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Wesham Postponed

WeshamIn 'Wesham Home Truths?' we explained how we thought the operation of the Leader and Cabinet System at Fylde has politicised the officer class.

A further example of this was evident at the Development Management Committee today (19th December 2012) when the Committee was asked to reconsider and determine the exact same application they had refused on 12 September.

It was an application similar to one that had previously been refused unanimously by every Fylde planning councillor and every level of appeal right up to the High Court.

Time was, when elected members had made a decision, Fylde's officers adopted and defended that decision as their own.

Vigorously.

If they believed the Council was embarking on an inadvisable path, it's absolutely right that professional officers should explain to councillors the inadvisability of the course.

Ideally that should be done in private, because the officers are the Council's employees and paid advisers. Occasionally, such advice will, of necessity, appear in an officer's published report. Typically this will be where the officer recognises their responsibility to the whole council when a sub-set of those councillors is following an inadvisable path.

But once a decision is taken by - or in the name of - the Council, we are very firm in our view that, however right or wrong it may be, and irrespective of whether the officer's advice was followed or not, that officer's role, post-decision, is to put 100% of their effort behind the decision that elected councillors have made, irrespective of their own personal or professional view.

The only honourable alternative is for the officer to exit the service of an authority with whose decisions they are unable to agree.

But that's not happening at Fylde. There is something akin to open warfare going on. The Development Management Committee - charged by the full council with both the responsibility and the authority to take such decisions - decided against approving this application in September, but here we have the planning officers and the Council's solicitor finding reasons why the same decision should be considered again, and why this time, elected councillors should reverse the decision they made last time.

This application is become Fylde's own version of the Maastricht Treaty - Councillors are being told they'll jolly-well have to keep voting on it - until they get the answer right.

It is become both a sham and a farce, and those involved in the chicanery of this matter cover themselves with shame.

It's possible our readers, (and probably some officers) think we're being too harsh on the officer class here.   We don't.   What we detect is a drive from people within or close to close to the Cabinet, coupled with a push from those with a party political agenda, to subvert the will of the Development Management Committee - who have repeatedly refused applications on this site, and officers are being used as pawns in the process.

As we have said for ages, the Leader and Cabinet system is at the heart of this matter, it is politicising the decisions of officers whose first duty is (and always should be) to the full council. Officers are being riven by conflicting loyalties caused by the 'one officer two masters' approach of having a Leader system which, in many instances, can effectively trump decisions of the full Council.

The Leader system is an awful system for Council to run

It makes a mockery of democracy.

Readers without a life, and a penchant for rhetoric, can download the agenda for this meeting and read the full shimmying slithering snake of a report that seeks to justify the unjustifiable; the report that calls black a very dark shade of white; the report that has more twists and turns than you could ever imagine.

This is the report that set out to dissuade councillors from employing a perfectly proper rejection of the item under the '6 month' rule which prevents the Council from considering the same matter repeatedly.

It also set out to dissuade Councillors from implementing the Section 70b rule (which we detailed in 'Wesham Home Truths?') and which empowers Councillors to decline to consider the application. And it is the same report that maintains an officer recommendation to approve the application that, in every previous instance and incarnation, has been refused by elected Councillors.

Meeting

And so it was with a heavy heart that we set out for the meeting - confidently expecting the prophecies of 'packed' committees, and legal threats, to win the day, and a decision to approve the application being the result.

But it was not to be.

We arrived early, and went in when the staff were still setting up the tables. There were already a dozen or so folk we recognised.

By starting time at 10am most of the seats were taken and the Chairman, Cllr Ben Aitken started the meeting, going straight into the apologies and substitutions without doing the usual housekeeping matters of fire exits, loos and mobile phones.

Obstructed fire escapeTurns out that was something of  mistake because in the middle of the 'substitute' announcements a chap in the public gallery stood up and drew attention to the fact that the video camera and sound control system table was blocking a fire escape.

A hasty move around saw plugs pulled out of walls, microphones ceasing to work and what would have been cables at knee height hanging draped across the fire exit.

So another move was made to put the table back against the wall but a bit further away from the fire escape. We pretty much thought it still hadn't fixed the problem, but that's how it was left.

We then had a short interlude for a game of  'is this microphone working' before one or two were abandoned for dead, and the meeting struggled on.

This short intermission set the tone  for the whole meeting really.  One chap came up at the end of the item and said he'd come from Wesham to see what went on at such meetings, and had been amazed. He said Walt Disney couldn't have done a better job.

