Openness and transparency in selecting Mid Sussex housing sites questioned

Mid Sussex District Council Offices, Oaklands Road
Mid Sussex District Council Offices, Oaklands Road

The council’s openness and transparency in selecting new housing sites across Mid Sussex has been questioned by the Lib Dems.

Mid Sussex District Council still needs to find another 1,507 dwellings up to 2031 to meet its housing requirement set by a planning inspector when he signed off the district plan.

The council has therefore put together a draft site allocations development plan document (DPD), which identifies 22 sites where a combined total of 1,962 homes could be built.

A public consultation on the document is due to start in October.

However concerns were raised about how the process had been handled at a meeting on Wednesday night (September 25).

A working group formed of councillors has been overseeing the production of the DPD, but its last critical meeting was held after May’s election where three members including the chair lost their seats and two unable to attend.

The Lib Dems asked for the Tory-led council to hold off on the consultation and repeat the last stage of the process so opposition parties and the south of the district could be represented.

But this request was defeated by 30 votes to 18.

Afterwards Alison Bennett, leader of the Lib Dem group, said they were ‘disappointed’ the council had gone ahead and approved the document for consultation.

She said: “We agree with the need to maintain the five-year housing land supply and the district plan, but we do not have confidence in how this last stage of the process to identify these sites took place.

“We suggested simply repeating the last stage of the process, to enable everyone in the council to have the confidence to recommend the document for public consultation. Sadly this opportunity has been lost when our reasonable proposal was rejected.

“We are now urging Mid Sussex residents to fully engage in the public consultation. We will continue to demand that the council maintains its duty to be objective and open when it examines the public’s submissions.”

During the meeting she argued the final working group meeting was neither geographically nor politically balanced and questioned the openness and transparency of this part of the process.

She said: “It was short sighted to finalise the DPD in this way.”

This was echoed by Anne Eves, (Green, Burgess Hill - Leylands) who said: “I’m concerned there has not been due process in recent months. At the elections in May three people were defeated on the committee and they were not replaced to replicate the new political balance [of the council].”

Andrew MacNaughton, cabinet member for housing and planning, explained that the working group’s last meeting was presented with technical data and decided which of three options should be brought forward.

He described how the council had gone for a slightly higher number as it needed a buffer in case specific housing sites could not be delivered or were delayed.

He said: “That is a very prudent and I believe the right approach.”

Rex Whittaker (Con, East Grinstead - Imberhorne) described how the working group had met 16 times in total and while he understood the ‘parochial nature’ of some of the comments, he said that the process had been officer-led.

He added: “While I understand some of the frustrations I can’t support this [the Lib Dem motion]. We need to get this process moving and we have timescales to stick to.”

Meanwhile Gary Marsh (Con, Ardingly and Balcombe) accused the opposition of NIMBYism, adding: “The vast majority of work was done in the last administration.”

Rod Clark (Con, Haywards Heath - Franklands) said: “Councillors, do the right thing for our residents. We need housing in the right place in Mid Sussex and I think this is what it gives us.”

But Benedict Dempsey (Lib Dem, Hassocks) felt what they were asking for was ‘comparatively reasonable’ and suggested it was a way to move forward ‘with a level of consensus’.

Sue Hatton (LDem, Hassocks), who was the only non-Tory councillor before May’s elections, criticised what she described as a ‘rushed through decision’ at a meeting at the end of August, which she was unable to attend.

But Cllr MacNaughton counselled against delaying the process as he argued this would ‘ruin’ the district plan.

He added: “To go back and start again after 18 months, almost two years, of work is a folly.”

After the Lib Dem motion was defeated the majority of councillors agreed to put out the site allocations DPD to consultation.

The document will have to undergo scrutiny by a planning inspector and a second round of consultation before it can be approved.