Tensions simmered as councillors debated the prospect of building new housing on “greenfield” sites on the outskirts of Brighton and Hove.

The Conservatives looked to outflank the ruling Greens in trying to provide protection for places such as Benfield Valley, Whitehawk Hill and Horsdean Rec.

They were angry at being unable to present three petitions with a combined total of more than 7,000 signatures to a meeting of Brighton and Hove City Council yesterday (Thursday 22 October).

The Argus:

Angry Conservative Councillor Dawn Barnett 

But their criticism of the mayor, Labour councillor Alan Robins, who chaired the meeting of the full council, provoked a backlash.

Fellow Labour councillors and the Green deputy leader of the council, Hannah Clare, deplored what they said was a personal attack.

By convention the mayor remains politically neutral and colleagues said that, in refusing to receive the petitions, Councillor Robins had acted on legal advice and had been guided by officials.

Read more: Anger at Green Party's Benfield Valley proposal for development

The seven-hour “virtual” meeting ended with officials asked to look into ways for the council to protect “urban fringe” sites that are currently earmarked as possible plots for housing.

Councillors also asked chief executive Geoff Raw to write to the government as they placed on record their concerns about the threat to green spaces posed by Conservative planning reforms nationally.

Conservative councillor Robert Nemeth said that the council owned much of the greenfield land on the outskirts that is being considered for housing in a policy document called City Plan Part 2.

As the landowner, he said, the council could refuse to give its consent regardless of planning policy.

But his political rivals said that the impetus to develop the urban fringe sites had come from the Conservative government in the first place.

Since then, Councillor Nemeth said, the pipeline of new homes in the built up parts of Brighton and Hove was enough for the greenfield sites to be saved.

The Argus:

Councillor Nemeth said: “I have discussed the City Plan Part 2 with numerous administration and opposition councillors, each of whom would normally either champion the environment or their own residents’ concerns.

“And not one was aware to what degree the City Plan passed the Planning Inspectorate’s target of 13,200 homes.”

He said that sites for 16,000 homes had been found and added: “All councillors that I have spoken to were under the impression that removing the 930 in the urban fringe would leave us short of the target which clearly isn’t the case.

“I realise now that some may have genuinely believed that the plan would be in tatters without the urban fringe sites and must have felt awful going back on their pledges to residents.”

He referred to Labour leader Nancy Platts committing to protect Whitehawk Hill Nature Reserve and her fellow East Brighton ward councillor Nikkie Brennan, formerly Labour and now an independent.

Read more: Fury as council deny Whitehawk Hill and Coldean speeches

Councillor Nemeth said that the council could prevent development on its own land. And, he said, it should listen to the thousands of people who wanted places such as Ingleside Stables, on the edge of Woodingdean, and Benfield Valley, in Portslade, protected from development.

Councillor Platts said that no one on the council wanted to build on the urban fringe but a planning inspector, appointed by the Conservative-led coalition government, had made the position clear.

The former council leader said: “It is possible to protect the urban fringe and build the affordable homes our residents need but that requires the government to step up and give us the necessary powers.

The Argus:

“The Labour and Green councillors worked in co-operation to develop a City Plan that protects 93 per cent of the urban fringe.

“If the Tories genuinely want to protect our green spaces then it is time they joined with us and lobbied their colleagues in Whitehall to change planning legislation.”

Another Labour councillor, Tracey Hill, who previously chaired the council’s Planning Committee, said that the whole subject had been debated in full in April.

She said: “Unfortunately, since that April meeting, instead of encouraging residents to participate in the consultation, Tories seem to want to revisit a decision already made by the council.

“So much for respecting democracy. If they valued democracy, they would encourage residents to submit their views as part of the consultation process – a process owned, ultimately, by the government.

“Instead, they are trying to create an alternative reality where everything falls within the remit of the council despite knowing full well how limited our local powers are.

“This misleads residents and shows the Tories up as an opposition which is not only irresponsible but ineffectual.”

She said that there was no guarantee of protection for the urban fringe under the government’s planning policies and criticised Conservative councillors for “parading around as its saviours”.

Green councillor Leo Littman, who currently chairs the Planning Committee, said that the council did not want to build on the outskirts.

He said: “We are all dedicated to protecting our city’s precious green spaces. As a Green, and a lecturer on environmental issues, this is close to my heart.

“I don’t want to see concrete over these spaces. As a local resident, these spaces are so precious to me.”

Conservative councillor Dawn Barnett said: “The Greens, which used to be a party that would lead environmental protests and lay down in front of bulldozers to save trees, are in danger of joining Labour as a party obsessed with building tower blocks of low-cost flats in the urban fringe – this time at the expense of Benfield Valley.

Councillor Barnett, who represents Hangleton and Knoll ward, said that she was “dead against” building on Benfield Valley – and if the Greens voted it through, they would be “finished” in the city.

In the end, Labour and the Greens voted together to ask for an official report to look at ways to save land on the urban fringe from being used to build housing.