Thanet council leader Chris Wells slams ‘rebel’ UKIP members over Local Plan vote

Chris Wells says he will not allow 'rebel' councillors to "wreak havoc on the council"

Thanet council leader Chris Well says he will not “at this stage” step down despite the rebellion of 12 of his party councillors at a vote on the Local Plan last night (January 18).

The UKIP leader suffered a humiliating blow when the 12 aligned with the Conservative Party and three Independents to vote down taking the Local Plan to the publication stage.

An amendment  to defer for two years the mixed-use designation pending the resolution of the DCO process was not enough to persuade the majority of councillors to back the plan.

He has branded the decision as “stupidity” and said he sees no reason to allow councillors who “refused to take proper legal, advice free rein to wreak havoc on the council.”

Thanet’s Draft Local Plan is a blueprint for housing, business and infrastructure up until 2031. The plan sets out how much development is needed to support the future population and economy. Transport, employment and infrastructure -such as roads, schools and GP surgeries – are also examined in the plan.

Consultation was carried out last year on revisions to the plan, including axing the aviation-use only designation at Manston airport which was shut down in 2014

But the change of status for Manston to a mixed use designation to include 2,500 homes proved the downfall of the plan, with 35 councillors rejecting the proposal to put it forward for publication. Just 20 voted in favour and one Conservative councillor was absent.

‘Cold light of day’

Cabinet member for housing Rev Stuart Piper was among the UKIP members who voted against the plan.

He says Cllr Wells is likely to lose if members put forward a vote of no confidence in him.

He added: “I have seen Chris Wells on the news declaring our stupidity. That is the stupidity of 35 members of the chamber. Initially he needs to make his position clear in the next few days.

“Based on his reaction in the cold light of day, I expect those 35 may have something to say about his analysis of their acumen. If there is a vote of no confidence he will likely lose it.

“Nobody can call their opponents stupid and expect to survive their reaction. I do not wish to lead such a vote but others from across the floor may well do so.”

Last night the ‘rebel’ councillors were understood to be calling a meeting. It is thought they will tell Cllr Wells to resign his position or they will all quit the party to sit as Independents.

‘Right, proper and legal solution’

But Cllr Wells, who says the party has no whip so councillors are free to ‘vote with their conscience,’ said: “In the greater scheme of things everybody steps down at some stage but I do not see that I should, at this stage, step away when I know what was proposed was the right, proper and legal solution and allow those who refused to take proper legal advice free rein to wreak havoc on the council.”

Cllr Wells says there is now no possibility of reaching the March 31 deadline for submission of the Local Plan to the Planning Inspectorate and a conversation with the Government’s Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (formerly the Department for Communities and Local Government) will need to take place.

He says the result of the no vote will mean government forcing an extra 3,090 homes above the 17,140  target  on Thanet.

He said: “The ball is now in their (MHCLG) court. We will inform them of the decision yesterday evening. They expected a yes on us being able to make the timetable and now we have to say the Local Plan has gone back at least a year. That’s what councillors ducking their moral and legal responsibilities ends up doing, giving unelected civil servants the power over what we do.”

Vote of no confidence

Thanet Conservative Party leader Bob Bayford said a vote of no confidence was under discussion but would be dependent on the fall out within the UKIP ranks.

He said: “If you go for a vote of no confidence, followed by a new leader vote, you have got to be sure of your numbers. We (Conservatives) have 21, that’s not enough so we need to see what the will is amonst the UKIP members to get him (Chris Wells) out.

“I am sure a lot want to get him out as he is a dictator but in the past the party has been in total disarray and somehow they have pulled together. I don’t think it will happen this time but that is the problem we have. But if they stand firm it does not look good for him.”

‘No say’

Thanet Labour group leader Jenny Matterface said the vote now leaves residents without a voice. She said: “Residents need to be aware that by voting down the plan going out for comments we will now have faceless bureaucrats deciding what happens in Thanet and we have no say in what happens.

“The airport supporters could end up with thousands of houses there as the site is large enough for huge numbers of properties.”

The housing issue

The local plan is a blueprint for new housing, business and infrastructure on the isle

The plan’s housing target is 17,140 new isle homes by 2031.

Some 1,555 homes have already been constructed; another 3,017 have been given planning permission; 2,700 are accounted for through windfall housing –sites that have historically had planning approval and may be put forward again – and 540  are already empty homes.

This leaves 9,300 properties to be accommodated.

The overall figure for the isle could  now rise to more than 20,200 homes following a threat of government intervention issued in November by Secretary of State Sajid Javid. He said the failure of Thanet and 14 other authorities to meet deadlines to put a local plan in place meant the government serving notice of its intention to intervene.

Speaking at the start of last night’s debate council Chief Executive Madeline Homer warned the “consequences” of voting against taking the next step with the Local Plan, included a potential loss of ability to stop development on the isle – including the airport site – Judicial Review and the risk of central government stepping in to take over the plan process.

But Conservative county councillor Paul Messenger said: “Both Craig Mackinlay and Sir Roger Gale had a meeting with Savid Javid on Monday who completely understands the ‘Thanet question.’
“He assured both our MPs at this meeting that his department would not in any way shape or form ‘penalise’ Thanet with demands for even more housing given that the Local Plan is voted down.

“Sir Roger is correct that a tweaked revised Local Plan can be brought forward with the ‘airport only use’ designation preserved for Manston before the deadline. However, our MP’s have also managed to get the deadline extended.”