A blazing Tory row over plans to let a party donor build 3,500 homes next to England’s largest rewilding site has been kicked into the long grass, just hours before a crucial vote.
Horsham Council was due to vote tonight on a Local Plan that would have approved a development by Thakeham Homes – a major party donor.
But council officials pulled the plug late on Tuesday night, as rebel Tory councillors threatened to vote the plan down – striking a blow to Boris Johnson ’s ‘build, build, build’ planning reforms.
The council said the vote – and the Local Plan – had been scrapped because of last minute changes to national planning guidelines – with Conservative council leader Paul Clarke saying it was “hugely disappointing”.
But local sources said rebels believed they had enough numbers to scupper the scheme by joining forces with opposition councillors.
Horsham’s Local Plan included proposals for 3,500 properties to be built by Thakeham Homes – which has given almost half a million pounds to the Party since 2017.
While the firm has paid other parties for space at annual conferences, the Tories remain by far the largest beneficiary of Thakeham’s cash.
But the firm was set to build next to the Knepp Estate – a pioneering wilderness site aimed at reviving endangered habitats and species.
The site is home to free-roaming ponies, grazing longhorn cattle, Tamworth pigs, various deer as well as turtle doves, nightingales, peregrine falcons and bats.
Despite a high profile campaign against the plan – with even Stanley Johnson, the Prime Minister’s father speaking out against it – local Tories were under pressure to back it.
Leaked emails revealed councillors had been warned they faced deselection if they rebelled on tonight’s crunch vote.
In a leaked email, reported in the West Sussex Country Times, Mr Clarke told fellow Tories he didn’t want to “beat people with a stick to follow the group rules.”
But he warned anyone who chose to ignore a group majority vote would be harming any future political career and aspirations and said he had seen members de-selected by their local association.
And he said local Tory Chairs “take a dim view of councillors that vote against group rules.”
Mr Clarke told the local paper: “My email provided clarification of the options available to them should they feel unable to support a group policy and the email referred them to the relevant party rules.”
A spokesperson for Horsham council said: “The Government announced changes to the National Planning Policy Framework on Tuesday 20 July, without notice.
“These changes have significant implications on the Horsham District Local Plan.
“Horsham District Council is now required to prepare a Local plan detailing 30-year vision.”
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They added: “The current draft Plan prepared under the previous requirements sets out planning policies and proposals to guide development up to 2038 only.
“We have sought legal advice and it is clear that we will need to commission some additional work to support this new 30-year vision requirement.
“Consequently, we have been recommended to delay the development of the Local Plan.”
Thakeham has promised it would protect wildlife and ecosystems if its proposal was approved.
And it committed to building a £5 million bridge for animals to cross over the A24 into the Knepp Estate.
A Thakeham spokesperson said: “Our proposed £5m wildlife-green bridge is a product of listening to the local debate which highlighted concerns around the A24, an artificial barrier currently blocking wildlife access between the rewilding at Knepp Estate and the networks of farmland beyond it. Supported by our commitment to 20% biodiversity net gain, our proposal offers the only opportunity to overcome one of the most significant pieces of road infrastructure limiting the movement of wildlife across the district.
“Thakeham have worked collaboratively through the Local Plan process, being one of only a few sites to hold public meetings and consultation events, responding directly to feedback from the local community, stakeholders and the Council.
“We actively work with a range of wider stakeholders, including political parties, to promote sustainable development. We are founder members of the HBF’s Future Homes Taskforce, the industry’s quest to become zero-carbon, and the first UK Housebuilder to sign the UN’s SME Climate Hub ‘Race to Zero’ Campaign.”