Working on behalf of the Community

West Acre Park planning application stalled due to concerns over impact on Solent waders and migrating birds (onthewight.com)

The WAP planning application was due to come back to IW Council Planning Committee on 20th December 2022 but this committee meeting has been cancelled. Natural England had raised issues regarding houses being built on Solent waders and migrating birds feeding grounds and planning officers needed the committee to agree to amendments to the application to include mitigation conditions. The developer is still in talks with Natural England. This means that consent cannot be issued and therefore residents’ lawyers cannot proceed with Judicial Review.

Save Westridge Farm Campaign (crowdjustice.com)

Residents campaigning against the application have now to seek further funding to continue this case and I felt it was important for me as the Ryde Appley and Elmfield IW Councillor to make a statement in suport.

Letter/Statement – Cllr Michael Lilley – Ryde Appley and Elmfield

8th December 2022

The Fight for Westridge Farm – A Travesty of Injustice!

The West Acre Park planning application controversy will continue into 2023, as there as yet is no resolution between the developers, Isle of Wight Council, and Natural England. The IW planning officers had earmarked the 20th December 2022 planning committee meeting but now moved it into New Year. Until this issue is resolved, residents remain in limbo. In the meantime, the Government’s Levelling-Up and Regeneration Bill has now been amended to provide the Isle of Wight with the status as an Island without a bridge so that it can argue exceptional circumstances. The reality is residents in Ryde Appley and Enfield and Ryde, are still left with a fight for justice. This has been a long fight that goes back years.

The fight for preservation of the last working farm and environmentally important green space within the coastal seaside Town of Ryde goes back to 2016. It can be traced further back to the 1980s, when the current landowner gazumped the tenant farmer who was trying to buy the farm with the aim to develop it in the future. It is interesting to perceive that over time how former IW Council planning/housing employees have switched camps and joined the developer’s team and how planning agents and developers have been involved in identifying land such as Westridge Farm.

The first application to build 88 houses on a few acres of the farmland was made in 2016 and controversially approved in 2017. The application in 2019/20 during Covid19 for 472 houses on the entire farm site followed. The Ryde Appley and Elmfield, Nettlestone and Seaview and Ryde communities objected along with Town and Parish Councils but contrary to current law and the Levelling Up Bill whereby community wishes are to be given paramount importance their voices have not been heard by the Isle of Wight Planning Department. The 472 houses were controversially approved after 3 votes on 29th July 2022.

The Save Westridge Farm Campaign and delay after delay to consent being granted!

Residents’ launched a Save Westridge Farm campaign on Crowd Justice website and raised funds to fight the case. Residents were able to appoint lawyers and have put together a strong case to support Judicial Review which cannot proceed until consent is granted by the issuance of a Decision Notice which after 16 months is yet to be given. The planning application is now being bought back to planning committee at the earliest on 30th January 2023 as Natural England raised questions with the original application regarding houses being built on Solent Waders and Migration Birds feeding grounds. This has meant that the issuing of consent is further delayed which ultimately means residents now have to raise further funds. The irony for me is that residents have to raise finance to fight for their rights when as Council Tax Payers their money is being used by IW Council to fight them.

We perceive that it has become a game of poker in that  the residents have a good case (and a good set of cards) but IW Council (with a poor hand) playing a game of bluff and raising the stakes higher so residents eventually run out of cash. The tenant farmers, having no fight left in them, were forced to forego their home and livelihood under the unspeakable pressure posed by the application and agreed a deal with the developers and landowners amidst pure exhaustion.

The farming family had to fight this application through Covid19 whilst simultaneously trying to continue farming in this rising cost-of-living crisis. They had been fighting their right to farm this land for years with a wealthy landowner and developers wielding power over them. My heart goes out to them.

Many of you will agree with me when I say that this to me is about money/wealth and yielding power and grinding down ordinary hard-working run of the mill people who are trying to do the best they can for their families on the limited resources that they have. Residents’ lawyers have written endlessly to get information and put forward the case that the application needs to come back to planning committee but never received satisfactory replies.

Questions over continuing meetings and call back!

Councillors were harassed in trying to bring the decision back to the committee in March 2022 .I received extreme pressure to stand down as Chair of Planning Committee at the time although I followed the protocol of not voting. The decision in the end was not to call the decision back by one vote amidst alleged dubious illegal political manipulation.

I have personally written 1000s of words of objection and protest. I have been abused, threatened, given wrong legal advice by IW Council officers so that I did not attend meetings, and seen the tenant farming family lose their farm and local residents in total despair. For me it has not been about housing or green field sites but about a fair and level playing field and winning a decision fairly and within process. This is not the case and the decision to approve this application to me is a stain of social injustice on IW Council, the developer and landowner’s conscience; Because the key take-away from this entire sorry episode is as follows:

“If the IW Council is able to do this (either by way of incompetency or genuine intention) to any hard working family and effectively ‘get-away’ with it then they can do it to any of one of us. They will carry on and on until they have been told by a Court of Law and a High Court Judge that this conduct is intolerable, unconscionable and wholly unlawful. But more importantly they cannot get away with playing with peoples’ lives.”

This is the take-away from the Westridge Farm story and if it does not scare you then it really should.

Resignation, Call for Investigation and Draft Island Plan

I have asked many times for openness and transparency and a full investigation into the whole sorry affair but never received a satisfactory answer.  I have resigned as Chair of Planning Committee and full membership of the Committee in protest over the Westridge Farm application. I raised the issues with the Local Government Association Planning (LGA) Peer Review and supported their recommendations. A key message from the LGA Peer Review was IW Council was weakened by not having a up-to-date Island Plan/Strategy and this made it more likely decisions like WAP would happen. I voted for a draft Island Plan and still advocating for this to happen although there has been disagreement by other members. The whole Westridge Farm application has been an emotional rollercoaster and to me is systematically being swept under the carpet in an institutional cover-up.

It is interesting to see a similar application on a boundary placed farm of 375 houses was refused by a mainland/Hampshire local authority which was appealed by the developer. The Planning Inspectorate upheld the LA Authority’s decision. The narrative to IW Planning Committee members was that it was likely WAP would be supported on appeal. It has to be noted the mainland authority did have an up-to-date plan. https://www.dailyecho.co.uk/news/23147794.gosport-fareham-375-homes-refused-planning-inspector/

Housing Need versus Environmental Needs

There is a desperate need for housing in Ryde especially social housing for rent as 83% of private rented housing has been lost in the town during Covid19, changes in tax for private landlords and cost-of-living crisis. For me the case has always been that this land at Westridge was historic and environmentally important working farm land. Ryde is the largest most populated Town on the Isle of Wight and this working farmland was important to preserve to mitigate against carbon footprint, provide local food, and green space in a Town that has a deficit of greenspace. Ryde already had sites approved for housing including social housing for rent.

I would have accepted a fair decision if the application had not been submitted tactically through Covid19 when community was at its weakest, was not threatening a working farm with perhaps less housing on site (I accepted the first 88 houses), and there had been real consultation with the local community. This was not the case and for this reason alone the decision and whole process is disgusting and wrong and continues to be so to this very day. Residents deserve their day in Court which can only be the resolution to this situation. Residents are now facing high mortgage rates, huge price increases and therefore are again at their weakest to fight this case. I call out to those on the Isle of Wight and mainland to please help my community get justice and be able to get to Court.

I see this as a Climate Change and Austerity crisis and eroding of local peoples‘ right to protest, that should be the concern of every community across England and Wales. It is a matter of social injustice. I call national and local media to look into the detail of this case and investigate this injustice as it is relevant to every single one of us.

Cllr Michael Lilley

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