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Local Plan: Preferred Options Consultation

Local Plan: Preferred Options ConsultationWe're a bit behind with our reports. This one dates to a Special Council Meeting of 12 June. It was held to consider a single issue - the Preferred Options Consultation Draft  version of Fylde's new Local Plan.

Formal public consultation starts on it today.

The Local Plan is probably the most important document a council produces. It (eventually) sets the policies and preferences against which all planning applications for housing, industry, commerce, recreation and leisure and more are judged.

It usually has a lifespan of about 15 years (we think it should be longer), but the present one (originally made in 1996 and running to 2006) was formally adopted in May 2003 and then officially updated and 'extended' to cover the period 2004 to 2016. This updated version was adopted in October 2005.

There has been a lot of criticism that it is now long in the tooth and out of date, and, as a consequence, developers love to stress this when there is something that doesn't suit their case at an appeal. Mind you, they seem happy enough to agree with it and quote from it when it says something that does suit them.

But everyone agrees an updated version is needed, and the one proposed will run to 2030.

The process to produce a local plan is unbelievably arduous, tortuous, convoluted and expensive.

Modern plans begin with an 'evidence base' and if the evidence you need doesn't exist, or is not up to date, you have to commission it.

So it was that a huge survey of housing need and desire, and three or more surveys of land for commercial and industrial development and loads more studies have been commissioned by Fylde from supposed experts in their fields.

You can follow this link to see the full list of documents in the evidence base of Fylde's emerging Local Plan. As we said, it's enormous and has cost a small fortune to assemble and deployed expert consultants.

But despite that, there are able and intelligent people who have understanding of planning in Fylde, and who vigorously dispute the basis on which some of the proposals are predicated.

A classic example - which we have quoted many times before - is the statement of housing need and desire that informed the update of the current Local Plan. The name of the original study by Fordham Research always gets shortened to the Statement of Housing Need (ie the 'Desire' bit gets left off). We figure this was intentional.

There was once a plot hatched to make Fylde more egalitarian by vastly increasing the number of socially subsidised (chiefly rented) homes that were built here, (and thus change the demographics of Fylde). To do this, the brief to the Consultants was skewed - by conflating 'desire' with 'need'.

When you ask someone in private rented accommodation paying say 150 a week rent if they would like a socially subsidised home on say 90 a week, a lot of hands will go up. They did, and Fylde became the proud, but foolish, owner of a ridiculous and artificial 'need' for such homes.

That mistake, which has been tacitly admitted - but not corrected - is still with us today, and is still influencing policy for the new plan.

There are other issues to do with calculating the area of land needed for industrial/commercial developments.

So not everyone is happy with the evidence, and we expect some of these arguments to emerge more clearly over the next few weeks and months.

The problem with planning at this level is that it is all in the abstract and dry as dust, so getting people interested in it is really hard. But once it becomes a reality, and it's too late to change the policy - and the 1,000 home estate is proposed to be built on green land near you, it becomes a huge issue with protest group meetings, banners, marches and so on.

So it's really important that as many people as possible should take the trouble to understand and make their views known now, as the policies are being formulated during this preparatory phase.

Once the required evidence base is assembled, the Council produce what is in effect a long list of places that could see development.

For housing this was called the Strategic Housing Land Availability Assessment (SHLAA), and when it was published it caused mayhem (see Planning for Housing Growth  where we broke news with a pre-publication copy, and our more detailed article SHLAA ).

From all this, the Council then published a list of five main options for the future. It undertook a very big public consultation on them from 7 June 2012 to 19 July 2012 and this included 15 exhibitions being held around the borough where public comments were solicited. Other comments were solicited by email and in writing.

As our contribution to the debate, we did an extensive article about the lead up and the process (see Housing Numbers).

After the consultation period closed, 227 responses had been received. Many, if not the great majority of these were from businesses or organisations such as Blackpool Airport, Natural England, Wyre Council and so on. Officers considered these and summarised them, adding a 'Council's Response' section to each to explain why any change was needed (or not) as a result of what had been said by each response.

The consultation also asked specifically how much support there was for five main options to apportion development in various parts of Fylde on sort of a percentage basis.

These summaries were reported to a Steering Group who considered them and were asked to derive a preferred option.

The Steering group was agreed in parts but strong disagreement remained elsewhere.

