, I have to say the debate has not engaged with the tests in national policy.

"Some of the comments have been directly contrary to national policy. The starting point you are required to do, you don't have a choice is that you are required to give substantial weight to the harm that is caused in the green belt. It's not optional. If you don't do that you will be disregarding national policy and your decision would be susceptible to challenge.

"Only when you have done that genuinely and conscientiously can you give weight to other factors.

"The list of positive factors is just not good enough as a way of making decisions, you can't just add up positives, you have to have a balancing exercise and that has not been engaged with. That sets you up for a problem."

Cllr Rice batted back Mr Bedford's statements almost blandly and dismissively, prompting an outburst from Cllr Byrne who rubbished his arguments and said: "Stop blowing your own trumpet, listen to the law."

After more toing and froing those in favour of the application eventually pressed Cllr Kelly to agree to it taking place. The officer recommendation for refusal was rejected and then followed a long-winded, repetitive narrative which eventually ended with Mr Bedford and Mr Hunt agreeing a formula of words that they believed would give the approval a chance.

And, after one finally impassioned plea from Cllr Lawrence - who said it was important that councillors were not overawed and added: "Legally we can't match you but we know what we need to do from our hearts" – and a further call from Cllr Sue Sammons for councillors not to 'down each other' a vote took place.

Cllrs Rice, Lawrence, Sammons and Sue Shinnock voted for approval and Cllrs Kelly, Byrne and Fletcher against.

It now remains to be seen how, in the cold light of another day, the approval is judged by Mr Hunt and his team and if it will be called in for a further review.

Related stories:

Will meeting be in secret?

To me it looked like a load of rough old grass.

Plan to develop land.

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