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Free-Ride for Kensington at Queensway?

Free Ride for Kensington at Queensway?This counterbalance is a very disappointing and difficult one to write.

There are three reasons why this is so, and producing the article is not without risk - we have agonised over whether to publish or not.

It contains potentially explosive news of a plan by Fylde Council's officers to fly in the face of localism - to set a direction that will be deeply unpopular with local people - quite possibly as unpopular as the swimming pool closure or the scandals of Streetscene and Melton Grove.

It is also hard to write because the author of the report is an officer we have, to date, held in high regard as a safe and capable pair of hands - but after reading the confidential report that bears his name, we fail to see how he can be allowed to remain in charge of this issue - and possibly, in the context of his wider role at Fylde, we have to ask if his future position remains tenable with the views expressed.

The third reason is that by publicising the matter, we run the risk of damaging the very cause we want to support. Readers will see what we mean as the article unfolds. Suffice at this point to say that after a couple of sleepless nights evaluating the pros and cons of a decision to publish, we have come to the view that it is a matter of such importance to local people that we cannot fail to do so.

We have several part-written counterbalance articles which - unusually for us - praise some aspects of Fylde's recent decisions, but sadly, they have had to be put aside to publish this article which we regard to be far more urgent and important. We hope to bring them to readers shortly.

So what is it that is so now so urgent, important and explosive?

On Monday 10th October, a meeting of Fylde's new 'Development Management Committee' has been urgently scheduled to pass a resolution to exclude the press and public right at the start of the meeting.

The first item is the usual 'Declarations Of Interest' where anyone with a personal or prejudicial interest must declare their interest.

The second item is to record details of any substitute members who are standing in for others who either can't attend or have been asked (or perhaps told by their political leadership to become unavailable so that a more experienced member - or someone guaranteed to toe the party line -) not to be there.

The third item is the exclusion of the public where the Director of Governance and Partnerships invites members to consider passing a resolution to exclude the - in this case it says the public - (but that usually includes the press as well).

The reason given is that the business to be discussed is classified as exempt by the 1972 Local Government Act.

Very few classes of information are exempt, and the use of this term usually means it contains legal advice that that Council does not wish to have published.

The fourth item says simply "Queensway - Redetermination Of The Appeal"

Back on 8th July 2011, in 'Queensway Inquiry to Re-open' we explained why and how it came to be that the Rt Hon Saint Eric Pickles' decision to refuse Kensington's appeal on the 1250 house Queensway had to be reconsidered.

We set the scene for a new Inquiry in Public that would be held locally where the merits of both the Queensway development and the moss road would be considered at the same time. So we're not going into that background again here.

What has happened since, is that a timetable for the Public Inquiry has been set, and the parties concerned have been working to assemble their arguments.

The Inquiry begins with a Pre Inquiry Meeting on 21 October 2011 at 11:00 in the 'Studio Room' at Lowther Pavilion. This is a public meeting and anyone who is interested can attend (for the whole meeting or just for part of it). It is a one day (or less) event but it won't make any decisions about the plan itself. It is simply a meeting where the Inspector meets the developer and their barrister, the Council and their barrister, the County Council and maybe their barrister, and the interested public. The purpose of this pre-inquiry meeting is to agree the administrative arrangements for the Inquiry proper (ie who will bat first, what time they will start, how long each party thinks they will need to present their evidence and to cross examine the witnesses produced by others and so on).

The expected start date for the new inquiry proper is not until 10.00am on 10 January 2012 and that is also expected to be at The Studio, Lowther Pavilion.

As things stand at present, it will be held in public, and is expected to last for eight days. But that could change at (or even before) the Pre Inquiry Meeting in ten days time.

The reason it could change is that Fylde's Development Management Committee is to be advised by their Assistant Director of Planning Services - Mark Evans - that considering the material changes in circumstance since the proposal was considered at inquiry in 2009, the Committee should resolve to raise no objection to the principle of the proposed development, subject to securing the necessary community infrastructure by way of a planning obligation under Section 106 of the Town & Country Planning Act 1990 and/or planning conditions as appropriate.

In layman's terms, this means the Committee is being recommended not to contest the Queensway Appeal at the inquiry.

In effect the report is saying that the road is *so* important that the houses are a price worth paying to get it.

But that's not what Fylde residents want.

As Fylde County Councillors Henshaw, Hayhurst and Winlow told the County Planning Committee considering the road - and where Cllr Henshaw put it extremely succinctly. "They want the link road but they don't want Kensington's development. If they had a choice of both or nothing, they would prefer nothing." (see 'Road Block' for more details)

The probably result if Fylde does not contest the appeal, is that the Inspector will say well that's OK then - and St Eric, who has consistently said that planning decisions should be made locally will say 'Well, if Fylde have changed their mind and they now don't object to the Queensway development, then I will let it go ahead'.

