Row over Black Country Plan ‘gagging’ email sent to councillors

A ‘gagging’ email sent out to angry Dudley councillors over plans to build thousands of homes across the region has been leaked – with claims it is trying to ‘silence’ their objections.

Green spaces such as Holbeache Lane could be lost to housing
Green spaces such as Holbeache Lane could be lost to housing

Labour councillors slammed Conservative councillors over the email, and branded a consultation into the Black Country Plan as ‘shambolic’.

They say it has been conducted with gross inaccuracies, wrong maps, wrong sites, in the ‘shortest possible length of time’, and undertaken during the holidays in the middle of a pandemic.

But the leader of the council Councillor Patrick Harley said: “We should not pre-judge what will happen.”

With three weeks to go until the Black Country Plan consultation ends, residents across the region have formed campaign groups in a bid to protect local green belt sites.

In an email addressed to all councillors, Helen Martin, director of regeneration and enterprise, advised them to respond to requests “without prejudicing yourself from any decision making role”.

An extract of the email read: “I expect that you will have been approached by residents seeking advice and support on this matter and that this can put you in a difficult position.

Councillor Patrick Harley has been criticised over the letter

“You will recall that there was a session held for members which explained how you could respond to these requests and both your views and the views of the residents known without prejudicing yourself from any decision-making role.

“I would reiterate that you are able to make comments about the proposals and assist in any campaigns provided you make it clear that those views are based on the information available at the time you make the comments, and you will consider all the available information before making a decision.

“If you wish to prevent yourself from being prejudiced, you will need to demonstrate that you will retain an open mind in the event that you are presented with further information at a later date.”

Under the Black Country Plan, more than 7,000 houses will go on green belt across the local area as part of a battle to hit what local councils say is an unrealistic target of 76,000 homes by 2039.

The consultation into the plan has only 19 days left, with residents and Tory MPs concerned against losing precious green spaces.

Those green spaces include Yew Tree and Great Barr, in Sandwell, Yieldfield Farm in Bloxwich, Brandhall Golf Course, in Sandwell, and various swathes of land in Kinver, and Shifnal.

Councillor Qadar Zada, leader of the opposition, said it was an “unnecessary and heavy handed intervention” by the council.

The 'triangle' off Kidderminster Road, Kingswinford, is one green site under threat

He said: “I am really disappointed in this email and if this is an attempt to gag or silence my colleagues then it will not be well received by them or our residents who they are desperately trying to represent. I believe this is an unnecessary and heavy handed intervention by this Conservative council.

“It is absolutely right that we defend, tooth and nail, every bit of green space.

“Neither I or my colleagues will be threatened by the authority’s lawyers and neither will we allow to be silenced so that the Tory leadership can continue unchallenged selling of our community spaces. If you need to issue legal proceedings against us, please feel free.

Mr Zada believed the council is attempting to “stifle input” over a consultation with “gross inaccuracies”.

He said: “Wrong maps. Wrong sites, shortest possible length of time, undertaken during the holidays, in the middle of a pandemic and administered by a convoluted process that prohibits any meaningful engagement or scrutiny.

“Rest assured that the residents of Dudley will not lie down while a Tory stampede of our green spaces takes place and neither will we stand aside as bystanders.”

But Councillor Harley responded by saying that decision-makers should ‘obviously keep an open mind’.

He said: “Having left the handling of the local plan to Councillor Judy Foster he has been invisible for months and now pops up with this nonsense. Decision makers should obviously keep an open mind until the consultation process has been completed. We should not pre-judge what will happen.

“Clearly if Councillor Zada was in a position to make the decisions, we need to then he would now be selling the borough short, as well as its green belt by pre-empting the decision. Developers and their lawyers would love that.”

Councillor Harley said the advice given by officers to councillors is to “encourage [councillors] to participate” in the Black Country Plan consultation and warns those who have to make the ultimate decision to “hold fire” until the consultation process has ended.

He said: “Clearly Zada has been enjoying the summer break and not noticed that the consultation was actually extended from six weeks to eight across the Black Country.

“He may not be aware due to his absence, but his group have also announced they are not in favour of developing even Brown Field sites. Councillor Foster is actively campaigning against developing the single largest site within the Black Country.

“The irony is that if she were to be successful even more green belt would be put at risk thanks to the ignorance and stupidity of the Labour Party in Dudley.”

Councillor Judy Foster, Labs, Brockmoor and Pensnett ward, and deputy leader of the opposition, has criticised Dudley Conservatives for avoiding scrutiny by delaying cross-party scrutiny of the Black Country Plan to a date five days before the consultation closes.

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