South Staffordshire Council is currently putting together a Local Plan, which sets out how the district will develop in the years leading up to 2037. As part of this plan it is considering how to meet a target of building 8,845 new homes in the district to meet demand – including around 4,000 needed in the Greater Birmingham Housing Market Area.
Last month cabinet member Councillor Roger Lees was due to give the green light for a number of Local Plan documents to be sent out for public consultation.
But four fellow councillors called in the decision for discussion. Although they missed the call-in deadline Councillor Lees agreed to call in the decision so it could be considered by the Overview and Scrutiny Committee.
At Thursday’s committee meeting independent Councillor Warren Fisher said members had been given just five working days to read through hundreds of pages of documents ahead of the consultation decision being approved. He also highlighted errors in the information due to be presented to the public.
Concerns were raised that councillors may be unable to answer residents’ questions on the documents if they had not been given sufficient time to consider them.
Councillor Fisher said: “No-one wants to stop the Local Plan – what we are saying is putting it to the public before members have had their chance to have a say is the wrong way to go about it.
“We are no experts. As we have seen in Wolverhampton the councillors who attended a public meeting were unprepared, didn’t have the correct information and looked unprofessional.
“The concern is we will experience the same embarrassment because we don’t have the information when residents come to us.”
Green Party member Councillor Chris Benton said: “We are looking at something very complex and we have to make decisions that nobody wants to make. If we give the public the best chance to understand things it will be better for democracy.”
Fellow independent member Councillor Penny Allen said: “In asking for a delay we’re simply asking for time to be familiar with the preferred strategy, so we can justify and explain it to the public in our areas.”
But council monitoring officer David Pattison said: “The role of members is not to be an expert on everything. Your role is to be a representative of your area and speaking on behalf of them.”
Conservative Councillor Mike Lawrence said: “Twenty-five per cent of the current members are new members and 75 per cent of members were present four years ago and have been through all the process.
“I don’t like part of it – I’m sure other members don’t like parts of it – but for the good of South Staffordshire I think we need to move forward.”
Fellow Conservative Councillor Terry Mason said: “I quite frankly don’t understand the position of certain councillors.
“The Seven Cornfields and traveller site (proposals discussed at public meetings in the Wolverhampton area) are site specific. At this moment in time we are not talking about sites, we are talking about a broad strategy to go out to consultation.”
The committee agreed for the documents to go out to public consultation, with three members voting against the proposal and two abstentions.
The Spatial Housing Strategy and Infrastructure Delivery (SHSID) consultation is due to open later this month and will run for at least six weeks.
Speaking after the meeting Councillor Lees, deputy leader of the council, said: “This is an important stage in our Local Plan Review.
“Over the last year, we have listened carefully to feedback from our residents during our initial ‘Issues and Options’ consultation, which took place in autumn 2018. This gave us an understanding of what we needed to address through the Local Plan and it has helped develop our seven options for housing growth.
“The Green Belt study is especially important and this feeds directly into the strategy. We now want to hear from residents on whether they support our preferred approach and why. It’s really important that we get people’s views to inform the next stage of the Local Plan process and we welcome views on our proposed approach to avoid development in the most sensitive areas of Green Belt.
“Naturally, throughout the process we will continue to investigate and plan for any impact this could have on our highway network and local services such as health, shopping and schools.”