That disagreement produced an inability to agree the final set of recommended options - so, as we reported in 'Local Plan Rift' at the end of May, the Portfolio Holder reminded the Steering Group they were simply an advisory body for him to consult, and he alone would make the decision - as the law required under the Cabinet System of governance.

He chose 'Option 5' (for the full list of options see 'Local Plan Rift'), but some new aspects have been added in, and these proved particularly contentious.

Having thus reduced the original five options to a single preferred option, the full Council met to consider the proposed option and to formally advise the Portfolio Holder what their view of his final decision was.

He would, in theory, take the Full Council's view into consideration as he made the final decision to produce what is called the 'CONSULTATION ON PREFERRED OPTIONS' and there now follows another period of public consultation from 27 June to 22 August 2013 where anyone can make a comment on what he says should be the preferred option.

In practice, during the meeting, he simply stonewalled calls for change, and steamrollered on with the his preferred option.

So far, this article has been an important, but lengthy preamble which has set the context for the Council Meeting of 12 June to decide what to advise the Portfolio Holder Cllr Trevor Fiddler.

For the curious, you can - at least for the near future - follow this link to see a YouTube video of the whole meeting and  just select 'Special Council Meeting 12/0613 parts 1 and 2.'

And so it was, that the Special Council meeting began.

Straight after the approval of the previous minutes and other minor housekeeping matters, Cllr Charlie Duffy stood to raise a point of order. (which interrupts the pre-determined business agenda and has to be dealt with when it is made). He proposed that the meeting should suspend some of its standing orders in order to be able to have a full debate of the matter.

In particular, he wanted councillors to be allowed to speak more than once in the debate, (normally they are not allowed to), he wanted to remove the limit on how long a councillor could speak during the debate (normally there is a limit of five minutes per speaker) and he wanted to be able to ask questions and have them answered there and then, (not to have to wait for a reply), that sort of thing.

We saw one or two Conservative heads nodding in agreement during his speech. That's unusual, because normally the Conservatives vote against most of the proposals from the independent members of the Council, but perhaps they hadn't considered this possibility and thus had not come to a united view in their pre-meeting discussion.

Cllr Tim Ashton stood to say he disagreed with the idea. He said they had a constitution, and they should leave it as it was, and have a 'proper' debate.

Cleverly, Cllr John Davies stood and asked for a Recorded Vote on Cllr Duffy's proposal to suspend Standing Orders. That would show who had sought to stifle debate on this important matter.

Cllr Aitken stood to say he didn't think it was a democratic way to proceed.

Cllr Davies replied that he was not saying the Council was normally undemocratic, just that the particular circumstances of this debate gave rise to the need to respond to matters as they arose during the discussion.

Summing up on his proposition, Cllr Duffy said he didn't understand Cllr Ashton's point because the provision to suspend Standing Orders was itself part of the Constitution, so what he was proposing was within the Constitution and perfectly proper.

When it came to the vote on this matter the result was a surprise. Some of the Conservatives broke ranks and voted for Cllr Duffy's amendment. The vote was the narrowest of margins, 20 votes for and 19 against.

Those Conservatives who Supported Cllr Duffy were Cllrs Aitken, Armit, and Mrs Craig-Wilson. We salute their willingness to have a full debate on the issue

We were also shocked that Cllrs Ackers, Akeroyd, Andrews, Tim Ashton, Donaldson, Eaves, Fazackerley, Fiddler, Goodman, Goodrich, Jacques, Little, Barbara Nash, Edward Nash, Pounder, Prestwich, Redcliffe, Threlfall, Willder sought to restrict debate by voting against the proposition.

What this tells the seasoned watcher is that the eventual result of the meeting was never in doubt. It was always going to be to approve the proposal of the Portfolio Holder. That had pretty obviously seemed to have been agreed before the Conservative group came into the hall.

But what followed, was at least an hour and a half of proper debate as the Council used to have when it ran the Committee system.

Sadly, toward the end it degenerated a bit into a fair bit of what we might call 'hair-pulling' (He pulled my hair. No I didn't. Yes you did. That sort of thing), but overall it was a good debate.

The discussion began with Planning Portfolio Holder Cllr Fiddler saying there were two minor errors in the draft before them and he would like to correct them.

