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Local Plan Rift

Local Plan RiftWithout doubt, the Local Plan is the most important document that Fylde produces.

It has the capacity to outrage communities when it appears unable to prevent or deter what they consider to be inappropriate development.

It restricts what they can and cannot do with land and property that they own.

And it sets the tone and parameters for all the building and development that will take place over the next 15 to 20 years.

It is therefore crucial that its content is formed with wide consultation, and that it commands the support of preferably all, or at the least the vast majority of Councillors who comprise the Borough Council.

After years of preparation and delay, there is news regarding the Local plan at Fylde. It's nearing completion of the first phase. There is to be a Special Full Council Meeting on 12 June at the United reformed Church at 7pm - supposedly to rubber stamp the 'Individual Member Decision' of the Cabinet Member who holds the Planning Portfolio.

To be fair to him, as we will show, he did recognise the democratic deficit that is entailed in having one person decide the future of development in Fylde for the next 15 years or more. So he selected a group of other Councillors to advise him about what was best.

But when those whom he had selected disagreed with him in heated debate that took place behind the scenes, he simply said in effect, well tough; you're just an advisory group, you have no legal status, I'm making the decisions, and that's it.

Fylde has attempted to keep the debate that went on behind closed doors secret, so the public are not aware of the issues and positions being taken.

We aim to change that situation.

From the outset, we regarded the process Fylde opted for when it decided to produce the new Local Plan as being a poor one.  In overarching principle, they decided to let officers come up with the proposals, then for the Portfolio Holder for Planning to agree it in draft for consultation with the public, after which - if appropriate - changes would be made before it is approved by the Full Council.

We see two things wrong here. Firstly the Portfolio Holder in this context is a single individual.

Under the present Leader and Cabinet system, the authority and responsibility to approve the draft for consultation lies with the Portfolio Holder for Planning (Cllr Trevor Fiddler). Secondly, we would have preferred at least one public consultation to be undertaken first, so the views of local people could at least inform, if not become, the draft.

After all it is their plan.

But Fylde wasn't for doing that.

As it is, the plan has been drafted by officers and five options were prepared. Fylde is about to announce its preferred option - and this is what will be consulted on.

We all know that once a draft plan is published, those who made it are reluctant to make changes, and that's why we argue it should have been a plan drafted in the first instance by local people. As it is, if changes are needed, they are going to be difficult to bring about.

Worse, though, is the fact that the decision to approve it will be made by one individual.

Whilst Cllr Fiddler has a very good knowledge of planning, we have in the past likened him to the character in the saying 'There was a little girl, who had a little curl, right in the middle of her forehead. When she was good, she was very very good, but when she was bad she was horrid'

Readers will remember that it was Cllr Fiddler who did so much to save Fylde from the lunacy that was going to be the Growth Point Strategy and the M55 Hub scheme with Blackpool. But he was also the Portfolio Holder who said he agreed to the disposal of Melton Grove simply because it was not Conservative Party Policy for local councils to run social housing. He made that decision in principle, in the abstract, without considering (actually without even knowing) the impact it would have on the residents of Melton Grove.

This latter aspect is yet another reason why we argue that the Leader and Cabinet System and its 'Individual Member Decisions' has been a disaster for Fylde.

But as progress on the draft local plan was being made, Cllr Fiddler appointed an advisory committee (which has had various names over time), but in essence it has been a Steering Group of one sort or another, and was mostly made up of other Councillors.

Like us, readers might have hoped that its purpose would be to widen and deepen the experience and knowledge of planning that its members could bring to the table in order to arrive at more rounded and widely supported decisions.

In fact, that was not Cllr Fiddler's real aim. He told a subsequent Cabinet meeting that he thought if he could get the Councillors who were members of the Development Management Committee to become the Steering Group, they would be less likely to go against the policy decisions FBC had made with its local plan. In other words, if they had been part of the group that made the policy, they would be happier to enforce it on individual planning applications, and thus be less likely to vote as their electorate might want.

Apart from the questionable ethics of creating a situation that tied together prosecutor, judge, jury, and executioner, and one that sought to minimise the democratic right for individuals to lobby and influence councillors, we were worried about this idea from the outset.

