Ashfield council administration faces ‘squashing democracy’ claim following heated local plan meeting

Ashfield District Council headquarters.
By Andrew Topping, Local Democracy Reporter

The independent administration at Ashfield District Council has been accused of “squashing democracy on purpose” after not allowing opposition councillors to speak on a petition calling for its local plan to be scrapped.

The full council meeting on Thursday (December 2) saw members of the public attending to oppose the controversial housing document.

Councillors were presented with two petitions calling for the plan to be rethought, with signatures totalling more than 9,000 across the two submissions.

The concerns relate to the Ashfield Independents’ 8,226-home document, which sets out the local sites for planned housing developments between now and 2038.

One petition related to the 3,000-home development in Whyburn Farm, Hucknall, which has led to a strong public backlash since its unveiling in October.

The Hucknall petition gathered more than 7,600 signatures and was submitted by campaigner Mandy Shaw, who spoke on behalf of residents about why the plans would be “detrimental” to the town.

She said: “Everyone who signed the petition is against the plan. We, the signed, don’t want a large-scale development on Hucknall’s cherished greenbelt.

“This area is used by so many for recreation: the walkers; cyclists; runners; families wanting time together; and people suffering mental health issues. They all need this space, and we have nowhere else in Hucknall for them to go.”

However, following Ms Shaw’s presentation, councillors were given 15 minutes to debate the petition before it was recommended to be taken to Cabinet in January.

During the debate, three Hucknall councillors were allowed to speak – all making points about opposing the plans but blaming the Government for setting housing targets.

These councillors were Lee Waters, Dave Shaw and John Wilmott of the Ashfield Independents.

It meant no opposition councillors were able to give their views on the Hucknall petition, despite the three Conservative and two Labour members – all who represent Hucknall seats – raising their hands to speak in the debate.

It also led to an argument in the council chamber, with Councillor Chris Baron (Con), who represents Hucknall West, hitting out at chairman Cllr Arnie Hankin (Ash Ind).

During the meeting, Cllr Baron said: “There’s supposed to be a political balance in this chamber and you’ve called three Ashfield Independents and none of the opposition.

“That has got to be fundamentally incorrect.”

In response, Cllr Hankin said: “I write down on my sheet all the councillors who wish to speak. The first three I saw were those, and you were after.”

Cllr Baron then accused him of “not looking this way” when selecting who to speak.

The public gallery was full during Thursday’s meeting.

Speaking following the meeting, Cllr Lauren Mitchell, leader of the Labour group, described the debate as “disgusting”.

She added: “It was squashing democracy on purpose.

“The 15 minutes was a ridiculous amount for people to be able to speak.

“The chairman obviously chose only the Ashfield Independents so nobody else can have a voice.”

Commenting in the debate, the three Ashfield Independent Hucknall councillors spoke about their objections to their own administration’s plan.

They all lambasted Government for setting “unreachable” housing target calculations, with Cllr Waters calling on the authority to “call the Government’s bluff” and not submit a local plan at all.

This came as the Ashfield Independents all mentioned comments made by both Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Housing Secretary Michael Gove, who have both suggested a change in policy direction in recent months.

Councillors were then presented with the second petition, featuring almost 1,700 signatures, calling for a separate 1,000-home settlement in Cauldwell Road, Sutton-in-Ashfield, to also be removed from the plan.

This petition was submitted by Laura Gapski, owner of nearby Bright Sparks Day Nursery, who represented a group of residents and businesses in the Cauldwell Road area.

She said: “Our members rely on the provision of calm and tranquillity.

“I represent them today knowing the development will have a detrimental, negative and soul-destroying impact on the reputations they have worked to achieve over 100 years of service.

“The associated noise, light and drainage pollution of the plan has invoked tremendous disquiet, with members frantically tearing apart the overly verbose documents to find a way to axe this plan.”

Responding to her concerns, Cllr Jason Zadrozny (Ash Ind), leader of the council, said: “This is a consultation, that’s all it is, this isn’t a plan we’re foisting on anyone.

“We’re asking for people’s views exactly for these reasons, so we can look at things we’ve not looked at as councillors in different areas we don’t represent.

“But fundamentally, so we can take this consultation and say we don’t want to do it. Even if you thought all we do is grub after votes, we don’t want to do it.

“I’m really pleased we can take thousands of signatures and comments to Government and say ‘don’t force this on our district’.”

A cross-party motion was then submitted by Cllr Mitchell (Lab) and Cllr Kevin Rostance (Con), which called for the plans to be redrawn.

The motion was read out but not debated, with Ruth Dennis, the council’s monitoring officer, confirming the debate must be held by the cabinet as the responsible committee for the local plan.

She said: “At a later stage, the draft plan will come to this council for consideration and debate.

“If something is the responsibility of a different committee, a motion on that point must go directly to it, isn’t debated at this meeting and is referred straight to cabinet without debate.”

Seconding the motion, Cllr Kevin Rostance (Con) said: “[There is] a strength of feeling against the proposed draft local plan, and the Whyburn development in particular.

“Never during my time as a district councillor have I seen anything of this scale, that has brought together thousands of residents in Hucknall – and councillors of all political persuasions.

“The petition today was driven by passionate local residents, who really care about the effects these proposals will have on Hucknall.”

Both petitions and the motion will be discussed by the cabinet in January, with the petitions to become an official submission in the local plan consultation.

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