Councillors said that their hands were tied when it came to allocating greenfield sites for housing in Brighton and Hove.
They blamed government planning laws for putting the sites at risk of development as Brighton and Hove City Council’s 10-year planning blueprint cleared its latest hurdle.
Labour and Green councillors spoke at a virtual meeting today (Thursday 23 April) about how the national planning laws required Brighton and Hove to “leave no stone unturned” when seeking sites for new homes.
And they voted through the blueprint known as City Plan Part Two so that the public could be consulted before the plan is submitted to the government.
It includes policies aimed at boosting homes and jobs while protecting the environment.
The Conservatives and one Independent councillor voted against it.
The most controversial proposals are for sites on Brighton and Hove’s “urban fringe” where more than 900 homes could be built on 16 sites on or near the edge of the Downs.
Labour and Greens took turns to criticise Conservatives councillors for speaking publicly about protecting open spaces without putting forward effective amendments to the plan or lobbying the government to change the law.
Labour councillor Nick Childs, the deputy chair of the council’s Planning Committee, urged the public to get involved in the final consultation process.
Councillor Childs said: “I recognise that allocating even a small number of urban fringe sites is controversial.
“Indeed, I have been open about my very strong sympathies with campaigners and my personal opposition to development on urban fringe sites. ”
He referred to a former Conservative planning minister for forcing councils to build on areas against the wishes of local people.
Then he reminded councillors of the Chancellor’s comments in his recent budget that there would be “firm consequences” for councils that did not meet local housing need.
Councillor Childs said: “I condemn such undemocratic proscriptions that seek to force our city to build on some urban fringe sites but it is within such an authoritarian planning framework that we must operate.
“If we fail to identify a very small number of such sites, we risk our entire urban fringe being up for grabs and that is not something that this administration is prepared to allow.”
The 10-year plan identifies seven strategic sites including Brighton General Hospital, in Elm Grove, the engineering depot, in New England Road, land in Lyon Close, Hove, and the Sackville Trading Estate and coal yard, Hove, where more than 800 homes have been given planning permission.
The pan also includes 39 brownfield sites which are expected to provide at least 1,570 new homes as well as business opportunities.
Labour councillor Tracey Hill, who chairs the Planning Committee, said that it was understandable that people were concerned about schemes in their area.
She said that the city needed homes and jobs and there was no option to build it somewhere else.
Councillor Hill said: “We recognise that allocating some urban fringe sites is particularly controversial.
“However, the principle for this was very clearly established through the examination of City Plan Part One when the council was told to plan much more positively to meet its housing need.
“By allocating the proposed sites, we can also seek to ensure that development delivers sustainable and family-size homes, improves biodiversity and provides publicly accessible open space, improved green infrastructure, local food growing opportunities and better links to the national park.”
She also said that much of the land locally was in private hands and the council could not force owners to develop it.
Green councillor Marianna Ebel criticised the Conservatives for trying to remove the urban fringe sites from the plan when they knew that it would risk rendering the plan unsound in law.
She said: “Labour and Greens knew this and so, crucially, did our Tory colleagues.
“Nevertheless, our Tory colleagues submitted amendments and banged the drum about this in the local press and gave residents a false hope that the urban fringe sites … would somehow have their own separate and distinct amendments to remove them today.
“They have ignored the role of a ‘sound plan’ in protecting green spaces and they have told people to look out for amendments that do not exist for the vote.”
Green convenor Phélim Mac Cafferty said that his party wanted 100 per cent of homes to be affordable on all new developments on the urban fringe but planning laws forbade it.
He said: “It was neither the previous Green nor the current Labour administration who insisted on urban fringe sites being built on.
“The planning inspector, using the National Planning Policy Framework, instructed the city council to ‘look under every stone’ when they asked us to build more than 600 homes a year to comply with the government’s targets.
“This meant we were expected to find more sites and utilise the urban fringe, even though we had made clear our city’s position.”
Conservative councillor Robert Nemeth said that building 930 home on the green edge of the city was an “environmental disaster”.
He argued that the Green MP for Brighton Pavilion, Caroline Lucas, should have raised the issue in Parliament as Labour and the Greens said that it was a national matter. Green councillors said that she had done so many times.
Councillor Nemeth said: “If it were the case that the true Labour/Green position is to put the environment before housing-at-all-costs, where are the public statements from the two groups that they are even against building the assessed need?
“It doesn’t make sense to campaign for extra housing in the city and then complain when the inspector agrees.
“And why has there been literally no campaigning on the matter of the environmental destruction from the two parties at a local level? Disquiet should have at least led to some activity. ”
Conservative leader Steve Bell said that his party had taken a strong stance on saving green spaces and limiting new housing to brownfield sites.
He said that without the urban fringe sites, the council would still have 1,900 homes more than the minimum number needed to meet housing targets for the next 10 years.
This was partly as a result of recent decisions to grant planning permission for some big schemes.
Councillor Bell said: “It is clear that Labour and Greens are not listening to the people who elected them. They are trying to blame the government – no surprises there.”
He said that the City Plan would still be “sound” in law without the urban fringe sites.
He added: “If allowed to go ahead, this will damage forever our green fields and ecosystem.
“With this sad time of covid-19 and lockdown, hasn’t our green space become even more precious?
“But we will possibly see this go and when we walk with our children in the future we will see a concrete jungle instead.”
Fellow Conservative councillor Dawn Barnett made a passionate speech opposing the prospect of up to 100 homes in Benfield Valley.
The Hangleton and Knoll councillor said that voting for the City Plan would be the “end of the Green Party” in Brighton and Hove.
Councillor Barnett said: “Since I was elected in 2004 I have fought to defend Benfield Valley from development in the past and I have won every time.
“And I can say to the other parties I will fight to the end on behalf of my constituents to save this land.”
Another Conservative, Dee Simson, said that she found herself fighting plans to build on Whitehawk Hill when the area was not even in her Woodingdean ward.
She said: “A publicly available statement on the Friends of Whitehawk Hill Facebook page advises that more than half of the Labour Party branches in the city have passed motions demanding that Whitehawk Hill be removed from the City Plan.
“And that this has been communicated to the Labour Leader Nancy Platt with a request that all Labour Party councillors are made aware of it.
“Despite this, the Labour group still plans to vote to build on Whitehawk Hill against the wishes of its members and branches.
“And I find myself in a position where I have to stand up for the residents in the leader of the council’s own ward of East Brighton because the council leader won’t listen.”
Councillor Platts urged all members to support a lobbying campaign to change the National Planning Policy Framework.
She said: “I acknowledge and appreciate the concerns raised about the allocation of some sites on the urban fringe that we have been forced to include by the national planning inspector.
“My colleagues and I will be lobbying the Conservative government for changes to the National Planning Policy Framework so that local residents can genuinely have more control over development in their local areas.”
Independent councillor Bridge Fishleigh criticised councillors for spending hours reading out pre-written speeches.
She voted against the City Plan “as an environmentalist” and said: “You’ve designated sites for development that will upset local residents and provoke big protests so you can say it wasn’t our idea and blame the Tories.
“And in the end none of them are built on anyway.”
A further public consultation is expected to run online for six weeks from early next month – at consultations.brighton-hove.gov.uk.
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