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EXCLUSIVE: Secret council 'housing crisis' meeting ends in anger and accusations

Friday 7th February 2020

A MEETING to discuss the council's decision to delay its controversial 'call for sites' (CFS) excercise, which may see 28,000 homes built in the borough, descended into near chaos on Wednesday evening, Daily Downs Mail can reveal.
Officers called members together in closed session to explain they need more time to work through the 330-plus CFS submissions for 550 plots of land in line for potential housing devlopment and to find solutions to infrastructure issues such a massive undertaking will bring.
The Liberal Democrat-led authority is committed to 17,600 houses in the Local Plan, passed in 2017, but a review of it could bring another 10,500. Both are central government requirements.
Members from all parties agreed before Christmas to the Conservative opposition leader John Perry's motion to call on Government to reconsider its method of calculating housing numbers and retain the right to dump unwanted or speculative submissions.
At a fractious and often ill-tempered meeting in the council chamber, Conservative councillors demanded to know why the agreement to weed out the unsuitable proposals was "ignored" by the authority's unelected officers.
It places the council's Lib Dem leader Cllr Martin Cox - who has defended and promoted the council's housing policy, including its own plan for 5,000 homes in Lenham - in a difficult position because he and his party colleagues voted for the resolution.
Now critics claim the officers are openly defying the will of the elected leadership, leading to damaging claims the authority is now "officer-led".
Members, especially in the rural areas, are concerned that entire parishes will become blighted because the "no-hope" and speculative submissions continue to be included for consideration.
Conservative Bearsted councillor Val Springett was heard to tell the meeting: "If you live next to one of those sites that’s come forward, your life has just become hell.  They don’t need you (the borough's officers) to nice and gently plod your way through this process…if the site at the bottom of their garden is never actually going to happen, anyway.  So I’m asking can we not please eliminate the obvious no-nos at an early stage…to give a little bit of peace of mind for some people rather than make them suffer for another year?”  
A senior planning officer replied: "We are, as officers, looking to eliminate sites.  The problem is that there aren’t that many no-hopers.”
The newly-appointed officer in charge of the Local Plan review Philip Coyne claimed that it was "really dangerous" to rule out any sites at this stage.
Later, Cllr Springett asked the planning officers how many units had been submitted in the call for sites. 
She said: “I was told around 60,000.  So, your policy is not to rule any of them out?  So, if we’re not ruling them out, is the policy to put 60,000 units into the Local Plan?”
Three Conservatives, Nick De Wiggondene-Shepherd, Lottie Parfitt-Reid and Jonathan Purle walked out of the meeting.
Cllr Purle said: "The Lib Dem members sat there in stony silence but they've found themselves in a really difficult place. They're meant to be running this council but, in fact, this exercise appears to show it is the officers to be running it for them. 
"Last December's resolution was a considered and sensible way forward for everyone and the officers have just ignored it. It adds to the thinking once again that the the council is led by the civil servants, not the elected members and certainly not the leadership."
Cllr Parfitt-Reid said: "The meeting was pretty pointless. The officers had made the descision and that was it."
The Labour group leader Malcolm McKay said afterwards: "It was an opportunity for officers to tell councillors how difficult their job is and that it will be next year before the 60,000 sites have been narrowed down to 10,000 and public will know where development will take place. 
"Councillors asked repeatedly for the sites that have no prospect of being accepted to be announced ASAP, but this was rejected by officers. We were told it can't be done."

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