However, that's not the case - at least not yet, because Councillors have still to consider the report.

What we have now is the report from Mr Evans that says in effect we should throw in the towel.

It will be up the Councillors on the Development Management Committee to decide whether to go ahead or not, and they are likely to be influenced by public opinion as well as planning arguments.

We expect local people to 'go ballistic' as they say these days when Mr Evans' recommendation is known.

They certainly need to - because adding 1,000 new properties at Queensway will be St Annes' ruin.

But if, as we believe they should, the DM Councillors reject Mr Evans recommendation and he is charged with arguing a case in which he does not believe, can you imagine what Kensington's barrister will have to say... "Well, Mr Evans, you might *say* such and such is the case, but you don't believe it do you? As the Council's most senior professional planning office you advised them this was not the case. Are you really expecting the Inspector to believe that we should take any notice of what you are saying now?"

He will be torn to shreds under cross examination.

That's why we say his position at Fylde is no longer tenable in charge of this matter.

So why is it that he has changed his mind?

Before we look at the possible causes, we need to ensure our readers are clear about our logic and motives in publishing this information.

The agonising we have done over reporting this matter is because of two potential consequences.

The first is the same reason that Fylde will no-doubt claim to be holding the meeting in secrecy. They don't want Kensington to know their hand. They don't want Kensington to know the arguments that are being made against their continuing to object to the development because it shows where Fylde's argument might be considered weak.

This is the first paradox we faced.

By publishing the information we can be said to risk letting Kensington know the weak points in Fylde's arguments, and thus risk damaging the case that the Councillors (rather than the officers) might want to make to maintain the objection.

We thought the pros and cons of this aspect were finely balanced, but what swung it in favour of publication was that we believed that if we had a copy of the confidential report by Mr Evans, we can be pretty sure that Kensington already have a copy and are working to modify their arguments even as this counterbalance is published.

The second paradox is the position of Mr Evans in this matter. By our exposing what he has recommended, it puts his position at risk, and normally we would not have wanted to do this. For the most part, we focus our attention of the decisions made by those we elect, not the paid staff.

Furthermore, as we have said several times, we regard Mr Evans as safe pair of hands, a competent officer who is a credit to Fylde. But the report he has produced in this matter is so negative in tone and in some instances inaccurate, we wonder if he is the real author. If he was not, then we have no hesitation about publishing, and if it is truly Mr Evans' original work, we regard the matter as simply too important to let pass.

The report is a catalogue of all the weaknesses that can be found in Fylde's case - for example one of the reasons Fylde objected the first time was that insufficient information had been presented to allow the impact of the development on air safety to be assessed.

The confidential report says this was all sorted out during the last Inquiry, and the Council confirmed they were happy with the revised arrangements that had been proposed.

The implication here, and in most of the other nine reasons, is that there is no longer anything to object to so there are no grounds to object.

The report concludes that after considering the nine reasons that Fylde gave the first time around, and the context of housing land supply in the Borough, the council is probably not able to sustain seven of the reasons, and even the others are iffy.

This is balderdash

Firstly, the new Inquiry is likely to focus on what has CHANGED since the previous inquiry, not what was discussed in the previous Inquiry.

Secondly, (as a for-instance) the air safety position was at exactly the same position when St Eric refused to accept the advice of his own inspector.

When he overruled him and refused Kensington's application.

St Eric found reasons to agree with many of the arguments QED had advanced at the inquiry and he refused the appeal even though the Council (and others) had caved in on several points like the risk of birdstrike at the airport - which they agreed could be met with an enhanced programme of bird scaring using loud bangs, rocket grenades (which if it gets built will be pretty disturbing for both existing and future residents), and, if necessary, a marksman with a rifle in the final event, to shoot the larger birds that might pose a risk to aircraft during landing and take off. (Yes really!)

Blackpool Airport who (for what we consider to be entirely understandable reasons) don't want their jet engines turned into impromptu goose ovens.

(The absolute irony of having a huge Farmland Conservation Area specially managed to attract the protected European species of birds to the area in the first place seems lost on both the Council and the RSPB and Natural England, who simply caved in to pressure from Kensington's experts.

At the first Inquiry, the Inspector said he had looked at the Bird Control plan, but going through it the thing that struck him was that it all seemed very complicated, and that suggests something is fundamentally wrong. He asked about netting to be put on ponds to stop ducks and so on using them, and he heard about spikes being fitted to lamp posts to stop gulls landing and "loafing" on them, and it seemed to us that he remained concerned, but Kensington's barrister told him everyone was satisfied with this process so it was all OK).