All perfectly proper stuff.

He said the aim was to determine the needs of Fylde Borough to 2030, and those needs were described in the 15 chapters of the Consultation draft. He said the government insisted that local plans are 'evidence-based' and in many cases Government had specified how the evidence is assembled, so it's a very technical document and difficult for what he called 'lay people' to understand.

(We couldn't resist a smile at the elevation of planners to a quasi religious order status by this terminology. - Just as the early Bible in Latin had to be interpreted and explained to the common people (who could not understand the language) by members of religious orders and thus gave them control over the populace, it immediately put the planning officials in control of the process to explain and interpret the Local Plan).

He claimed Chapter 7 had produced the only area of contention because some members of the Steering Group disagreed with the housing provisions. (This was later disputed).

He then said that any amendments made by the Council meeting that night were not binding on the Portfolio Holder. In effect their role was to offer him advice.

In this one short statement you can see the encapsulated lunacy of the Cabinet system. You elect a councillor to speak and (you think) make decisions on your behalf at meetings of the Council. That's how it used to be, not how it is now. Under this appalling Leader and Cabinet system, real power is vested in the seven man Cabinet or - as in this case - in a single Cabinet Portfolio Holder.

As Cllr Fiddler so eloquently described, in the Leader and Cabinet system, the Councillors you elected (unless you happen to live in his ward of Freckleton West which Cllr Fiddler represents) cannot make decisions such as this, they can only comment, and advise, and attempt to influence.

And at Fylde, that's about as effective as a piece of fudge trying to influence a steamroller by standing in front of it.

He went on to say (having just made two amendments himself) that the right place to make changes was during the eight week consultation period running from 27 June.

And with that, he formally proposed the endorsement the Fylde Local Plan to 2030: Part 1 Preferred Options for public consultation; and to agree the consultation arrangements as set out in the report. His proposition was seconded by Council Leader David Eaves.

The first question came from Cllr Alan Clayton who wanted to know how Cllr Fiddler would differentiate between 'planning speak' and 'layman speak' and also what weight would be given to responses from Town and Parish Councils who represented large numbers of residents.

This question about planning and layman language was interesting, and recurred frequently during the evening. We suspect it arose because of an unguarded comment (correctly or incorrectly) attributed to Cllr Fiddler where he was reputed to have said something like only responses in 'planning speak' would be considered, implying that others would be disregarded. We got the impression several Councillors were trying to goad him into making that comment in public, but he's far too wily to let that happen - even if he did say something like it in private.

In reply to Cllr Clayton's points, he said it was the quality of the response, not how many people presented or represented it, adding that planning reasons were difficult to explain to 'lay-people' because they don't know the rules, but a Government appointed inspector assessing the soundness of the local plan before it is approved would only judge it on planning matters.

You see here Dear Reader the folly of the whole planning system. It is supposed to be a plan of the people, by the people, for the people. That's exactly what we were promised by Mr Cameron and his colleagues before they were elected. And to be fair, they set off well with their drive for Localism, but then the higher echelons appointed the anti-planning Minister Nick Boles - who immediately abandoned (or at least re-defined) Localism in favour of exactly what they said they would not do - when he introduced a centralised, prescriptive, top down set of planning policies called the National Planning Policy Framework.

And back we went to the bad old ways of excluding ordinary people from being able to influence how they want THEIR area to be developed (or not) by - in effect - printing the planning policies in Latin which only professionals and a few anoraks like us can even begin to understand.

So it is that people are excluded. And Fylde wonder, and wring their hands, and gnash their teeth about poor responses to their consultations.

For most people, it is pointless to attack the policies and preferences in the Plan. To have any prospect of bringing about change, people will have to attack the evidence on which the policy is based, and that means hours of research to find the flaws and pull together information and arguments showing why the expensive, professional consultants - who produced the original reports - are wrong.

That's a very tall order.

It *IS* possible. Some individuals have done it. We know a few of them quite well. But it's a process that is never going to engage working parents who are juggling children, school, shopping, household chores and the like. They simply don't have the time.

But as usual, we've digressed. Back to the debate at Council where Queen Elizabeth Oades of Kirkham stood to say she was giving notice of three amendments she proposed to make.

