Up to 2,500 homes could now be built in Thatcham after the Government kiboshed plans by West Berkshire Council to withdraw the district’s Local Plan
“Somewhere the size of Hungerford will now be attached to Thatcham” after the Government kiboshed West Berkshire Council’s hopes of ditching the district’s Local Plan.
That was Owen Jeffery’s (Lib Dem, Thatcham, Colthrop and Cookham) assessment at a meeting that saw the Liberal Democrat authority climb down from binning the plan, which will see up to 2,500 homes built in Thatcham, and another 100 in Theale.
The Conservative opposition, former Labour Party campaigner Richard Garvie and residents who are supportive of all of the political parties, came together to put aside party political differences to lobby West Berkshire councillors, Newbury MP Laura Farris and the Government after the administration announced it planned to withdraw the plan – costing council tax payers around £1.6m.
Then in a dramatic twist, just hours before a meeting on Tuesday, scheduled to approve the withdrawal, the Government intervened to stop the move.
Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Michael Gove, told local councils earlier that day that they would lose planning control unless they sorted their Local Plans out.
These plans set out what, where and how many homes will be built until 2039.
So the Liberal Democrats had to fall on their sword at the specially convened meeting that same night.
“The main towns will take the brunt of the development,” said Lee Dillon, council leader.
“Newbury and Thatcham will be more congested. Villages less viable. More second homes will force local people out. Towns should see managed growth and villages should flourish. But that is now lost.”
And they went down throwing spurs at the Tories.
“Your discredited Government is stopping us withdrawing a bad plan,” said Jeff Brooks (Lib Dem, Thatcham West). ”It’s a ropey plan from a ropey administration.”
The move to withdraw the plan was brought about as the Lib Dems said the previous Conservative administration had “rushed through” the “flawed” plan ahead of the local council elections they “knew they were going to lose”.
The Tories, however, said the move to withdraw the plan was done to tick off a manifesto pledge made by the Lib Dems at the local elections – in the full knowledge that it would not go through, allowing them to ‘blame the government’ for its failing.
At the meeting the blue opposition took full advantage of the political high ground.
“They have won a pyrrhic victory,” said leader of the Conservative group, Ross Mackinnon (Con, Bradfield).
“It’s all about how they look to voters. They knew the Government would intervene. You have shown your true colours to the residents of West Berkshire.”
And Dominic Boeck (Con, Aldermaston) said the plan was not flawed.
He added: “The plan was the result of four years of hard work by officers and members of all parties.
“I applaud the minister’s decision not to let you pull the submitted plan, not to let you play fast and loose with the fortunes of our communities and to give certainty over the supply of much-needed homes in the district. It’s time for the administration to stop playing reckless politics and focus on delivering the right homes in the right places for our residents.”
But the Lib Dems defended their stance.
“Who will be able to get a doctor’s appointment in Thatcham?” asked Heather Codling (Lib Dem, Chieveley and Cold Ash). “We need to share this development out more across the district.”
The Lib Dems argued that ‘viable villages’ would be a better way to develop West Berkshire.
“We need affordable, rural houses,” said Martin Colston (Lib Dem, Newbury Central). “This plan will work against this. Younger people are forced to move away to towns. We need more working people in our villages.”
The motion to withdraw the plan was itself withdrawn.
The council now has an option to go back to the Government by January 12 to argue its case for withdrawal and said it was seeking legal advice.