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Wiltshire Council Cabinet finally agree to sell public amenity land off Rabley Wood View - local opinion ignored

The long fight to stop building on the public amenity land off Rabley Wood View - a fight that dates back to 2012 - ended on Tuesday morning (January 30) when Wiltshire Council Cabinet approved the 'appropriation' of the land so they can sell it - and the housing development can proceed.

Councillors kept repeating two mantras: first that they have a responsibility to all the people of Wiltshire and secondly that the planning part of the matter had been decided by the Planning Inspector and this was only about the sale of the land.

Their repeated refrains did not prevent three clear and impassioned attempts by Marlborough residents to prevent the sale. 

Cabinet heard appeals from Jayne Baker (who with her husband David has led the local opposition), from Marlborough Councillor Guy Loosmore, and WIltshire Councillor Stewart Dobson (who had to speak as a private citizen as he owns property near the amenity land - Council Leader Baroness Scott even felt the need to call him Mr Dobson rather than Councillor Dobson.) 

The only support for the objectors from other councillors at the meeting came from Councillor Ian Thorn of Calne (who leads the LibDem group on the Council.)   He said he found the arguments from the Marlborough residents 'far more compelling' than those from Councillor Toby Sturgis the Cabinet member taking the sale through.

He especially noted the overturning of the phrase in perpetuity, which had been applied to the land currently being used as an open space: "If we accept that then words are pointless and meaningless."  He feared the Council was taking the wrong decision and wanted the decision postponed for further consideration.

He was slapped down by Councillor Scott: "I'm surprised you're not considering all the people of Wiltshire - as is your duty."  It will be interesting to see whether the people of Marlborough will gain any benefit from the money raised by the sale.

Councillor Loosmore: "A purely legal argument was being used to justify the sale...it's being legally brushed under the carpet to gain the end result - money."  He quoted the Prime Minister's recent statement that all developments must show a 'net environmental gain' and stressed the historic nature of the water meadow that was to be used for most of the play area once the amenity land was built on.

He thought the argument by the Council was 'very light on the anxieties raised by residents' - and this sort of treatment of residents simply led to people feeling 'disenfranchised and powerless'.

Jayne Baker stressed that the existing play and amenity area was safe 365 days of the year and emphasised the Council's duty of care to ensure the safety of children.  She spelt out why the new area on the water meadow would be unsafe. 

She challenged the notion, now accepted by Wiltshire Council, that this water meadow land provided 'equivalent or better quality [land] in a suitable location' - as national planning policy demanded. 

Referring to the Council's dismissal of the original planning condition that the area had to be held as amenity land in perpetuity, she said: "Legally you may have a right to do this, but morally it is indefensible."

"If you agree to sell this recreation space you will be setting a clear precedent that planning conditions can be ignored.  Why would anyone ever need to comply with any other condition in the future?"

"This makes a mockery of the Council’s planning procedures and will lead to total loss of public confidence in the system."

Mrs Baker finished: "We understand Wiltshire Council has a responsibility to make best use of the assets they own for the benefit of their constituents.  We are your constituents and wish to advise you that the best use for this land is not to sell it for housing for a short term financial gain, but to leave it as a well-loved, safe and appreciated area for open space recreation within the local community, just as it has been for over 20 years, and just as it was always intended to stay in perpetuity."

"We urge you to vote against the sale of this land."

Councillor Stewart Dobson addressed the issue on three grounds: planning, legal and personal conscience. "No one would deny that additional housing and affordable housing is needed, but so is additional recreational land."  He found the replacement site on the water meadow "totally unsuitable".

As in Mrs Baker's statement to the meeting, Councillor Dobson made reference to Wiltshire Council's strapline 'Where everybody matters': "I want our Council strapline to mean what it says."  He ended: "Be brave and be strong enough to withdraw this land from sale." 

No member of the Cabinet spoke or voted against the sale.  Baroness Scott ended proceedings: "It's a difficult decision taken out of our hands by the Planning Inspector's decision."  And thanking the Marlborough objectors for coming to the meeting, she said: "I'm sorry it's not the decision you wanted."

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