Housing development for Plume of Feathers gardens? Town Councillors switch agenda item into secret session

Written by Tony Millett on .

UPDATE: The draft minutes of the meeting are now available: "The second written motion proposed by Cllr Dobson and seconded by Cllr Hannaford-Dobson requesting registration of the land as a SHLAA site was not carried." The votes were - For: two. Against: eight. Abstained: three.  This was a recorded vote - the voting details can be found here at item 189/16.

Item Six on the Full Council's agenda for Monday (July 25) was a "Written motion from Councillor S. Dobson about the Plume of Feathers Garden" - this motion was seconded by Councillor E.M. Hannaford-Dobson.  It read:

It was immediately moved that this motion should be moved into Part Two of the meeting - this is the closed or secret part of the meeting from which the public and press are excluded.  Councillor Dobson commented: "I do feel this should be in Part Two - the discussion will raise some points that will be detrimental to the council."

This was somewhat strange as the normal reasons for discussing an agenda item in private are that it concerns confidential information or that it may be commercially sensitive.

Another reason for a council meeting in private comes from draft government guidelines (from 2014):  "...a lawful power is used to exclude the public in order to maintain orderly conduct or prevent misbehaviour at a meeting.  In addition, a meeting can also be closed to the public where the executive so decides...because exempt information would otherwise be likely to be disclosed."

The list of exempt information is long but does not include the airing of opinions or facts 'detrimental to the council'.

So what is the Dobson motion really about?  The SHLAA is the Strategic Housing Land Availability Assessment which provides Wiltshire Council with sites for new housing developments to meet its government agreed allocation of new homes across the county.  

In the words of Wiltshire Council's website: "The council invites submissions of potential development sites and maintains an ongoing ‘call for sites’ exercise."  One can only assume that the motion means the gardens would be developed as housing - to enrich the Council.

Plume of Feathers Gardens [from the Town Council website]Plume of Feathers Gardens [from the Town Council website]And what, for those who do not know, are these gardens?  The Town Council's website includes this: "The garden is tucked away off the London Road, reached via Plume of Feathers Lane (diagonally opposite the petrol station) and is currently leased to the Richmond Fellowship and open to the public."

"There is seating, a pond and a fruit and vegetable garden complete with bug houses providing a space for nature." It is understood that the Richmond Fellowship's lease runs out in October.  

With so little information made available a little sleuthing was called for.  The minutes of the meeting of the Council's Amenities and Open Spaces Committee (A&OS) on July 18 include this entry from the closed part of their meeting:   

"LEASE ARRANGEMENTS AT TOWN COUNCIL - OWNED OPEN SPACE  Members noted a report by the Town Clerk and considered lease arrangements at a Town Council - owned site.   RESOLVED: to continue with the present arrangements at Plume of Feathers Garden until October, ahead of which a further review would be carried out."

The strange thing is that during the discussion that we were allowed to hear on Monday evening, it was clearly stated that part one of the Dobsons' motion had already been agreed at that A&OS meeting.

Perhaps at some future meeting of the Council the veil of secrecy will be lifted.  The problem is, of course, that secrecy breeds rumour...