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SOLIHULL: “Appalling” breach of residents’ rights – claim

SOLIHULL: “Appalling” breach of residents’ rights – claim

Images from Solihull Council documents

Pushing forward with a blueprint to build 15,000 homes during the Covid-19 crisis “rode roughshod” over Solihull residents’ rights, it has been claimed.

On the opening day of a public inquiry into the draft document the council was accused of denying local people a proper say by failing to extend a consultation in the final months of last year.

Knowle man Andrew Marston had slated the handling of the process during a “once in a 100 year” pandemic and had called for engagement to be re-run – citing limited time and a lack of physical events.

But defending their approach, senior Solihull Council officers insisted that they had followed proper processes and that the exercise towards the end of 2020 was only the latest in a series held over several years.

The issue was raised on the first morning of hearings, during which planning inspectors will hear evidence from residents, developers, community groups and the local authority itself.

Highlighting his concerns that people had been denied the chance to engage, Mr Marston said: “Four weeks of that period of the six week consultation was a national lockdown.

“The council itself was probably paralysed by it and their offices were not attended.

“I believe the residents of Solihull have been severely restricted with our rights; this was a final consultation and therefore the most important.”

He went on: “Covid has affected every single person in this room and the whole world … and for the council to ignore that and go for the shortest time possible, of six weeks, I find absolutely appalling.”

The length of consultation had originally been the subject of controversy last autumn, with opposition councillors having pushed for an extension at the time.

Cllr Max McLoughlin, the Green Party’s housing spokesman, was clear that rival parties had been unhappy with the approach being taken – saying he had raised the issue four times.

“West Suffolk, Copeland, Rutland, Wakefield, Shropshire, Dorset, Mole Valley all extended their consultations periods,” he told inspectors.

“There would have been some people who were digitally excluded in relation to being able to see the Plan at this stage.”

He argued the fact that there were fewer responses received overall than in previous consultations might point to issues with the process followed.

The ruling Conservative group always maintained that versions of the proposals had been in the public domain for many years and the timeframe was therefore sufficient.

This was backed up by representatives of the council at this morning’s session, who had been asked by inspectors the reasons for the six-week window.

Planning officer Mark Andrews: “I don’t think any of us are going to sit here and argue that the pandemic hasn’t been a once-in-a-lifetime kind of event.

“What I think we need to realise – and what our argument is and what we’re focusing on – is that it’s not like Covid stopped us engaging…

“There was online webinars, online forums, we put specific contact arrangements in place, we made documents available as best as we possibly could.”

He added: “This isn’t just about our experience and engagement over a six week period, this is six years, seven years perhaps in the making – there has been a substantial amount of engagement over a prolonged period of time.”

But Mr Marston was unimpressed that more flexibility hadn’t been granted given that the pandemic had postponed Olympics, international football tournaments and elections.

“The council is wrong on this issue,” he said.

Six weeks’ worth of hearings will be taking place between now and December, with the debate likely to shape any recommendations from government planning inspectors Kevin Ward and Kelly Ford.

Other issues touched upon during the first day of proceedings included how the document would deal with the climate emergency and the distribution of development across the borough.

While major new housing developments have been the focus of recent debate, the Draft Local Plan also includes a number of other policies referenced during discussions – including proposals to tighten the rules on opening takeaways.

The public inquiry will reconvene tomorrow morning (Tuesday, September 28), with the session starting at 9.30am. Residents will once again be able to watch a YouTube livestream.

On the second day attention will turn to whether Solihull has done enough to meet the housing shortfall facing the wider region, with representatives from other local councils set to have their say.

Words: David Irwin, Local Democracy Reporter


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