The big issue of contention, as we had set out in 'Local Plan Rift', was the housing numbers, and especially those close to Kirkham on sites that Fylde has refused permission, but are currently the subject of an appeal to the Planning Inspectorate to be heard next week. Cllr Fiddler was expecting this to be Cllr Oades' complaint - but is was not.

Her first amendment sought to review Chapters 6, 7 and 9 of the plan before the draft was subject to public consultation.

She argued that in these chapters, the area needed for employment land, and the housing need and thus the housing numbers required were based on flawed information and bad logic and she said in her view (as a member of the Steering Group that had considered them) they could not be relied upon and must be reviewed and corrected before consultation.

She also said the 'Fylde Employment Land and Premises Study' document did not appear to have gone out to public consultation and was not appended to the draft plan, nor was there a link to it in the draft plan. Cllr Duffy seconded her amendment.

Cllr Fiddler asked if the amendment was simply on employment land. Cllr Oades replied that it mostly referred to employment land, but once corrected, it would impact on housing need and would free up more land that is currently allocated for employment to build houses and thus echo along to reduce the areas of green fields needed for houses.

Cllr Fiddler noted the draft plan said Fylde needed 49 hectares of new and additional employment land. This originated from a consultants report that was considered and endorsed by the Steering Group. He went on to admit that housing numbers had been contentious but the latest guidance from Government was that they should continue to use the figure of 306 homes a year (which with updated statistical information has become 341 homes a year) from the former Regional Strategy (even though that has been abolished by Government itself) until Fylde has produced its own estimate of the number of houses needed.

He added that using the Government's recommended methodology and applying the Office for National Statistics figures, it gave Fylde a need of 373 homes a year. He admitted that this would seem an enormous number to many Councillors, he wanted to remind them that between 1992 and 2006, the County Council dictated that Fylde should deliver 347 houses a year.

So, he concluded, there was no meaningful way of not agreeing the figures as set out.

Now, Dear Reader, we know people who can argue a clear and cogent case for Fylde's need being less than half this number.

Broadly speaking it all hinges on net inward migration and whether Fylde should accept a percentage share of what the Government believes is needed to meet the needs of people wanting to come to live in the UK. That's why the Regional Strategy figure was so high. Fylde was being required to bear a notional percentage of national inward migration. We regard that as a preposterous concept.

The problem with this is that it all gets mixed up with party politics, the perceived needs of the UK's economy, and the extent to which inward migration is 'good' for the UK (essentially it cheapens labour costs, gets the economy moving and for liberals and would-be social engineering enthusiasts, it weakens national culture, but it also costs jobs in terms of existing UK nationals and increases the population base that must bear a share of ever increasing welfare and pension costs as the national population birth-rate drops toward and below replacement level).

We take a more simplistic view and say that a plan should address the needs of Fylde residents, not the aspirations of social engineers.

Cllr Mrs Oades said that she believed there may be errors in the information used to calculate the need for employment land that had been carried through to the consultation draft, to which Cllr Fiddler retorted that she was completely and totally wrong.

We thought he must be clever to know that because at that point she hadn't even explained what they were!

Cllr Duffy sought to clarify by saying that the figure for employment land was too high then some could be released for housing. Cllr Fiddler said that employment land had been debated by the Steering Group and endorsed and accepted. He said they had a duty to co-operate with Blackpool and they needed 15 Hectares for that.

He then referred the question about not publicly consulting on the 'Employment Land and Premises Study' to Local Plan Officer Julie Glaister who admitted they did not have the employment study when the Issues and Options Consultation had been done last year, but when it came "it had been put on Fylde's website and the Steering Group has seen it". [Whether that meets the criteria for public consultation we're not al all sure].

Cllr Oades said she had been advised there was a mathematical error in the original 'Grimley' report which had been carried through into the present figures. She said it was not a matter that could be dealt with at the Council meeting so they should defer and re-consider those chapters.

Cllr Fiddler said that if there was an error it would be amended and changed.

Cllr Tim Ashton said he wanted to see *MORE* employment land in Fylde. He wanted more factories and more jobs. Cllr Aitken said if there was something wrong with the figures they would have to be reconsidered, adding that they'd tried their best to make sure everything as right. He said they had been told they had to backdate the housing needs assessment to 2003 (This is a long and complicated story in itself but essentially it means Fylde has to take account of years when a previous Labour Government had said Fylde should build no houses in order to focus effort on regenerating run down inner city areas and the mill towns of east Lancashire. This accounting dramatically inflates the numbers 'needed' in Fylde now).

