Councillors warned they could face jail if they reject planning policy
Councillors in Wrexham have been told they could end up in prison if they fail to vote for a controversial Local Development Plan they say is based on false statistics.
The authority – which has no overall control – has already rejected the LDP twice, arguing that it favours private developers who want to build executive housing estates.
But legal advice circulated by council officers in advance of a crunch meeting on December 20 warns elected members they could face “a period of imprisonment, a fine, confiscation of assets or other punishment permitted by law” if they fail to approve the plan and are judged to have acted in contempt of court.
The LDP sets out council policy on the future development of the city and is meant to provide legal guidance for planning decisions that are made. Would-be developers who believe the council has deviated from the LDP when judging their applications can challenge such decisions at appeal and in the High Court.
An unspecified group of developers won their bid to declare the rejection of the LDP unlawful and a judge has ordered the council to reconsider its position.
In advance of the December 20 meeting, the council’s legal officer has now circulated advice to councillors which states: “The position remains as always at council meetings that councillors are free to vote how they choose. However, as you are aware, there are consequences. By declining to adopt the LDP, there has been a breach of statutory duty to adopt the LDP as found by the court.
“You were all made aware of the implications and risks of voting not to adopt the LDP in the council reports in April and June. This included my estimate that legal costs of up to £100,000 could be incurred due to a failure to adopt the LDP. This has happened and we have been ordered to pay £100,000 legal costs to the claimants. In addition we have incurred legal costs ourselves together with substantial officer time spent dealing with this case.
“If councillors choose to vote against adopting the plan again then the statutory duty will be breached again. The case will return to court, incurring further legal costs. The judge can find the council in contempt of court if it disobeys a court order. As individual councillor votes will be available (presuming there is a recorded vote) then the court could make an order against those individuals. If the court finds a defendant in contempt of court, the court may impose a period of imprisonment, a fine, confiscation of assets or other punishment permitted by law.
“A complaint to the Ombudsman for alleged breach of the code of conduct could be made, for example under the code councillors must not use or authorise others to use the resources of the authority imprudently or unlawfully.
“I will be drafting a report to council for the December 20 meeting to include the current position. I will not be incurring further costs obtaining specific legal advice on this matter. ”
The council’s nine-strong Plaid Cymru group said that in view of the threat it was seeking legal advice on how its councillors were permitted to vote, but they would not be supporting the plan, believing it would have an impact on communities for decades to come.
Plaid group leader Cllr Marc Jones, who is also the party’s national chair, said the group had an alternative proposal to the LDP that it doesn’t support: “We are for a plan that builds on brownfield sites and infill within settlements. The LDP as it stands will enable urban sprawl that will see the green spaces between villages such as Gwersyllt, Rhosrobin, Pandy and Bersham and Wrexham itself vanish.
“The two Key Strategic Sites either side of Wrexham that are critical elements of the LDP are housing estates of 1520 and 1600 houses respectively on greenfield sites of Best and Most Valuable agricultural land. It’s a disaster in terms of food security, environmental protection as well as not providing housing for the 3000+ on the council housing waiting list.”
The Plaid group’s deputy leader Cllr Carrie Harper said: “It’s utterly bonkers to be faced with a situation that could result in a jail sentence for doing our jobs and representing people. If we vote against this development plan, which we know people locally don’t want, we could face prison, a fine, or the seizure of our assets. It’s thoroughly undemocratic.
“Even in the face of all this, I could never in good conscience vote for something knowing it will damage my community, so I won’t vote for this plan. There needs to be accountability for all this. The whole plan is based on the Welsh Labour government’s flawed population projections, which estimated a 20% growth in the population. The reality is a static population for the past decade and it’s now predicted to fall by 1.5% in the coming years.
“These houses, which will be mainly executive houses, aren’t needed as the population is static and due to decline. The bulk of the houses aren’t affordable for the vast majority and will put huge pressure on local infrastructure and services. Developers won’t address these issues.
“The big housing corporations who have gone to court to impose this plan are set to make hundreds of millions by building on our green fields but there is no benefit to our communities. The Labour government could have done the right thing and intervened – they were asked to intervene but have refused. They don’t want to be accountable. The bottom line is that we all know whose development plan this really is.”
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