That's because we recognised this 'advisory committee' format could be a test-bed for adding 'advisory committees' more broadly to each Cabinet Portfolio Holder position - it could become a way of appearing to bring a cloak of democratic legitimacy to what is in essence an undemocratic system. We were even more worried when we saw that the Agenda and Minutes of the Steering Group were not to be made public, and the public could not attend meetings to hear the discussions of this advisory group.

We challenged the lack of published minutes and, after a protracted series of emails, FBC agreed to produce and publish the agenda and minutes for these meetings on their website.

Most recently, the group has been considering the five options that were consulted on last summer, together with some other specific sites that will be in, or out, of the areas that Fylde expects development.

In rough outline the five options were:

Option 1: Focus development on Lytham St Annes
This would see 50% of all development in and around Lytham St Annes, with 45% in Kirkham, Wesham, Warton and land at junction 4 of the M55 and Squires Gate. The remaining 5% would bee allocated between all other settlements

Option 2: Equal focus on Lytham St Annes and Kirkham
The second option would allocate 50% between Lytham St Annes and Kirkham, with 45% in Wesham, Warton and land at junction 4 of the M55 and Squires Gate. The remaining 5% would bee allocated between all other settlements as above.

Option 3: Lytham St Annes and Key and Local Service Centres
Would see 40% in Lytham St Annes, and 55% in Kirkham, Wesham, Warton and land at junction 4 of the M55 and Squires Gate

Option 4: Lytham St Annes and rural dispersal
Proposes 40% in Lytham St Annes and 45% Kirkham, Wesham, Warton and the land at junction 4 of the M55 and Squires Gate. It would also see 13% allocated between Wrea Green, Elswick, Newton, Singleton, Clifton, Staining and Weeton, and just 2% in other defined settlements.

Option 5: Equal focus on Lytham St Annes and land on the SE edge of Blackpool
This would have 80% split between Lytham St Annes and land on the edge of Blackpool (ie Lytham St Annes and land at junction 4 of the M55 and Squires Gate), together with 15% in Kirkham, Wesham and Warton, and 5% in other settlements. This option is probably likely to focus on developments around Whyndyke farm, and the land surrounding the airport and at Pontins.

When the public were consulted, we understand that Option 5 came out on top. We've also heard that Cllr Fiddler was accused by another member of the Steering Group of saying that if the responses they made were not in 'planning speak' they would be discounted. To our way of thinking, this makes a mockery of the consultation in the first place, and it's no wonder that folk don't respond to Fylde's consultations.

But worse was to come. Apparently the last couple of meetings of this group saw internecine warfare break out.

It seems from what we can gather that the steering group had broad agreement with Option 5, but Cllr Fiddler and the Council officers wanted to add some other development areas in that were not acceptable to many on the Steering Group.

We understand these included areas of land that have current planning applications or appeals pending and are to the Westby side of the Kirkham by-pass. The fear of many is that this would extend the urban fence beyond the new by-pass and mean it would be difficult to defend developments that would extend even further beyond the areas currently proposed, and could see Kirkham extending well out into the countryside.

We also heard tell of plans to develop extensive areas of land (chiefly for industrial/commercial, but also some housing) around the M55's Junction 3 (The Kirkham Junction) using land near the old Fairfield Experimental Station in the vicinity of Bradshaw Lane and elsewhere.

We're told that tracts of land around junction 3 are currently being bought by wealthy speculators in the hope that Fylde will designate it for development, and of Fylde actually considering this area informally - even though it was not part of the Issues and Options consultation.

This sort of thing has a nasty smell to it.

Several members of the Steering Group wanted to exclude these areas, fearing their wider impact - and we understand that something of a Mexican standoff developed.

In the end, it was broken by Cllr Fiddler who said in effect, well, you're only an advisory group for me to consult. It's my responsibility to make the decision and I will do so. I intend to include these areas irrespective of your preference.

As Star Trek's Mr Spock might have said "Its democracy Jim, but not was we know it."

Readers in any doubt will now see the folly of thinking that Advisory Committees for Portfolio Holders was anything close to a good idea.

There has been real and passionate argument on these matters, (as there should be) but we have been prevented from knowing about it because the public has been deliberately kept in the dark.