Cllr Aitken said last year they had appointed consultants who advised them what employment land was needed, and if someone had come back and said there were errors they would have looked very hard at it.

He said "I will be voting for the amendment." Then quickly corrected this to "Against the amendment and I think looking at errors..." [pause, and restart] "I think errors should have been looked at many months ago and Cllr Oades should have been right to the point. If this is wrong, lets look at it again" and he urged the Council to be very careful.

The Mayor (Cllr Mrs Linda Nulty) said she thought it had been pointed out at the time.

Cllr Duffy highlighted the folly of Cllr Aitken's position by asking him whether - as it appeared - if there was shown to be an actual error, he would rather just get on with it anyway, and accept the fact that it should have been pointed out before - and because it wasn't pointed out a few months ago they would simply ignore it and carry on?

Cllr Aitken retorted "Semantics Cllr Duffy. If people prove in fact there was an error, they should have shown it many months ago so that we could have analysed it and got back to the independent people who are looking at the actual numbers. I mean, clearly that the error should have come forward by now, so I'm saying there is no error"

What you see here Dear Reader is what's known as a closed mind. It is not open to even consider the possibility that something may not be correct. You have to ask what hope there is that any comments made by 'lay people' might bring about changes to their plan if it is managed by people acting as religious zealots who will accept no other Truth than the one they already know.

It was left to Cllr Fiddler to try to restore the position by saying that if there was a mathematical error that meant the figure of 49 hectares of employment land was wrong, then that would come to light during the consultation process and they would react accordingly.

His statement didn't do it of course, because he was saying in effect the same thing as Cllr Aitken - We'll stay with these figures even if they are wrong and alter them later if needed.

That approach doesn't do much for your credibility, does it?

Cllr Oades said she had been quite appalled by some members of the DC Committee in Steering Group meetings, adding that both she and others had pointed out there were errors at the time, but no votes were taken at meetings, so whilst there might have been a majority it wasn't easy to tell, and there was significant dissent. She said if there was an error they should put it right before the public consultation, and she didn't want to see open spaces lost if they need not be lost.

Cllr Oades' amendment was then put to the vote and, in a recorded vote, lost, with 17 votes for and 22 against.

This time the vote was clear cut on party lines.

The Conservatives present all voted *not* to reconsider the claim of flawed employment land data, and councillors of all other persuasions voted for it to be reviewed and reconsidered.

The second of her three amendments concerned the provision of affordable houses. It seems that a minor change in the wording had been slipped in without the Steering Group's attention being drawn to it. In essence she said the way it now reads, affordable houses could be built anywhere in Fylde whereas the policy to date had been to put them where the developer was building the other houses.

We thought her fear was that big developments in, say, Lytham or St Annes could have their affordable houses built elsewhere, say in Kirkham or Wesham or Freckleton and this risked leading to the creation of social housing ghettos.

Her proposal was that the wording of the last sentence be altered to "the provision of affordable housing will be to meet the need for those settlements."

Cllr Fiddler initially seemed as though he would be more accommodating on this, saying he was quite sympathetic to that comment, but then he spoiled it by saying he wouldn't look at it now, but would do so as part of the Consultation.

He said not accepting an amendment now did not mean that he wouldn't consider it as part of the consultation.

This pattern of refusal to change in the face of something you tacitly admit to be wrong made it clear to us that there was an agreement in place by the Conservative group that whatever happened, no amendments to the Consultation Draft would be allowed.

That being the case, the non-Conservative councillors must have wondered what they were there for.

The vote was again along party lines except for Cllr Frank Andrews of Wrea Green who broke ranks and supported those who wanted it changed now.

We made the result 20 votes against 18 votes for, but the minutes don't show the voting numbers.

Her third amendment related to maps at the back of the draft which showed land that had originally been considered as possible development sites on the long-list but had now been excluded. She wanted this map removed so as not to encourage developers to 'try their hand' at permissions on such land.

In reply Cllr Fiddler deferred to Local Plans officer Julie Glaister who said there was clear advice from the Government's Planning Advisory Service that such maps must be included, together with an explanation as to why they were not being accepted as development sites.

