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Development Discord

Development Discord - BAE plans leisure and retail setupTempers flared on Wednesday at Fylde Council's Development Control Committee meeting. Yet it was a published agenda which - superficially - had hardly anything of significance on it.

But the troublesome item was probably the one that was innocently headed "Update On Appeal By BAE Systems"

It was the last item on the order paper. Well, actually, to be technically correct, the exclusion of the press and public before it was the last item on the public agenda. So the BAE item had no report or details published, and was something that was to be heard behind closed doors after the press and public had been excluded.

It is  unusual to have something as simple as an 'Update' declared an exempt item, and the fact that it was exempt suggests there was likely to be some change.

Given the Council's former stance of refusing BAE permission for a 25-bed hotel with linked pub and restaurant, four office buildings, a supermarket with petrol station, two non-food retail units, and five industrial/commercial units and did we hear a cinema? on its former GEC Marconi adhesives factory close to its Warton site, we can deduce that the scheme might be moving toward happening.

An appeal against Fylde's refusal of permission is due to be heard by an independent planning inspector shortly.

There were lots of angles on that original application, the hotel and pub would damage trade in St Anne's (where lots of BAE people stay whilst on courses or whatever), the shops - and especially the supermarket - will damage existing traders in the surrounding area as far as Freckleton, Lytham and Kirkham, and so on. It will also bring - as one person said to us "traffic chaos to Warton".

We had another worry, that it will revive talk of the Ribble barrage that Preston were promoting a short time ago, but eventually dropped through public pressure.  (see 'Miscellany - April 2007' and 'Sold Down the River')

However, when Fylde's Development Control Committee first considered the BAE application amid a welter of public opposition, we were heartened to see them vote 13-0 to reject the plans - against the advice of their own officers. Now however, the officers have come back and they are 'updating' the committee in private.

So it sounds as though things have been going on in the background, and some sort of change is afoot - for at least some of the Councillors.

That being the case, our readers will understand that if some councillors have found Damascus on the road to Warton and, like St Paul, have undergone a conversion that could lead to dissent within the committee, it's crucial for those on 'either side' of the argument to have all the troops voting at the Development Control meeting to sway the decision the way they want it to go.

Which brings us back to the trouble at the start of the meeting.

Queen Elizabeth Oades of Kirkham was furious. As angry as we have ever seen her before. She launched a blistering attack on Chairman John Bennett for operating double standards about who was allowed to substitute for committee members that could not be present in person.

Broadly speaking, Councillors who are nominated onto a committee should attend all the meetings. However, in common with others, Fylde operates a policy that allows someone - say in hospital - to nominate another councillor to stand in and vote on their behalf. The actual process is governed by Fylde's constitution.

In recent times, and to accommodate as many situations as possible, the strict rules (which say the person who will be absent must notify officers of the name of the person who will represent them) have been treated pragmatically, and it seems that sometimes the substitute has also been allowed to effect a substitute themselves if, say, they subsequently found a clash of engagements arose.

It appears that on this occasion that Cllr Eastham had rung Cllr Mrs Oades to ask her to act as his substitute. She said she would, provided that her diary was free. In the event she was due to be at what she said was an important meeting at County Hall, and she had asked Cllr Elaine Silverwood to stand in for her to cover Cllr Eastham's absence.

However, word had filtered back late last week, (after the Chairman's Briefing to prepare for Wednesday's meeting) to say that because Cllr Eastham had not nominated Cllr Silverwood personally, this substitution would not be allowed, and Cllr Mrs Oades would have to appear in person.

We can understand this would be irritating. When rules that have been interpreted in a relaxed fashion are suddenly tightened without warning, people do get upset.

Readers in reflective mood might ponder why such a sudden desire to enforce the rules might have arisen at this time.

But what had raised Queen Elizabeth's ire even more, was the fact that Cllr Thompson - one of the solid, old style Conservative members who understands how Councils should be operated - and who, sadly, is unwell, had nominated Cllr Threlfall to stand in for him. It seems that the DC Chairman (Cllr John Bennett), implementing a view of his own, had said that he could not accept Cllr Threlfall as a substitute because he had not had the 'training' necessary to be a Development Control councillor so Cllr Mrs Akeroyd (also a conservative) had been substituted instead, and was sitting as part of the Committee.

Queen Elizabeth compared the refusal to let 'her' substitute (who had not been directly nominated) with the decision to let Cllr Mrs Akeroyd (who had also not been directly nominated) take part as a committee member.

Angered at this double standard (which, our readers will note, would also have strengthened the Conservative voting block if indeed that was going to happen), Cllr Mrs Oades threatened to make a formal complaint.

At this point - and we have no idea why - Cllr Pounder weighed in. He said he was the Conservative Whip, and they were reviewing the Constitution and he thought the new version would say members 'should' have had training to substitute on DC Committee, and in that case it was only sensible that because Cllr Threlfall had not been trained, Cllr Akeroyd should be allowed to remain.

We wonder if we can smell political chicanery here.

It is not beyond the bounds of reason that Cllr Thompson would not have approved of the impact of the BAE development on Lytham, and he might have chosen Cllr Threlfall as his substitute with this in mind.

Cllr Threlfall is a small businessman in the Freckleton area, and might have been concerned at the effects of the scheme on local retailers, but Cllr Mrs Akeroyd (who represents Kilnhouse in St Anne's) might have felt less personal pressure from her electorate if she wanted to support the BAE scheme.