When we got to them again, the substitutions were quite interesting. Cllr Mrs Jacques for Cllr Nigel Goodrich, Cllr Mrs Brickells for Cllr Duffy, and Cllr Mrs Akeroyd for Cllr Pounder.

That meant that all three Conservatives who abstained on this application in September (that was Cllrs Ackeroyd, Jacques and Redcliffe)* were going to be present today, and had a second chance to show their views.

The Chairman said he would take item 8 (Wesham) first and he would vote on the first proposition he received unless a proposition to defer was made in which case he would take that first.

He did this last time and, whilst we recognise the order of business is in the gift of the chairman, we found it as unusual then as we did today. We're more used to propositions being taken in chronological order.

The item was opened when the Chairman asked the Council's Solicitor Mr Curtis to advise councillors on whether they should or should not refuse to consider the application.

Of course this item ought to have been a separate consideration, an agenda item in its own right.

And it should have been considered in advance of officers having spent time preparing reports, undertaking formal consultations, erecting site notices, arranging press publicity, and having further discussions with the applicant.

That's part of the idea of being able to decline to consider repeated similar applications. We don't know what the cost will have been but it will probably run into the tens of thousands of pounds.

But such is the arrogance of those that would impose their will, it had been relegated to being a 'preliminary matter' at the beginning of consideration of the application itself.

It was headed 'Preliminary Matter: Consideration of whether Committee has power to consider application 12/0589 on this Agenda and consideration of the discretion under the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 to decline to determine planning applications'

Mr Curtis paraphrased his report which, in spite of the fact that the item itself was headed 'Resubmission Of Planning Application For 11/0763" was, he said actually a new application, so making a decision on it "will not therefore infringe the six-month rule"

To us, that's a pretty good case of black being a dark shade of white.

Cllr Armit wanted to know why simply changing the application number meant it could be considered, even though it was a resubmission of the same application.

The answer (so far as we were able to follow it) was that it had a new number allocated when it was received, so it was a different planning application and, because it had a new number and was a new application, it was not the same application as before and therefore the decision made in September was not the same decision as the Committee was being asked to make now.

That pretty much brought hoots of derision from the public gallery, and anger to the brows of elected councillors who - we thought - looked as though they could see through what was being said, and they detected to a desire to manipulate them.

Then Cllr Mrs Speak launched her proposition. She said she simply couldn't understand what Mr Curtis was saying. It was the same application that had come before the committee in September and she said she was quite annoyed and very disappointed that it was here again.

She also suggested she had concerns about who might have suggested to the developer that they should re-submit it so quickly.

Cllr Trevor Fiddler wanted to know whether it was right for what he called 'Lay People' to disregard the advice of the Council's legal officer.

We have to take issue with him on that. The whole point of having elected Councillors is so they can moderate the propensity of officers to implement solutions that do not sufficiently regard the human element of decisions. We looked up the definition of 'lay' (well one of them) and came up with "not having professional qualifications or expert knowledge" and that's exactly why councillors are so important. Paid officers do the technical and professional bits. Councillors are there to humanise the advice they proffer.

Cllr Eastham said he agreed with Cllr Fiddler but was unhappy that a decision to allow the application to be discussed could come back to bite them in the future.

By this time, the public gallery was starting to become restless. They sensed manipulation and the matter slipping away from what they wanted, and some began shouting out their disagreement.

Arguments at the meeting

Then there was another explosion.

Cllr Collins, who made such an important speech at the last Council meeting exploded with rage. He said he had signalled a wish to speak on two occasions but the Chairman had not called him to speak. In a very angry voice he said "These meetings are a shambles, Its time we had as reasonable Chairman in the Chair"

He then went on to take a very unusual angle - one that we hadn't spotted before. He said page 88 of the officers report included the following "the delivery of housing is a major national priority and that barriers should not be placed in the way of the provision of new housing and the economic benefits it will deliver."

He went on to say that if they considered the application today that is exactly what they would be doing, because the only difference between this application and the one they refused in September was that this time the developer had said they would not submit another application for 3 years, and that alone was putting a barrier in the way of new housing.

Very sharp that one.

He said that in the event of Cllr Mrs Speak's proposition failing he would put another proposition which would be to defer consideration of this application.

Cllr Redcliffe - who abstained on the application last time said he shared some concerns but he didn't think they should decline to determine it this time.

Cllr Hardy full of common sense as ever said it was the same application and he thought the developer was trying to pull the wool over their eyes and he would vote that they should not determine the application.

