A correspondent writes (views expressed are their own):
STUART HUGHES AND THE SIDFORD BUSINESS PARK
Councillor Stuart Hughes rightly describes the inclusion of a 12-acre business park in the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty at Sidford in East Devon’s Local Plan as “a kick in the teeth” to the people of the Sid Valley. But he seems indignant at suggestions that he could have done more to prevent this disaster. (See his comment on this site, 1st February).
It’s true that Councillor Hughes has consistently criticised the business park proposal but some major questions remain about his record in this whole sorry scandal.
1. Why does he insist that the Sidford site was deleted from the Local Plan when it wasn’t?
In March 2015 he helped to persuade Conservative colleagues on EDDC to vote to remove the business park from the Local Plan, after they had strongly supported its inclusion in 2014. But then, incredibly, he didn’t seem to realise that this change of mind needed to be justified to the Inspector. Indeed, Mr Thickett, himself, in his 2016 Report expressed surprise that “no new evidence was submitted (to him) by the council to explain its volte face”.
Without such evidence there was no chance of its being removed, making the vote appear a mere pre-election ploy to save local Tory District councillors, whose seats were threatened by Independents. If the vote WAS genuine, it suggests a massive case of naivety and incompetence by councillors who thought they could obtain the Inspector’s approval for their change of mind without giving any reasons!
2. Should he have revealed what he knew about the background to the Sidford Business Park proposal?
This appears to have originated in a confidential understanding between council officers, a Sidford landowner, and a prominent local businessman. In 2012 a national supermarket, was in negotiations with the businessman to purchase this site which would enable a move to the greenfield site at Sidford.
The businessman in question was a member of the East Devon Business Forum, (EDBF) a lobby group of landowners and developers which had rubbished the findings of independent consultants, and proposed inflated employment land targets. These were later accepted by the Council leadership and used to justify the Sidford proposal – indeed EDBF later boasted about its influence in this decision.
As chair of the Scrutiny Committee Councillor Hughes supported the setting up in 2012 of a sub-committee, under Councillor Graham Troman, to investigate the influence of the EDBF, but he remained publicly silent when this investigation was blocked and then later suspended by the Chief Executive who ordered an officer not to attend, with minutes on these meetings being scant on detail and open to interpretation.
3. Could he have done more do to clarify the role of the Council Leader?
In the summer of 2012 Councillor Hughes attended a site meeting at Alexandria Road with Council Leader Paul Diviani and an others. A County official apparently advised that it was quite practical to create a new access to the site from the B3176 and it is said there was up to £40000 available for a feasibility study.
But the day after this meeting the funding was apparently “pulled” because, Councillor Hughes was told, EDDC were in negotiation with a major supermarket chain.
In October 2012 the Leader told the Sidmouth Herald that constructing a new access to Alexandria Road was “too problematic.” Councillor Hughes was apparently “flabbergasted” by this statement and challenged Cllr Diviani at a Scrutiny meeting, but never followed up what seemed to be the Leader’s ambiguity towards the improvement and modernisation of the Sidmouth site.
4. Why didn’t he argue against the proposal at the Public Examination of the Local Plan in February 2014?
Neither Councillor Hughes nor any other Sidmouth District councillors spoke at the Public Examination before the Inspector. It was left to the Town Council, members of the public, and a Honiton councillor to put the case against building an unnecessary business park on a flood plain in an AONB. Councillor Hughes, as County councillor responsible for Highways, might have effectively challenged the “experts” who testified that narrow local roads were capable of absorbing the heavy traffic that would be created. Indeed he has since said that this may form one of the objections to any future planning application.
5. Why has he now thrown in his lot with the leadership he called “spineless and arrogant” for the Sidford business park project?
After the elections of May 2014 Stuart was summarily sacked from his committee positions by the Council leadership which claimed he was “too busy”, though other councillors who had dual roles and busy lives were not similarly sacked. This excuse was widely derided, and Councillor Hughes clearly felt he had been punished for not completely toeing the party line. He furiously publicly condemned the Council leadership as “spineless and arrogant”.
Astonishingly, in 2015 he agreed to serve as Chair of the Council, working in close collaboration with the very people he had so recently railed against.
This may be the way our local politics works, and but to many of his electors it might well smack of opportunism and lack of principle.
Not that this would be a first: his transition from Monster Raving Loony Party in the 1990s to EDDC Conservative Party Chair has been one that many fail to comprehend: