With the sleet falling outside, it was standing room only in the council chamber, with over 150 people packed in to hear the debate on the five year housing land shortfall. 

At the start of the land supply agenda item the chairman stated that there would be no public speaking and nor would any non-committee councillors be able to speak.

I raised my hand and stood up, at the same time as Feniton Action Group’s Dr John Withrington said that he wanted to make a “point of order”, which the chairman allowed.

Dr Withrington challenged the refusal to allow public speaking, holding aloft his agenda, which stated that public speaking was allowed and it was the chairman’s discretion whether or not to allow it. 

But the chairman stuck to his guns and added that councillors would be able to debate the issue at the scrutiny committee meeting in March.

I pointed out that the decision was being taken today and it would be too late to change anything at the scrutiny meeting.  I added that I thought it was quite wrong for an elected representative to be refused permission to speak on such an important issue.

At this point there was quite a bit of shouting and heckling from members of the public, who were angry that they were being prevented from speaking. 

Cllr Steve Wragg (Libdem) asked whether standing orders could be suspended to allow members of the public to speak.  Cllr Ben Ingham (Ind) seconded this, but the legal advice given by the chief executive to chairman, Mark Williamson, was that this was not permissible.

Planning policy manager, Matt Dickins, then began his verbal report to the committee, based on his paper.  He said that following the Redrow Homes appeal EDDC should be using the regional spatial strategy (RSS) figure of 17,100 houses “for the time being.” 

The housing numbers in the Local Plan would remain at 15,000, said Mr Dickins.

He added that EDDC must accommodate more developments and if a Butts Road (Ottery St Mary appeal for 130 houses that was allowed in December) type application came in tomorrow EDDC wouldn’t be able to refuse it.

At the end of Mr Dickins’ report, Cllr Ben Ingham raised his hand. He said he was aware that in the constitution it stated that political parties cannot whip on planning issues.  He added that he had been informed that there was a conservative group meeting last week at which the five year land supply issue had been discussed and he had been told that the conservative members of this committee had been whipped into endorsing the paper. 

But he had later been told by the same conservative councillor that there had been a mistake and no whip had taken place.

Chairman, Cllr Mark Williamson replied that he was not aware of any whip, but if there had been a whip, he would hope that the chairman of the committee would have been made aware of it beforehand.

Cllr Phil Twiss claimed, as chief whip of the conservative group, that there had never been any whip on any issue during his tenure – planning or otherwise.

But then Cllr Twiss admitted that at a behind closed doors group meeting last week, the conservatives had discussed the five year supply issue.

The committee then set to discussing the recommendations.  There were many recommendations and Cllr Ingham valiantly attempted to change several of them, however, I confess I did not manage to capture the precise wording of the revisions.

Cllr Ingham wanted to include the disaggregation approach (splitting the district in half in calculating its land supply) in an interim planning policy. 

This was because the planning inspector who allowed the Feniton Wainhomes decision, had indicated that the main reason he had dismissed such an approach was because EDDC had not endorsed it in a formal planning document, nor had it been agreed by a committee.

But planning officers present ruled that this would not work because there was no such agreed approach in government policy.

There was also a claim that members had endorsed the approach through the annual monitoring report in any case. 

Cllr Ingham put up a good fight – he pushed the committee to make it EDDC’s policy – after all it is this disaggregation approach that has the best chance of helping to save at least the eastern part of East Devon (east of Cranbrook) from urban sprawl. 

Unfortunately, he got no support from either councillors or officers, who told the committee that they would end up losing more appeals if they pursued this approach.

Cllr Helen Parr (Cons) said she thought “applicants could claim it was unreasonable” for EDDC to take this approach and policies would be clearer after the Local Plan goes to the planning inspector.

Then Ben Ingham tried his luck with altering “endorse” to “note” in the first recommendation, which read: “Endorse the requirement to secure a six year land supply.”

All the other recommendations in the paper started with “note”, and my concern with “endorsing” a requirement for a six year land supply, was that it could tie in members to approving most future housing applications from now until an unknown date in time.

But Ben could not even get another councillor to second this, which was very disappointing. 

Cllr Steve Wragg commented that he wouldn’t sign up to either “note” or “endorse” and he would continue to determine each application on its own merits.

Referring to the delayed Local Plan, Cllr Ingham remembered a conversation he had had with leader, Cllr Paul Diviani some time ago.  Cllr Ingham told the meeting that the leader had asserted that EDDC was “light years ahead of other councils” in its Local Plan process.

There were other changes to the recommendations proposed by Ben, which were seconded by Cllr Mike Howe (Cons) and I am aware that recommendation number five was altered, but I am unclear what the changes were.

At the end of the item, a large number of people shuffled out of the room confused and unhappy.  There was considerable anger about members of the public being prevented from speaking on such an important paper.

There was also frustration expressed by many about the lack of debate by members of the committee on an approach which has undoubtedly put the council in a much more permissive position in determining housing applications for an unknown length of time.

My first thought goes to Feniton, where almost 200 houses in two planning applications are under consideration, shortly to come before the development management committee for a decision. 

One application is for 120 dwellings on very high quality agricultural land (grade 2).  It is a stunning field, which forms a peaceful rural backdrop to the village. 

See other reports about this meeting at http://sidmouthindependentnews.wordpress.com/ and http://saveoursidmouth.com/

Photograph:  Some protesters gather outside the council chamber, prior to the meeting.