Cllr Armit came back and wanted to know if a refusal to determine would mean that it just put a six month delay in place. The answer was 'No'

Cllr Mrs Speak said that the housing numbers were changing every week, and they needed breathing space, and they should refuse to determine it.

Cllr Mrs Nulty said "This is a resubmission, it does not address any of the reasons for which we refused it last time"

And with that the Chairman said he would take the vote. A recorded vote was called for, and the required number of hands went up to support the request.

There followed what was a surreal episode during which the Chairman managed to confuse everyone by being unwilling to put Cllr Mrs Speak's actual proposition, but instead he constructed a separate decision that required a for or against answer. For quite some time confusion reigned and no one knew what they were voting for.

It was either an intention to clarify that failed miserably, or an intention to confuse in the hope that some would be confounded. Either way it was not good chairing of the meeting.

It was eventually settled when he said that the Vice Chairman and he would vote 'against' and Cllr Mrs Speak and Cllr Mrs Nulty would vote 'for'.

Whilst we think he was trying to make it more clear, we can't remember an occasion when the Chairman of the meeting predicting how he expected others would vote, in order to clarify what was being voted on!

Then the roll was called. We have to say at this point that we struggled to get down the result because Mr Curtis went more quickly than we could record, so it's possible the results we noted are not 100% and as yet we have not been able to confirm them. If they need change, we will do so as soon as FBC's minutes are published. That said we're reasonably confident with these. 'Against' means it was a vote against Cllr Mrs Speak's proposition to decline to determine the application, and a vote 'for' would decline to determine it:

Cllr Aitken: Against     
Cllr Eastham: Against
Cllr Armit: For
Cllr Mrs Ackeroyd: Against
Cllr Mrs Brickells: For
Cllr Mrs Chew: For
Cllr Collins: For
Cllr Mrs Craig-Wilson: Against
Cllr Fiddler: Against
Cllr Mrs Jacques: Against
Cllr Hardy: For
Cllr Mrs Nulty: For
Cllr Redcliffe: Against
Cllr Mrs Speak: For
Cllr Mrs Willder: For

That was eight for and seven against with no abstentions.

There were a few moments of hesitation whist the Solicitor counted up the totals and spoke with the Chairman who then announced that the committee had declined to determine the application.

The public gallery broke out into whoops of joy as what everyone thought was a lost cause came back from the dead and lived to fight another day.

The meeting adjourned for a few minutes as the uproar took hold and as people stood up to leave, and Councillors exchanged comments amongst themselves, and the Chairman and Vice Chairman and Solicitor had rapid conversations.

So what happened to give such a surprise result.

Well, our readers can look at it from three angles.

First, those Conservatives who abstained on the application itself last time, (Cllrs Ackeroyd, Jacques, and Redcliffe) decided that they wanted to consider it this time, so they voted against declining to consider it. We find that a puzzling choice, but it is certainly not improper.

Secondly, Cllr Mrs Brickells who we know was suffering from illness and had not made up her mind whether to stay for the meeting, did, in fact stay, and the result was won by a single vote. Without her it would have been 7:7 and the Chairman's casting vote would almost certainly have been used against declining to determine it (because that's how he voted in the main vote).

Thirdly, and undoubtedly most significantly, Cllr Mrs Wilder and Cllr Armit - both Conservatives, decided not to vote in what - to us - looked very much like a pre-defined course of action by the other Conservatives.

If that means they used their consciences and their judgement, and made a decision in the meeting based on what they heard, then we salute them for doing so.  It's a very long time since we saw such integrity displayed by people who are so often required to act as voting fodder for things with which they may not agree.

We were also privy to sight of what one of the public speakers was going to say in the public speaking session of the meeting if the application itself had been considered.

It spoke of Councillors being part of the local governance in Fylde, not part of the national government in London. It spoke of the trust that local electors put in Councillors to defend the local community, not to defend party politics.

It asked the Councillors to set an example by showing developers that they would not simply roll over under pressure. And it asked them to regard the people of Fylde,  and to do the right thing.

In the event it did not need to be said.

And it did not need to be said,  because Cllr Willder and Cllr Armit did exactly that.

So what happens now?

Well the developer had already submitted an appeal to Government against Fylde's refusal of permission back in September, and we understand that will be heard in a three day Inquiry in Public in Wesham starting on 19th February.

Looks like we will be over to see our friends in Wesham for a few days in the New Year.

Dated:  19 December 2012

*UPDATE 20 DECEMBER 2012
Names of Councillors abstaining last time have been added for clarity.


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