Sunday, December 3, 2023

Masonic hall development could set ‘dangerous precedent” says councillor

TWO of Thurrock’s planning councillors have spoken of their fear that developers will be able to ride roughshod over their responsibilities to local communities after a plan for a new 30-flat complex in Grays was approved.

The scheme for the site of the existing Masonic hall on Lenthall Avenue, was put forward by local businessman Philip Barton Wright, owner of Orsett Hall Hotel, who argued that he could not afford to make any contribution towards infrastructure and the provision of affordable housing if the project were to be financially viable.

Normally such a development would be expected to consist of at least 35 per cent of affordable housing and the infrastructure payment would be £5,000 per dwelling. Planning officers reported that after negotiations, the developer had agreed to pay £2,000 per unit towards infrastructure but would make no concession over affordable housing.

That immediately sparked concern from Cllr Phil Anderson who spoke of his fears that it would set a very dangerous precedent and he quizzed planning officer Jonathan Keen over the negotiations, pressing for answers as to why such a low figure was being set for recommendation.

“The team felt the developer couldn’t afford,” it said Mr Keen.

Council planning chief Andy Millard intervened to say: “This is a reasonable proposal.”

Cllr Richard Speight also quizzed Mr Keen over the loss of a community facility, saying that the hall was a centre for local activity but was told loss of the hall, which was built in 1959, was “no loss to the general community – and had been replaced by relocation of its activities to the Cross Keys pub.”

Cllr Speight shared Cllr Anderson’s concerns about precedent, saying: “It is extremely disappointing. Is viability now going to work so that developers can set their own rules?

“There are lessons to be learned from this.”

However, with the planning meeting well into its fifth hour on Thursday evening, few other councillors seemed willing to take up cudgels over procedure – or to discuss the plan in significant detail.

As a vote drew close Cllr Anderson commented: “At any other time we would take a long time discussing this” which provoked a brief discussion about deferring the issue to the next meeting but Mr Millard again intervened to argue that it would be improper to do so, as it would push the application beyond its expiry date.

At that a vote was taken and the scheme approved.


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