Row between Tories and Lib Dems escalates over Thakeham’s plans for 25,000 homes in South Cambridgeshire
The escalating row between Liberal Democrats and Conservatives over development in South Cambridgeshire stepped up again as new information emerged over Thakeham’s proposals for 25,000 homes in the countryside.
A Freedom of Information request to East West Rail revealed that Thakeham, the West Sussex developer behind the shock plans for South West Cambridgeshire, had claimed to be in “advanced discussions with Homes England to join us as our promotions and delivery partner”.
Liberal Democrats said this directly contradicted the statement by Anthony Browne, the Conservative MP for South Cambridgeshire, that the proposal was not supported by the government.
But Mr Browne dismissed the claim as “pure speculation”, “fear mongering” and bordering on a “conspiracy theory”.
Thakeham unveiled its bombshell proposals for a “zero carbon community” comprising a new town and connected villages in December. It said it controlled land around Barrington, Bassingbourn-cum-Kneesworth, Foxton, Meldreth, Orwell, Shepreth, Whaddon and Wimpole and was in discussions with other landowners ahead of submitting proposals for consideration in the Local Plan.
Lib Dem campaigners - who launched the South West Cambridge Action Group - voiced concerns that Thakeham was looking to bypass the usual planning process with government support.
But the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said in December there had been no ministerial discussions and it was a matter for the local planning authority - the Lib Dem-controlled South Cambridgeshire District Council.
The new emails show Thakeham looking to arrange meetings with East West Rail to discuss how the “scheme can contribute” to the new railway line, which will link Oxford and Cambridge.
Cllr Aidan Van de Weyer, the Lib Dem councillor for the villages of Barrington, Orwell and Wimpole, said: “Once again, new information on what is happening behind the scenes is trickling out in a way that just stokes the fears of residents that Thakeham’s proposal has government backing.
“If Thakeham’s claims about a partnership with Homes England are true, then the people of South Cambridgeshire have been let down terribly by the government.
“It is unacceptable for a government body to be talking about becoming a ‘promotion and delivery partner’ without reference to the local people who would be affected.
“I have asked both Homes England and Thakeham for an explanation of what their relationship is. It is really disappointing that they have not been upfront about this so far.
“Every since the announcement of the new town proposal in December, the silence of key players in government has been palpable. All we have had so far is a very carefully worded statement from Chris Pincher, the minister for housing, denying that there have been ‘ministerial discussions’. But that leaves more questions than answers. We know that his boss Robert Jenrick, the Secretary of State, has met Thakeham - there are pictures to prove it - but he has not spoken out.
“All parts of government need to come clean on what’s going on here. And they need to publicly distance themselves from Thakeham so that the people of South Cambridgeshire can have the threat of this unwanted and unsustainable development removed.”
But Mr Browne responded by saying: “Elected officials at all levels of government have a duty to be straight with their constituents. The pure speculation in these comments paints a picture that borders on conspiracy theory. It is beneath the dignity of Cllr Van der Weyers's position to engage in such blatant fearmongering.
“Elected officials at all levels of government have a duty to be straight with their constituents. The pure speculation in these comments paints a picture that borders on conspiracy theory. It is beneath the dignity of Cllr Van der Weyers's position to engage in such blatant fear mongering.
“You could easily point to similar photos of Cllr Van der Weyer sharing a platform with Thakeham at his own conference. We know Liberal Democrat Councillors and even the executive ceader, Cllr Bridget Smith, met with Thakeham on multiple occasions - does this mean they are involved in a conspiracy to concrete over South Cambridgeshire?
“The facts are simple and backed up by answers to my own questions to government. There have been no ministerial meetings or discussions about the development, and the Government has made clear that this proposal does not have its support. It is a normal planning decision for South Cambridgeshire District Council. Homes England remains an independent, non-departmental public body that acts as such, with no statutory planning powers. It is time for South Cambridgeshire Liberal Democrats to live up to their responsibilities and admit that they will have to make a planning decision on this development, not the Government.
“So let’s focus on stopping this development where it can be stopped – when it is submitted to the next Greater Cambridge Local Plan or as an application. It is imperative that Thakeham’s proposal is rejected at the earliest possible opportunity.
“Last month I wrote to residents in the villages bordering the site to reassure them of the processes to come. I have also called on local councillors to work with me against this development. They are welcome to keep playing silly games, or they can get behind a proper campaign to ensure this unsuitable development is thrown out.”
Earlier this month, Mr Brown accused the Lib Dem-run South Cambridgeshire District Council of failing to do enough to prevent unsustainable development in the county.
Cllr Van de Weyer responded this week by saying: “The hypocrisy of Anthony Browne’s statements on development is revealing of how little he genuinely cares for our area. The government that he supports in Westminster is pushing ever higher rates of development through the OxCam Arc and the devolution deal, but he tells residents that he opposes more housing in South Cambridgeshire - even when it is included in the Tory Local Plan!
“Mr Browne himself said in Parliament last year that 'We should have three priorities: growth, growth and growth’. Yet he says to people here that he is campaigning for ‘fewer homes’ in South Cambridgeshire. He is either trying to fool his residents or he is fooling himself. But it is clear that Anthony Browne is letting Cambridgeshire down.
“The Lib Dem-run district council is putting together a new local plan that will bring the sustainable infrastructure and better new housing that our area so badly needs. We are giving people here a real say in the vision for a greener and fairer future."
With mayoral elections coming - Cllr Van de Weyer will stand against incumbent Tory James Palmer - the row shows little sign of going away.