Castle Point Council is refusing to rule out building on green belt land – unless they get a cast iron guarantee from Government.
Minister of State for Planning and Housing Brandon Lewis told campaigners and Tory MP Rebecca Harris local authorities could protect their green belt at a meeting this week.
This means the authority may not have to build 4,000 new homes by 2031 – provided it can show it can’t fit the homes into the borough without building on green belt.
A spokesman for Rebecca Harris, who attended the meeting with Mr Lewis, said: “Local plans may be found sound even though they do not meet their housing need in full, provided the council can show this was because of the need to protect the green belt in line with policy in the national planning policy framework.”
But councillors remain sceptical and say they want the Government to put Mr Lewis’ words into a formal policy before they act.
Norman Smith, chairman of the council’s local plan task and finish group, said: “Obviously any reduction in the requirements from the government would be a great help to us and that is exactly what we want to hear.
“It is what both the public and us as councillors would like.
“But we are obviously constrained by government requirements and we are being compelled to build in our borough where we feel the infrastructure just cannot support large development.
“It needs to be backed up by a government directive, rather than one minister just saying what he maybe feels we want to hear.”
Mr Smith said he fears unless the council gets a plan in place, and approved by Government, it could leave the borough open to rogue developers.
He said: “While some councillors want to hold out for the best deal possible, we are vulnerable and defenceless if developers come forward with speculative proposals they know they can win on appeal.
“The local plan will protect the borough and without it we are in danger of having more homes than we need.”
Councillors have voiced concerns the borough lacks sufficient brownfield space to build the 4,000 homes needed.
But council deputy leader Bill Sharp believes some land, currently classified as green belt, could be legitimately used for homes.
He added: “We believe there are areas which are acceptable green belt and should be defended.
But if we can change some areas we can make the best use of it for our residents.
“We will put something in writing to the minister.”
A CAMPAIGNER called for ongoing uncertainty about building on green belt land to be put to an end by Castle Point councillors.
Tom Smith, a member of the Jotmans Action Group, which objects to plans for 265 homes at Jotmans Farm, Benfleet, said councillors who want to protect green belt areas should do more.
Mr Smith said: “We are under the impression council officers are running this draft local plan, whereas it is the councillors who are actually in charge. It is a continuous repeat and councillors have really got to stand up and put their own views in effectively.
“It is a saga which seems to have been going on forever.
“I’ve got emails from councillors telling me there is no way we will build on the green belt, but these councillors will not be voting.”
The local plan, which sets out where the thousands of homes will be built, includes the homes at Jotmans Lane, Benfleet, as well as Glebelands, Thundersley.
A High Court hearing in March will debate the Glebelands proposals.
The result is likely to set a precedent which will influence the plans for Jotmans Farm.