Whilst we argued successfully for publication of the agenda and minutes of these meetings, the agenda (together with the reports about what is to be discussed) have not been published since October 2012, and the minutes of the March 2013 meeting stop partway through with a note saying "The remainder of the note is not being published in the public domain at present as doing so would be likely to inhibit the free and frank provision of advice or the free and frank exchange of views for the purpose of deliberation."

We find that appalling.

It is ESSENTIAL that the electorate in any democracy has access to the debates of those they elect (in order to know the views of the people that have been elected). Accountability is the basic tenet of democracy. How else are we to come to a view about who should be elected in the future elections if their views are hidden from us like this?

And what sort of a Governance system can believe that it is right to hide the 'free and frank exchange of views' from the public.

Clearly the present one we have does.

We're not finished with this yet, and we have embarked on two courses of action.

Firstly, we have asked why the agenda for these meetings have not been published and why at least part of the minutes of the March 13th meeting have been withheld. This is a matter of such great importance we intend to take it as far as possible.

Secondly, even without the minutes, we are in a position to more or less piece together and publish what went on in the debate. That's because we have a copy of an email exchange that came via one of our readers and passed through at least five people en route to this page. It shows a war of words between Cllr Liz Oades and Cllr Trevor Fiddler. It shows the sort of arguments that Fylde did not want us to see taking place.

An evidently frustrated Cllr Fiddler wrote to all Councillors in April this year saying he felt the need to set out the concept and role of the Local Plan Steering Group to avoid any what he called "misunderstanding"

He went on to explain that before the last Government, the Planning Committee had the dual role of both regulation (development control) and the development of local planning policies. So the planning committee of that time was legally responsible for producing Local Development Plans.

But New Labour had changed the legislation, and Planning Committees became solely regulatory committees, with no authority in policy making. This excluded the Planning Committee from 'ownership' of their local plan.

In today's world, he said it is only the Portfolio holder who has the legal responsibility to oversee the development of the Local Plan - before it is endorsed by the Full Council.

Cllr Fiddler says he thought the previous system worked well, but the present scenario he found far too undemocratic in respect of such an important exercise like the Local Plan. So in order to circumvent the legislation he had invited the entire Development Management Committee to become the Local Plan Steering Group (LPSG), whose remit was to act as an advisory body to the Portfolio holder.

However he reminded everyone that the LPSG has no legal status.

He notes that in his opinion it has worked very well. At the conclusion of the March meeting --the group had supported 98% to 99% of the 'preferred options' agenda. The only issue questioned was whether or not the development of the so called Kirkham triangle remained as a preferred option. There was a strong view that the triangle be deleted and, as a consequence, he asked the Officers to go back and accommodate the associated residential and employment land else where in the Borough.

On the 9th April the Officers came back to him and advised that to delete the triangle would seriously jeopardise the Fylde Local Plan being found 'sound'. This in turn would lead to serious delay to its formal adoption and at great expense to the Borough. On receipt of this officer advice he arranged a LPSG meeting on Monday 22 April, specifically to give the opportunity for officers to explain their reasoning and for members to question the evidence that supports their recommendation to him as the Portfolio holder.

He argued that the debate should focus on whether there were sound planning reasons to exclude the triangle or whether it is simply a parochial view promoted by a ward Councillor. If it is the latter, the local plan inspector is likely to find Borough plan unsound.

In this respect he said he cannot ignore the comments made in the recent Planning Advisory Service Peer Review Report on the delivery of the planning service in Fylde - and at this point in his email, he quotes it, saying "members are strong advocates on behalf of their local ward area - favouring a more local ward-level view. Their primary focus is on the protection of ward and very local level interests and there have been instances in the past where members have gone as far as to organise opposition to options with which they disagree. This is to the detriment of the need for them to work towards a more strategic-borough wide vision. This is particularly important for members who are likely to have some difficult decisions in the next few months if the local plan programme is to be maintained and if the final plan is to be found sound upon examination".

(In the 'Planning War Looms' section of Snippets April 2013, we reported this 'peer review' report being savaged and shredded at the Scrutiny Committee that was considering it. But when their report went to Cabinet, the Scrutiny Committee itself was rubbished by Cllr Fiddler for not agreeing with the peer review recommendations).