There was no proper reason for Cllr Pounder to have got involved in this matter at all. It was a disagreement between the Chairman and Cllr Mrs Oades. The Chairman ought to have shut him up quickly because Cllr Pounder had no locus to speak as if he had some authority on the matter. He was nothing more than another committee member in this situation.

But what it does sadly show however is the creeping encroachment of party politics into Development Control Committee, something that Fylde has prided itself on not allowing up to now, but something that has, sadly, been a hallmark of this administration.

The argument with the Chairman and Queen Elizabeth resumed with another heated exchange and raised voices from both parties, at which those in the public gallery sat watching, transfixed. One person sitting near us commented with enthusiasm that it was "better than watching the X Factor."

The Council's legal officer was duly summoned by the Chairman who said he would only decide what to do when he had received the Solicitor's advice and had it put on the record.

Down Came Mr Curtis who listened to the arguments again, then said his advice was that although they had treated the use of substitutes sympathetically in the past, if the matter of who might substitute was being raised formally, the Chairman should rely on the provisions of the constitution and allow only those who had been directly nominated to sit as part of the Committee.

He couldn't say anything else really.

At this point the Chairman asked Cllr Mrs Akeroyd to leave the Committee and move to sit in the public gallery, and we assume Cllr Mrs Oades shook her ruffled feathers and whilst still angered that she had had to miss her meeting at LCC, was probably partially mollified she had at least prevented double standards from being operated in this matter.

But then we also had another (and what turned out to be a spectacular) interruption to 'normal service' in the committee routine.

The Chairman said that his Vice Chairman, Councillor Janine Owen (who represents Warton and Westby), wanted to read a prepared statement.

We have known Cllr Owen since she was first elected to FBC.

As we said of her in 'Hostel Plan Approved' "We rarely find ourselves in agreement with Cllr Owen, but she is at least forthright and honest in expressing her views". Furthermore, and unusually amongst some of FBC's Councillors, she listens with care to the views of others and weighs them up for herself - usually, it has to be said in our experience, before smiling sweetly and disagreeing with them - politely - to your face.

But that said, we respect her right to hold her views, just as she respects other people's views.

So we thought a prepared statement from her was most unusual.

Clearly something was up.

She speaks quietly, and not slowly, and it was difficult to get a verbatim quote, but it went something like this....

After the pre-agenda meeting of the Development Control committee on 11 January she had confirmed by e-mail to the Chief Executive her resignation as Vice Chairman of the DC committee.

She said she found herself forced into a situation where she could not support the Chairman of the committee in the decisions which the committee were being recommended to make regarding the public enquiry at the GEC Marconi site, Warton.

She also felt that as Vice Chairman, she could not speak against those same recommendations.

She went on to say that sadly, on this occasion, she thought there had been a lack of communication between herself, leading Councillors, Chief Officers and committee members, which had resulted in a situation that Cllr Owen did not feel able to justify to members of the committee or members of the public.

She hoped her resignation as Vice Chairman would result in changes to practice when dealing with large scale applications in the Borough.

This was quite a shock.

An honourable and ethical decision. Not the sort of conduct we have become accustomed to seeing at Fylde in recent times.

The part about there having been problems in the lead up to the meeting, and a lack of communication, is particularly telling, but sadly we can only speculate here, because Cllr Owen said she didn't want to open a debate on the matter, she simply wanted to return to being a DC councillor where she would be free to speak out as she felt moved to do.

This is interesting.

If she was unable to agree with the officers recommendation on the (secret) BAE agenda item, it is likely that the officers are recommending some sort of acceptance, or conceding, of the BAE appeal. That, in itself is not so surprising if they recommended approval of the original application.

But what is more interesting is her hint of problems in the lead up to this matter arriving at Committee, and the mention of a lack of communication both to her and the Committee.

Whilst we have no inside knowledge here, this sounds as though the Vice Chairman of the Committee has not been kept properly informed of what was going on with a major item in her own constituency.

That is truly surprising, and most inappropriate.

Even worse, it suggests that excepting for the Chairman, members of the Development Control Committee had also been kept in the dark by leading Councillors and Chief Officers about what was going on. If true, that is quite disgraceful on a matter as important as this.

As we have said before, the management and control of information which, (like the regime in Germany just before the war), seeks to manipulate public opinion, has been a fundamental tenet the Commissar's administration. Using confidential briefings; exempt items; making it difficult for councillors to challenge the ruling party; using spin doctors to issue press statements; making 'Blue Peter' decisions ("Here's one I made earlier"), and Monty Python decisions ("And now for something completely different") is no way to run a council. It's also why the in-depth information and analysis that counterbalance provides is so disliked by those in power.

Given the apparent determination to fill the committee positions on the Conservative side with suitable voting fodder, we are left speculating that there might have been some sort of political pressure brought to bear on the Conservative members of the DC Committee to support the BAE scheme which is so unpopular with local businesses

And for the moment, there the matter must dangle tantalisingly in the air.

What we do see, is Cllr Owen living up to our expectation of her, by being forthright and honest in expressing her views. We also see integrity in her decision and a reflection of something much less pleasant on the other side of it.

Party politics and planning is an exceptionally dangerous mix, and if it were to be happening at Fylde, it bodes very badly for the future.

The Chairman announced he would invite Cllr Michael Cornah to take the Vice Chair, which he did, though it is not clear whether this was for the meeting or a more permanent arrangement.

We will bring you more on this item as we get it, but we suspect that people in Warton and points near ought to be keeping a close watch on events.

Dated:  16 January 2009


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