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Otterpool Park, £100 million and a Process

John Willoner's Eco-House at Findhorn. Turf roof, passive solar, solar panel.At the Folkestone and Hythe District Council meeting of 20th November, the most significant item of debate was arguably:

Otterpool Park - Additional Capital Funding

"This report considers the recommendation of the Cabinet on additional capital funding for the Otterpool Park project."

The recommendations agreed by Cabinet were:

1. To receive and note report C/19/23

2. To recommend to Council that it makes available an additional one hundred million pounds to be drawn down over a period of up to five years to enable the Otterpool Park project to proceed;

3. That decisions on spending the monies (if approved by council) are made by the decision maker after having consulted the Otterpool Park Working Group, with decisions on expenditure in excess of £100,000 being subject to the approval of the majority of the Working Group Members and;

4. To approve the submission of the Garden Communities capacity fund bid to government for 2019/20.

The motion was passed 15 votes to 10 with one absention. All Conservative, UKIP and Independent Councillors voting and present supported the motion (Cllr Jenny Hollingsbee declared an interest and did not vote), as did I and Cllr Rebecca Shoob. Cllr John Wing abstained, and all other Green, Labour & Lib Dem Councillors present (excepting Cllrs Shoob, Wing and myself) voted against.

This was a really hard debate for me and other Councillors. National Planning rules are forcing a huge number of new build homes on our area, and if the Council does not plan where they go, then developers will do that for us. However, previous proposals for Otterpool Park I have spoken out against before, and I stick to that. However, just because the name remains the same, It may be that the intention CAN be changed to something that delivers the things that even three years ago we were calling for - a development that provides a huge amount more Council housing, properly affordable housing, an enviromental exemplar development and infrastructure improvements that are felt right across the district.

The plans aren't there yet, but that seems to be the direction of travel. I can't, won't, and don't support any development that doesn't commit to enabling 1,000+ new Council houses, a good number of PROPERLY affordable homes, a carbon-neutral development and District supporting new infrastructure. But if we can get the agreements that that is what it WILL be - and we aren't there yet - I would have problems arguing against that.

However, the key to this motion is that it doesn't agree to build any section of Otterpool. It doesn't make any decision to do so. What it DOES do is to put in place a framework and process for major spending decisions where they are shared across all groups in the Council beforehand and subject to a majority binding vote of Councillors in the cross party Working Group. No one Councillor has final say, as they have in other schemes.

In speaking in the debate on this motion, I said:

"I wanted to speak about this motion, and what it does, and doesn't do.

"I know the government drivers for new house building and the massive squeeze that they put on local authorities. I accept that the pressure they put on is immense, and I think its unacceptable. Local Authorities should be able to determine their own housing needs without the current blackmail inherent in the system. But we are where we are.

"When the proposals for Otterpool were first floated, in my discussions with others about the scheme, then a 12,000 house development, I said that I was utterly opposed to a development of that type, unless it delivered things for the area. If it delivered those things, then we could talk.

"If.

"If it was smaller.

"If.

"If it built and enabled a generation changing amount of new council housing. Not a few hundred new Council houses, but 1,000. Enough to end our Council housing waiting list - that sort of number.

"If.

"It is delivered properly affordable homes for people on real wages in this area to aspire to get onto the housing ladder. Not the Government definition of affordable, but actually affordable to real people of real wages here.

"If.

"If the infrastucture that the development needed didn't just support that development, or make problems worse elsewhere in the district, but that infrastructure actually helped fix the problems we have elsewhere. So water and sewage systems that will cope long term, and relieve the existing pressure on a sewage system in Folkestone that struggles to cope. Medical facilities, schools, roads, jobs - not just to support itself, but improve the rest of our district.

"If.

"If it was a Green development, Carbon neutral and innovative, a development that isn't just an example of how to build now, but is for generations to come. A Welywn Garden City of our times.

"If.

"And in discussions around the project, I've heard a lot of agreement with at least some of those points. I'm seeing that that is the direction of travel - I think.

"But that's not nearly enough. I want to see those commitments in black and white, for that to be the point of the development - not the profit - before a single house is built there. And we're not at that point yet.

"But that's the key point. Making a decision on those things is not what this decision today does. Which is good, because where we are at, with the promises so far, I couldn't vote for that.

"What this decision today is is a framework under which the major spending decisions are taken, and makes each one subject to the majority agreement of the Working Group.

"The original draft of this proposal gave the decision making authority to the Leader on their own, in reference to the Working group. That allowed one person to make these decsions, and I couldn't possibly have supported that, which I and others made clear.

"To the credit of the officers and administration, they have gone away and come back with an altered proposal that contains a majority lock on the big spending decisions. It's not perfect, but I can accept it.

"As the decisions come forward, each individual one can be treated on its merits. And, if they don't meet my "if" criteria, then I won't be supporting them. And if a majority don't support it, then the proposal will fall.

"But that's for another day.

"Today is about giving some proper democratic accountability to the big spending decisions as they come forward. It should ensure, to give an example, that 3 of the 5 groups in this room never suddenly learn again that this Council had bought a Castle without not just knowing in advance, but having a hand in the decision.

"This proposal, just, gives us that confidence. And although I have not yet lost any of my concerns about the development itself, I'll support this proposal to ensure the right of Councillors to be involved in the spending decisions being brought forward."