But even that isn't the issue. The bird control plan was not one of the reasons that St Eric refused the plan in the first place, so there was no need for Mr Evans to rehearse those arguments in his latest report unless, - as has happened - he wanted to use them set a tone to convince members that there's no point in fighting.

This is not an accurate balanced report of the sort we have come to expect from Mr Evans. It is the report of someone who has already made up their mind to take a dive and is manufacturing arguments to attempt justify their position.

It majors on the reasons why the Council should not object, and maximises the benefits of the scheme.

It could have been written by Kensington themselves - though we're not suggesting here that *any* kind of inappropriate link exists between Mr Evans and Kensington, simply that the logic he has employed is the logic they would have used.

Take another example but in the reverse mould. The report says "the development will attract significant contributions to local infrastructure by way of s106 primary school, wildlife conservation area, open space, and link road as well as a minimum of 10% affordable dwellings."

The reader will imply from this phrasing that Kensington are going to provide a primary school, but that's not the case. They're actually offering to provide a piece of land near to the site where the County Council could (if it had the money) build a new school.

Mind you, given that each of the school sports pitches is literally set on what will be a slightly raised island in the middle of a new 27 hectare (yes, that's a new man-made flooding area of 66 acres in real money) Flood Compensation Area that has to be provided next to the housing (because the road would displace the existing floodzone and the water has to go somewhere), its not certain that the school (and certainly the 'sports pitches') would be accessible except by boat at certain times.

And readers should also bear in mind that the report Kensington provided at the first inquiry still said they were going to build a new swimming pool as well.

But as their barrister made clear to QED during the Inquiry, that offer was no longer on the table and it should have been deleted from their report.

What is the prospect for the school remaining in the plans then?

These are simply illustrations of why this is an awful report that is calculated to make the reader think there is no option other than for Fylde to give up.

And it's wrong.

It's so out of character for Mr Evans we can't help speculating if he has been put under pressure from others to produce it. If that's the case we also have to wonder who else might be behind it.

Key players on the Member side would be Cllr Trevor Fiddler or Cllr Ben Aitken who are now the two key planning members at Fylde. Cllr Fiddler is usually pretty straight. It's just possible that he might have changed his mind and, if he is fearful for the future of south Fylde with a much reduced aerospace capacity, think that a road across the moss that could link in with the Freckleton by-pass would open up the aerospace area to commercial re-development, and that the houses at Queensway are a price worth paying in order to get a motorway link to South Fylde. We think that's possible but unlikely.

Cllr Aitken we know less about except that he is one of the few people who has recognised the importance of agriculture to the Fylde and the protection of farmland is close to his heart, so again it seems unlikely.

On the officer side, there are only a couple of folk higher up the tree than Mr Evans. They would be the Director of Strategic Development - Paul Walker - who keeps well out of the limelight, and the present and future Chief Executive. Maybe it's just possible that this change of direction is to be a vitriolic leaving present from the present incumbent, or a new broom sweeping in what is going to be a very unpopular direction. But in reality it's difficult to see either of those being realistic possibilities..

The report says otherwise (as it would of course) but it is our firm view that if Fylde BC throws in the towel on Queensway then you can expect to see another application for Wesham and at sites all over the Fylde countryside. The SHLAA maps risk becoming the new reality (see SHLAA).

Your elected members of Fylde Council need to know urgently how you feel about Queensway being built. We suggest you let them know.

The impact of this development will be felt throughout Lytham and St Annes. As we have said before, it will bring all the delivery lorries to service businesses and shops direct from the motorway to the Regent Avenue junction at Cypress Point  for (Lytham) and down Kilnhouse Lane and St Annes Road East for St Annes. So it's likely that Heyouses, Kilnhouse, Park and Clifton will see most of the extra traffic.

If, on 10th October, Councillors decide to throw in the towel as Mr Evans' report suggests, it's very likely that Queensway will be built..

If they don't, then they very urgently need a new planning officer to take control of the case, and they need proper arguments constructing as a matter of urgency. (We'd suggest a new barrister as well).

Fortunately, the core of people from the widely respected and able QED group have many of the arguments at their fingertips and have already sent them to the Minister. He mostly used QED's arguments, (not the ones the council's planning officers made) when he overruled the first inspector.

QED was also instrumental in telling the County Council that they should not approve the road without first sending all the documents to St Eric for him to look at. That resulted in them having to reverse a decision to approve the road application because the road application was called-in for decision by St Eric.

The Councillors would do well to listen to what the people in QED have to say on this matter.

Dated:  2 October 2011


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