Secrecy claims over key Norfolk homes blueprint

The drawing up of a blueprint for where thousands of homes should be built in and around Norwich has been criticised for excluding the public and even councillors from the debate.

However, council bosses hit back at claims the drawing up of the joint core strategy, which centres on where to put more than 30,000 homes and jobs, was undemocratic.

A Greater Norwich Development Partnership (GNDP) made up of Norfolk County Council, Norwich City Council, Broadland District Council, South Norfolk Council and the Broads Authority was formed to draw up the strategy.

It identifies a number of locations for homes to be built between now and 2026, earmarking 7,000 to the north east of Norwich, including at the Rackheath eco-town, 3,000 in Norwich, 2,200 in Wymondham and 1,000 in Hethersett.

A three-week long inspection of the draft version of the strategy, which will decide whether it is sound and can be adopted, began at the King's Centre in Norwich yesterday and critics slammed meetings held behind closed doors.

Representatives from groups such as Norfolk and Norwich Transport Action Group, Stop Norwich Urbanisation and the Campaign to Protect Rural England, told inspector Roy Foster that they felt local communities had been excluded from the process and had found it hard to obtain minutes and agendas relating to the meetings of the policy group.

Ian Shepherd, from the CPRE said: 'The GNDP is in a class of their own in terms of access to information. We feel from the start there was little or no opportunity for anyone to get a foot in the door and make any input at any stage.

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'You end up feeling you will get some consultation documents thrown at you at some point, with very little chance to suggest alternatives.'

And Green county councillor Andrew Boswell said as an elected representative he had resorted to Freedom Of Information requests to get information about what went on at the policy group meetings.

Barrister William Upton, for the GNDP, said: 'It is important for any council to be seen to be accessible, but you wouldn't expect to be able to walk in to a working party between Nick Clegg and David Cameron.

'That is how it has to work to make the system operable. To focus on the working group is to miss the point. It is only part of the process.'

GNDP officers said the working group recommendations went to the four councils involved in the GNDP for approval. Those meetings were open to the public and the agendas and minutes were available.

They added that councillors from all the councils were invited to attend briefings so they could better understand the process.

Yesterday's meeting also saw planning consultants such as Barton Willmore, Bidwells, Savills, JB Planning and Pegasus, are strongly represented, given they represent a string of developers hoping to build homes in and around Norwich.

At yesterday's meeting John Pugh-Smith, representing Barton Willmore, suggested that uncertainty over key parts of the startegy such as the Northern Distributor Road and 'shortcomings' in the strategy might make it worth inspector Roy Foster considering a suspension of the examination so further consultation could be carried out between developers and the GNDP.

But the GNDP has so far shown no appetite for that approach. The planning inspector himself recently asked whether the partnership wanted to go ahead with the inquiry given the uncertainty over funding and housing targets and was told it did.

Phil Kirby, Broadland District Council's strategic director, representing the GNDP, said: 'The partnership believes that this strategy provides the best way for managing growth, delivering improved services, as well as building new and expanded communities with enough jobs, good public transport, schools, community facilities and open space. It is a strategy for jobs, homes and prosperity for local people.'