Cllr Fiddler's email went on to accuse Cllr Oades of ignoring the dangers of allowing the parochial view to prevail as expressed in the text above, and of rubbishing the entire report.

He said he fears there is a growing perception that to avoid serious, balanced debate of the message - there was a deliberate attempt to undermine the professional integrity and competence of the messenger - whether that be Fylde's Planning Officers or the independent members of the Planning Advisory Service Peer Review team.

Queen Elizabeth was clearly incensed by this email - which had been copied to all Councillors.

In reply to him she said she had mistakenly taken him at his word, and thought that he would take on board the views of the group he had created. She pointed to instances where important points made in meetings had not been minuted, and several times it had been necessary for LPSG members to query the minutes - a practice which appears to have upset Cllr Fiddler when it happened.

She went on to say that Cllr Fiddler was correct that the group was unhappy with the inclusion of the Kirkham Triangle, and a very large majority of the group were against this. But Cllr Fiddler seemed to suggest she was simply being parochial.

In admitting that she was most unhappy about this development as a Kirkham councillor, she made it plain that she would be against it wherever it was in the Borough, and her track record showed that she has fought inappropriate development wherever it was planned.

She added that Cllr Fiddler was well aware of her reasons for being totally opposed to development at the Triangle, a view, she claimed, he has stated on several occasions that he was in total agreement with.

She said the land was outside the settlement boundary and had a hard edge (the by-pass). She argued that if planning policy cannot protect countryside with this type of boundary Fylde would not be able to protect any of the countryside, a fact which seems to have been ignored by officers in their recent report.

Her concern was that if this land goes for development it will effectively mean that development can, and will, take place from Kirkham right through to Westby to the west and Wesham and Greenhalgh to the north. Adding that it appeared to many of the Group that Kirkham, Wesham and Greenhalgh are being used to take industrial and housing development.

She noted that taking a fair share was only right, but she failed to see why so much was being allocated. It did not take account of the of the amount of housing and industry that Kirkham and Wesham have taken over the last 10-20 years.

She also questioned why this land was so important - because it seemed that Cllr Fiddler and his colleagues had been advocating putting industry around junction 3. She reminded Cllr Fiddler she attended a meeting last August with him and David Eaves where they asked for agreement that Junction 3 should take the industry, and she had indicated she could not agree to this.

She agrees there was a strong view at the last steering group meeting that the Triangle be removed and that Cllr Fiddler asked officers to go away to accommodate development elsewhere. But many members had told her after the meeting that they did not feel that officers had any intention of looking elsewhere, they seemed to be opposed to removing it from the Preferred Options. She had hoped that was not the case, and, at a meeting on Monday 8th April, she was advised that officers *were* looking closely at other options and would report back to the Steering Group in August.

She then says she found it difficult to believe that a meeting took place the following day, a meeting that nobody was aware was taking place, and at which officers stated they had looked for other options and could not find any. In her view they did not seem to have taken much time to look at other options.

She recalled a time when members took advice from officers if they felt that the advice was good, and, if members disagreed with officers they said so and the members views were the ones which were acted on.

Having appointed a group to steer the local plan, she argued Cllr Fiddler should be aware that such a group could reasonably expect their views to be taken into account. They were not there to rubber stamp things and be ignored.

She concluded by saying "If you just want a bunch of 'yes men and women' who will take responsibility for the plan once it is published I should tell you that I, and members of my group, do not intend to give credibility to your version of democracy. If this is the way you intend to carry on then I would advise you to make the Portfolio Holder decision in relation to the Local Plan then you can carry the can with the electorate, I refuse to let the public think that I have any ownership of a Plan I don't accept and which I have not been able to input into in any real way."

These are strong and robust arguments being advanced by both participants, and we suspect they reflect the sort of arguments that have been going on in the meetings from which the minutes have been withheld. Thanks to our loyal readership we are able to bring the information that Fylde seeks to suppress, to a wider audience.

We leave it to readers to judge whether Fylde was right to try and stop us knowing about it by withholding the minutes of the meetings.

It looks to us as though unanimity will be hard to find, and we look forward to the Council Meeting that will debate these matters.

Dated:  29 May 2013


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