Emails show what happened in build to Maidenhead 80 homes plan

EMAILS between council bosses and planning officers reveal what happened leading up to a controversial decision to build 80 homes locally.

Cllr Ross McWilliams (Con: Cox Green), lead member for housing opportunity, was found to have brought disrepute to his role and the council after he and his fellow Tory councillors on November’s Maidenhead planning panel approved CALA Homes’ plan to build 80 homes on Deerswood Meadow.

They liked the nearly 50 per cent affordable homes offer despite serious concerns raised by planning officers over flooding and its impact on open space land. CALA Homes have since withdrawn its plans.

Slough Observer: Drawing of the withdrawn scheme at Deerswood MeadowDrawing of the withdrawn scheme at Deerswood Meadow

Cllr McWilliams was found guilty of failing to clarify at the meeting he was speaking favourably of the scheme’s affordable homes offer as lead member for housing rather than a panel member, which potentially led to the perception he was publicly expressing support for the plans.

No sanctions were imposed by the committee as they thought his actions were a ‘likely result of his passion and enthusiasm of affordable housing provision in the borough rather than intentional deceit’. Cllr McWilliams resigned from the planning panel in January.

However, in a leaked report into Cllr McWilliams’ conduct, there’s an infamous paragraph that states he, along with council leader Andrew Johnson (Con: Hurley & Walthams), emailed head of planning Adrien Waite that they were ‘very keen’ for CALA Homes’ plans should be approved.

READ MORE: Senior Maidenhead councillor was advised not to vote on Deerswood Meadow plans

According to the report, Mr Waite alerted monitoring officer Emma Duncan about this email and advised Cllr McWilliams to exclude himself from voting given his past support of the scheme, which he ignored.

Both Cllrs McWilliams and Johnson have both said this was “factually incorrect,” adding they were seeking clarification on the flood risk and requesting an all member of the planning panel briefing on the flood mitigations and complexities of it.

Following a Freedom of Information request made by the Local Democracy Reporting Service, here is what was said in the emails.

On November 15, 2021, just two days before the planning meeting in question, Cllr McWilliams asked if panel members were minded to approve the scheme, against officer recommendations, and how would they do that.

However, he stressed he was coming to the panel with an open mind but wanted to be ‘prepared as possible’.

 

Slough Observer:

Mr Waite said in response it would be ‘dangerous’ for committee members to disagree with the advice of one of the statutory consultees, the Environment Agency (EA), which is a government-appointed advisory board on flooding and raised serious concerns about flooding at the site.

He wrote: “In effect, the committee should approach the application from the perspective that there are responses which must be taken into account and that any risks, issues or policy conflicts identified are real. It would be quite dangerous in terms of making a sound decision to seek to ignore or to try and undermine the technical expertise of the consultees (e.g. for a member to try and say that there isn’t a flood risk issue).”

He added the proposal would increase the risk of flooding to nearby residents due to the lack of flood compensation and impeding water flows and the failure to provide safe access and egress in the event of a flood, which would add pressure to the emergency services.

READ MORE: Contentious Maidenhead 80 homes plan withdrawn suddenly

In emails months before the controversial planning committee, Cllrs McWilliams and Johnson asked executive director of places services Andrew Durrant if a dedicated briefing session on the application could be arranged.

Cllr McWilliams said it was needed to clarify the flooding risk at the site as councillors feared at a previous meeting in February 2020, in which a similar scheme at the site was refused, that people would “drown” if development happened at the site.

He also said the flood risk did not say this and another application very close to the site stated that the scheme could go ahead subject to the details of flood resistance and resilience measures via a condition.

Cllr Johnson chimed in, saying: “Given the complexities surrounding this site and application I am at a loss as to why the applicant should not be permitted to offer a briefing to committee members on their scheme.”

Slough Observer: Email sent from Cllr McWilliams to Andrew Durrant on June 21, 2021Email sent from Cllr McWilliams to Andrew Durrant on June 21, 2021

Cllr McWilliams wrote on June 21, 2021: “The scheme is self-evidently complex because members misunderstood the EA’s position despite the applicant explaining that the site would remain dry in a one-in-100 year event.

“Incidentally, I’ve gone back through the recording of the meeting and did not detect planning officers correcting members when they said lives would be put at risk.

“I receive daily emails from residents in desperate need of housing support because for decades we have not built enough affordable and council-owned properties. It would be a great shame for a 45 per cent affordable housing scheme to fail once again because of a misunderstanding around flooding advice.”

Mr Durrant said an additional planning brief is out of scope of standard process and felt the complexity surrounding the flooding issues can be adequately handled through the normal process of technical briefings before the meeting and at the planning committee.

What have opposition councillors said?

Cllr John Baldwin (Lib Dem: Belmont), who was a voting member at November’s planning panel and was one of the 20 complainants, said there was something “very amiss” at the meeting and that Cllr McWilliams “was at the heart of it”.

He and the Maidenhead Lib Dems were “relieved” Cllr McWilliams was found guilty of bringing his role and the council in disrepute and called for Cllr Johnson to sack his cabinet member. Cllr McWilliams rejected calls to resign.

READ MORE: Maidenhead councillor rejects calls to resign

Cllr Baldwin said the emails between the councillors and officers “paint an even more disturbing picture” and called for the vital email sent by Cllr McWilliams sometime on or before November 12, 2021, to Mr Waite asking for the application to be approved to be released.

According to Cllr Baldwin, this is the email Emma Duncan was referring to when she advised Cllr McWilliams to exclude himself from voting.

He said it is still being withheld “without any lawful grounds”. He and residents will continue to pressure the council to release that message into the public domain.

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