Readers will note (as no doubt Mrs Oades had done) that this practice makes it even easier for developers to have a go.

Cllr Aitken said "We can defend these." Cllr Oades retorted "I don't share your confidence."

Cllr Fiddler said the SHLAA had caused great difficulty. The Government had said how many houses needed to be built in the plan period, and Fylde had to show where they might be.

Cllr Oades' amendment was lost.  By now the pattern had been set.

Cllr Alan Clayton proposed an amendment to the consultation part of the proposal not the planning part. He said to get better responses from the public they should give as much guidance as possible about how people should respond, He wanted it to say something like - In all methods of communication full guidance will be provided in the formulation of a submission.

Trevor Fiddler said he supported that amendment. (and it was agreed by all in a vote)

Cllr David Chedd wanted to know how many responses and been received in last year's consultation, how many had been rejected, and how many had been accepted.

The officer was asked and replied that none was rejected.

We wondered if this was a matter of terminology. We assume there is a difference between 'rejection' and 'disregarding'

She went on to imply something we hadn't thought of before. We have always thought that the idea of Fylde consulting on its proposals was undertaken in order to allow people who agreed or disagreed with proposals to say so and seek to have changes made to proposals, but Julie Glaister implied that the benefit was that people who knew the local area better than she did could help her by commenting on local information (rather than indicating a view on the actual proposals) - say where access to a site was impractical, or there was an underground stream or something.

Cllr Chedd persisted with the question about numbers again. Clearly he had the view that someone had said they would disregard responses that were not valid planning reasons and arguments.

Cllr Duffy said he would be happy to offer advice to residents so perhaps the officers could be directed to that suggestion.

A couple of other minor amendments were also proposed and defeated.

That left what is called the 'Substantive' motion - in this case the original recommendation plus the wording change to the consultation process to be voted on.

Cllr Oades rose to speak.

She said "I think we all know the decision on the Local Plan is a Portfolio Holder decision. An LDF Steering Group was created, and I just believe it was created to give this plan some democratic validity.

When the LDF group was created, I'm sure we all thought that Cllr Fiddler would take on board our feedback and views, but this only seems to have applied if he agreed with those views. When the LDF Group had views different from officers or the Portfolio Holder on several occasions, they just weren't minuted and were disregarded. I believe this group was created to give democratic credibility to the Local Plan process, but democracy was only allowed if our views tallied with theirs."

She said she had been accused of being parochial, and her views as a Steering Group member had been disregarded. She spoke with passion about defending the countryside and said she wanted to vote against the proposal with a request for a recorded vote.

The result of that was never in doubt - and she knew it. Her aim was simply to show Fylde residents who was responsible for what she considered to be a flawed plan.

The vote was:

For approving a consultation draft that had been described as flawed and containing errors (23): Councillors Brenda Ackers, Ben Aitken, Christine Akeroyd, Frank Andrews, Tim Armit, Tim Ashton, Fabian Craig-Willson, David Donaldson, David Eaves, Susan Fazackerley, Trevor Fiddler, Tony Ford, Gail Goodman, Nigel Goodrich, Angela Jacques, Cheryl Little, Barbara Nash, Edward Nash, Albert Pounder, Dawn Prestwich, Richard Redcliffe, Thomas Threlfall, Vivienne M Willder

Against approval (16): Councillors Keith Beckett, Julie Brickles, David Chedd, Maxine Chew, Alan Clayton, John Davies, Charlie Duffy, Kath Harper, Howard Henshaw, Karen Henshaw, Paul Hodgson, Linda Nulty, Elizabeth Oades, Louis Rigby, Elaine Silverwood, Heather Speak.

Those that care to look will see that - perhaps entirely by co-incidence - all the people who approved the plan were Conservatives (plus Cllr Ford), and all those against it represented all other shades of opinion on the Council.

What this shows is a deeply divided Council, and a Local Plan that is already in trouble - even before it gets off the starting blocks.

We suspect things will get even worse before they get better.

You can see the Draft Plan and find out more about responding to Consultation if you follow this link to Fylde Council's website.

Or you can follow this link for  details of the Roadshow exhibitions about the Local Plan - coming to a hall near you.

We hope to look at the issues raised in the draft  in the near future.

Dated:  27 June 2013


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