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Government intervenes to stop the withdrawal of the West Berkshire Local Plan

Just hours before a meeting, scheduled to approve the withdrawal of the West Berkshire Local Plan, the Government has intervened to stop the move.

The Local Plan is the weighty document which spells out what can and can’t be built in the district until 2039.

West Berkshire Council’s bid to withdraw the Local Plan has today been blocked by the government
West Berkshire Council’s bid to withdraw the Local Plan has today been blocked by the government

Political opposition groups and residents associations lobbied the Department for Levelling Up after the Lib Dem administration announced it planned to withdraw the plan – costing council tax payers around £1.6m.

The levelling up secretary of state, Michael Gove, gave a speech to Mansion House on Tuesday, warning that if local councils did not have a Local Plan in place within three months, the Government would take over planning responsibilities from councils.

But he reassured local authorities they would not need to redraw the green belt to meet housing targets.

Labour said the Government had “sent housebuilding into crisis” and couldn’t be trusted to take the steps needed.

And the National Housing Federation said the proposals “will result in fewer homes”.

Just hours after that speech, a letter from his department arrived at the desk of council leader Lee Dillon blocking the move to withdraw the plan.

The Lib Dems had claimed the plan, which was submitted before the local elections in May by the then Tory-run council, was flawed.

They also stated that they did not want up to 2,500 homes built in Thatcham.

But the withdrawal of the plan was described in a leaked email from the Lib Dem planning portfolio holder Tony Vickers (Lib Dem, Hungerford and Kintbury) as the ‘nuclear option’.

His email also alluded to the move being one to ‘show voters we mean business’, prompting outcry from the opposition Tory leader accusing them of playing politics with the district’s future.

Ross Mackinnon (Con, Bradfield) claims the move was deliberately constructed to fail, so the administration could blame the Government, rather than fail on their election manifesto to stop the Thatcham developments.

Not having a Local Plan in place would, in the council’s own words, put the district at risk of expensive planning appeals.

In the letter from the Government it says: “The secretary of state’s reason for making this direction is to give the people of West Berkshire the best chance of having a sound Local Plan adopted in the near future, protecting the area in which they live from speculative development.

“Should a significant delay occur to progressing the examination, or should you fail to comply with the directions in this letter, I will consider taking further intervention action to ensure that an up-to-date Local Plan is in place.”

Richard Somner (Con, Tilehurst South and Holybrook), shadow portfolio holder for planning, said: “This intervention by the planning minister has taken none of us by surprise.

“Withdrawing the Local Plan was a reckless idea from the start, as the report to council explains in thorough detail. It is frightening that the Liberal Democrats ever considered it – even if they were hoping they wouldn’t have to follow through.”

Mr Mackinnon added: “As predicted, the Liberal Democrats have once again found someone else to blame for their own failures.

“But West Berkshire residents won’t be fooled. The Local Plan was never flawed, the Liberals knew this, but they promised the residents of Thatcham and Bucklebury that development would be scrapped anyway.

“They have failed and now Lee Dillon is blaming HM Government – who had no choice but to step in and stop his reckless behaviour – rather than look the people of Bucklebury and Thatcham in the eyes and apologise for what he promised with no ability to deliver.

“By gambling with the future of the district, this administration has shown they will put their own political interests first, and what’s best for residents dead last.”

At the time of publication the meeting of the council was taking place.

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