Political row over South Cambs new town proposal

Anthony Browne - South Cambs MP. Picture: Stephen Frost

Anthony Browne - South Cambs MP. Picture: Stephen Frost - Credit: Archant

The South Cambs Lib Dems have been accused of “peddling fear and conspiracy” over the government’s involvement in a proposal for a 25,000-home new development.

Last month, developer Thakeham revealed plans for a new town and connected villages on land around Barrington, Bassingbourn-cum-Kneesworth, Foxton, Meldreth, Orwell, Shepreth, Whaddon and Wimpole. It said the development would be the UK’s “first zero-carbon community”. The proposal has no formal planning status, and no planning application has yet been submitted.


Despite key figures from both the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives publicly stating opposition to the proposals, it is nonetheless becoming a political battleground.


The South Cambridgeshire Lib Dems, who control the district council, said the developer has “gone straight to central government and has bypassed South Cambs District Council” with the plans.


A Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Goverment spokesperson has said: “This is not a matter for the government – it is a local planning matter and any application would be assessed by South Cambridgeshire District council in the normal way.


“There has been no ministerial discussions or involvement related to this proposal at any stage.”
A campaign group set up by Liberal Democrat councillors to oppose the development, which they said is not party-political, has since said Thakeham has confirmed “that it will be lobbying government for a ‘national designation’ that leapfrogs the council’s local plan”.


But the South Cambridgeshire Conservatives claim the Liberal Democrats are attempting to deflect away from their own role as the majority group on the district council, which they say will be the organisation responsible for deciding the application.


The political executive of a council cannot decide planning applications - but it does set the wider planning policy, which provides part of the legal framework apolitical planning committees use to decide applications. 

In the normal course of events, developers have the option to appeal a decision to the government’s planning inspectorate once the council’s planning committee has made a decision.


South Cambridgeshire's Conservative MP, Anthony Browne, said: “The government has made absolutely clear that the planning decision for this new town is the responsibility of the Liberal Democrat-run South Cambs District Council.


“This is the same administration that has previously had multiple meetings with the developer, shared conference platforms with them, encouraged them to submit their proposals despite missing key deadlines and are refusing to rule out granting planning permission for the new town.

"They are trying to evade their own responsibility by pointing the finger at national government.


“Frankly, it is disgraceful that they are deliberately scaring local residents simply to gain political advantage at the upcoming local elections. Be absolutely clear: it is the Lib Dem-controlled South Cambs District Council that holds the power to stop Thakehams’ plans. The buck stops with them.”


The leader of the Conservative group on the district council, Heather Williams  who represents The Mordens, accused the Liberal Democrats of “deliberately misleading people that this will be some central government conspiracy”.


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She said: “I think they are trying to galvanise an anti-Tory vote in this upcoming election.

“They want people to vote for them and that’s purely what is behind this. We all want to win elections but we don’t exploit people and deliberately mislead them”.

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She described the suggestion that the council will be bypassed and replaced by government intervention as a “distraction,” saying considering the district council’s role “would mean people would actually start looking at the Lib Dems and the local plan, and that the Lib Dems are actually quite keen on growth in this area”.

She said there is no evidence that any planning application relating to Thakeham will be dealt with outside of the usual processes, and accused the Liberal Democrats of “peddling fear and conspiracy”.

Cllr Williams also criticised the Liberal Democrats for their handling of the information prior to the public announcement.

The leader of the council, Liberal Democrat Bridget Smith, met with the developer on September 25. Liberal Democrat councillors, including some county councillors, were then informed that Thakeham would be making a proposal in that area, and given an indication of the size, on November 28.

Cllr Williams said she and others only found out about the proposal about a week later through the press. She said she understands the leader of the council may receive prior knowledge in some cases, but accused the Lib Dem leader of having “abused” her position to notify party colleagues.

“They kept it from us,” Cllr Williams said, adding she believes that was done for party-political gain, which is “completely disrespectful for the residents that we serve”.

Cllr Smith has said: “The developer requested a meeting with me, which I attended with the director of planning. Once it became clear what was proposed, we told them to publish the information by putting it into the call for sites, and comply with the normal process”.

Ian Sollom, Liberal Democrat parliamentary spokesperson for South Cambridgeshire, said: “To my knowledge, the government has not clearly stated that the planning decision rests with [the council]. The Ministry of Housing have only issued a very carefully worded statement denying that there had been ‘ministerial discussions’.

“The government sets the rules for planning and for creating local plans. Under those rules, a district council cannot refuse a submission to the local plan that missed the deadline. Nor can a council simply rule out granting planning permission – that would be pre-determination and would result in the failure of the local plan.

“It is also not true that a council has the final say. Any applicant can appeal a refusal and the final decision always rests with a planning inspector or with the Secretary of State himself.

“Anthony Browne’s grasp of the planning system is clearly tenuous at best. This would be a laughing matter were it not for the fact that his is our MP.

“Browne would do better by his residents if he was actually fighting on their behalf with government, rather than picking political arguments locally.”

In response to the Conservatives’ criticism, the Liberal Democrats provided statements from two county councillors.

Cllr Sebastian Kindersley said: “Thakeham is actively lobbying central government to get a ‘national designation’ for their proposal, bypassing the local plan and democratic scrutiny”.

He added: “This tallies with government’s new approach to planning and so there is every reason for deep concern. It’s important that residents are aware of this. It would be misleading to suggest that this isn’t a very real threat.

“The best way to protect against this unprecedented speculative proposal is for all local councillors to work with their communities to see it off. “

Cllr Susan van de Ven said the South West Cambridge Action Group is a “community-based campaign” and said the council has insisted the developer should follow the normal planning process of submitting the site for consideration in the local plan.

“If and when a proposal is submitted to South Cambs District Council, our job will be to present a strong case articulating profound concerns about the proposal,” she said.

Thakeham has said it intends to engage with both the district council’s local plan process and with the government over its proposals, and that it is “at an early stage of forming our vision”.

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