Todays meeting of the Sedgemoor District Council Executive had the chance to review its decision to sell green open space at Lakeside, Highbridge to Coln Residential for a major housing development. Local councillors had ‘called in’ the original decision and the subject was reviewed at Corporate Scrutiny Committee which had recommended unanimously that the decision be relooked at. Residents and councillors of all parties united to try to save the land and spoke passionately at Scrutiny and again at Executive but everything fell on deaf ears and the 100% Tory Executive refused to budge on their original decision and the people of Highbridge were denied their ‘promised land’.
Chairman of the Corporate Scrutiny Committee Cllr Brian Smedley (Labour, Westover) presented the Scrutiny report outlining the reasons that the committee wanted the Exec to reconsider their decision saying “The land was acquired in 1996 and the intention was for use as public open space but this was never implemented and in particular it was not carried forward into the current local plan. Residents firmly believe it to be public open space and that’s what they want it to be . There is a perception that when Sedgemoor is faced with a decision between building homes and preserving the environment, the emphasis is automatically on building homes. This is the same across the district but in Highbridge in particular there is the perception that this was already a done deal. There is a concern that in fact no efforts were made to bring forward any use for this land acquired for public space. Obviously biodiversity will suffer greatly as a direct result. Keeping this green lung for residents to enjoy is surely an important aspect of our Climate Emergency commitments as a Council.There is also a clear feeling that Highbridge has had its ’fair share’ of house building. The public consultation showed overwhelming opposition and there are concerns that this has not been given enough weight within the consideration of this decision. There were 30 written objections, 700 handwritten signatures on a petition, and an additional 500 signatures online which were all summarised in the report to Executive. The key question remains whether the proposed sale is in the best interests of the people of Highbridge. The residents clearly don’t think so and this is reflected by their elected representatives – of all parties, who have supported them. There is an opportunity here to create a once in a lifetime natural open space. This is what residents and their councillors want – and what it was believed that Sedgemoor also wanted and had promised. “
A film made by Highbridge campaigner Joy Russell showed up to 100 people enjoying the green space over the past weekend and also included a letter from SDC from 22 october 1998 -sent by then Principal Valuer Martin Roberts which clearly pledges the land as public open space, saying “I confirm that the district council bought this land with the specific intention of turning it into an area of public open space in due course. Martin Roberts even took to the local press at the time to emphasise this point saying it would be ‘landscaped, planted with trees and become a public park for workers on the industrial estates and the local community’
Joy Russell, speaking on behalf of residents, said “ This is a beautiful piece of land and it was promised to the people of Highbridge. It was scandalous that you reneged on that promise . Stop trying to wriggle out of this! There is real anger and dissatisfaction here. People feel let down by poor planning decisions. Time is running out! It’s time for you to honour the results of your own consultation.”
Burnham and Highbridge Councillors of all parties spoke at the meeting urging the executive to change its mind.
Cllr Phil Harvey (Burnham N, Lib Dem) said “The development is unnecessary and its also not even a good deal”
Cllr Will Human (Wedmore, Con) said “There is a moral need to keep this area as open space to add to our green credentials. Sometimes we have to respect what people want. It would be a bold and brave decision for the executive to change its mind, but I would ask you to”
Cllr Mike Murphy (Burnham S , Lib Dem) said “This land is a green lung promised to the people of Highbridge and it will only bring Sedgemoor into disrepute for failed promises”
The 5 members of the Sedgemoor Executive had their say and it quickly became clear that there was going to be no movement from their previous decisions
Cllr Gill Slocombe (Con, Wyndham) said “I believe that building on this land will be better for the environment because the families who live there will benefit from these new homes in a lovely area. I have listened to the debate and there are different views from all sides for and against this.”
When questioned about how many of these new responses were ‘for’ and how many ‘against’? Members were informed that in fact there were 22 letters of objection since the Scrutiny Committee meeting and just 1 in support , plus 3 phone calls where people didn’t wish to identify themselves.
But the Tory Exec rolled on regardless….
Cllr Mike Caswell (Con, Quantocks) said “What happened in 1996 was different. We desperately need housing now and more will be needed with the Gravity site so I will be supporting our original decision”
Cllr Andrew Gilling (Con, Knoll) said “Housing is of a critical importance and the wildlife is migratory anyway. I will not change my mind”
Cllr Lance Duddridge (Con, Victoria) said “My ward is in the same situation but we need good affordable housing and we have a moral duty to house people. I see no reason to change my vote.”
In summary…..’no change’
In summary Council Leader Cllr Duncan McGinty (Con, E Polden) said “Its about doing whats best and this is a difficult decision. There is no new information for us to consider here but I hear the passion in the debate. I sat through Scrutiny and I have heard all the arguments and I think we made the right decision.”
The Executive then voted 5.0 to stick to its original decision to sell the land. Cllr Mark Healey (Con, Puriton) declared an interest and took no part in the meeting as he had a business connection with the Agent and Cllr Janet Keen (Con, Highbridge) left the Executive in order to speak in support of the protestors, but when it came to her section she said she was too overwhelmed with emotion to continue
Cllr Brian Smedley (Lab, Westover) said afterwards “Sedgemoor will be judged here by a credibility gap in consultation. Consulting cannot mean that we consult then ignore if we don’t get the right answer. It mustn’t be a cosmetic box ticking exercise. The Executive had the chance here to revisit that consultation and accept that this is not what the people who were consulted want. What does consultation mean? It means we should take peoples opinions on board so that people musn’t end up thinking ‘whats the point in responding to consultations as we’ll just get ignored again’.