Controversy as ‘Sidmouth blamed for plan delay’

East Devon District Council Chief Executive Mark Williams.

East Devon District Council Chief Executive Mark Williams. - Credit: Archant

East Devon District Council’s top officer has drawn criticism for a comment he made about Sidmouth at a meeting on the authority’s development blueprint.

In response to a statement from campaigners about ‘bewildering’ proposals for a business park near Sidford, chief executive Mark Williams appeared to suggest that the town was responsible for a three-year delay to the region’s Local Plan.

The long-awaited document, which outlines where development can take place, was finally signed off at the meeting last Thursday (January 28).

But in order to satisfy a government planning inspector, controversial proposals for a 12-acre business park between Sidford and Sidbury had to be left in.

Addressing East Devon District Council (EDDC) on Thursday, Richard Eley, who was speaking on behalf of campaign group Save Our Sidmouth (SOS), said the inclusion of the Sidford employment land had ‘bewildered and angered everyone’ in the town.

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In response, Mr Williams said: “Mr Eley, well, you would say that, wouldn’t you.

“I think most people outside of Sidmouth would say, but for Sidmouth, we would’ve had a Local Plan about three years ago.”

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In his statement to EDDC, Mr Eley talked about how the Sidford employment land had been met with disagreement from both residents and Sid Valley representatives.

He said: “Time and again, we clearly won the debate, but lost the decision. What hurts the most is we conducted ourselves with decency and dignity.

“We respected and believed in the democratic process.

“We even had a blind faith in the inspector. This was more than a defeat for Sidmouth, it was defeat for the way we do things in this country.”

Mr Eley thanked residents across the Sid Valley for supporting the SOS campaign.

He added: “Even [EDDC] eventually opposed [the employment site], yet still the inspector decided that he would impose it none-the-less.

“An affront to democracy, an insult to fair play and an act of stupidity and ill-judgement.”

Later in the meeting, Mr Williams branded Mr Eley’s speech ‘churlish’ after mistakenly thinking he had referred to planning inspector Anthony Thickett as ‘idiotic’.

Mr Williams said: “I would just say one thing in response to Mr Eley’s churlish comment with regards to the inspector.

“I actually think that we were very lucky to have Mr Thickett to be our inspector - he is probably the fourth most senior planning inspector in the whole land.

“To call him idiotic, I think actually just shows how silly your approach is.”

The chairman of the council, Councillor Stuart Hughes, apologised to Mr Eley following the comment. Mr Williams apologised ‘for using the word idiotic’.

Following the exchange, SOS campaigner Robert Crick said the comments, which he described as ‘a remarkable event’, made it appear Mr Williams was ‘rounding on the people of Sidmouth’. He told the Herald: “He blamed us for having delayed the process by daring to question the council’s original proposals.”

Mr Crick felt that Mr Williams had shown ‘animosity to the town and people of the Sid Valley’ and added that, if this were the case, it ‘must surely disable him from fulfilling his role as a servant of East Devon’ and that ‘perhaps it is time for him to consider his position’.

The Herald approached Mr Williams, but he declined to comment.

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