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Wesham Stitch Up?

Wesham Stitch Up?To Wesham again where Planning Inspector Clive Sproule today opened an Inquiry into the appeal to develop 100 houses on land near Mowbreck Lane.

Fylde's officers had recommended approval of the scheme, but Fylde's Development Management Committee had repeated their consistent arguments against development on this land in September 2012, and refused the application. The developer went to appeal, and here we are.

We managed to stay for the first day to bring our readers this report, but sadly, we probably can't make the remaining days.

That said, we couldn't stand the excitement of today for four more days.

'Eventful' is an understatement.

The first shock  came as we read the following in Mr De Pol's Proof of Evidence (statement):

"At the suggestion of the LPA's officers an almost identical application was then resubmitted in October 2012"

Yes, really.

Readers might do a double-take here.

Just who is running Fylde Council? Is it the members we elect, or is it the hired hands they employ to carry out the instructions?

The elected councillors of the Planning (Development Management) Committee - who collectively are one of the few balanced committees Fylde operate, have refused applications on this land (sometimes unanimously) every time it has been brought before them.

A planning Inspector, the Secretary of State, and Judge have all previously agreed with their decisions.

So we ask - by what right do Fylde's officers seek to circumvent and undermine the decisions of the Committee they serve by encouraging the resubmission of an application that was refused only three weeks prior?

This is a matter of some seriousness.

It shows an officer class that appears beyond the control of the Council they serve. Someone needs to get a very firm grip on the tail that is wagging this dog and stamp very hard to bring this sort of practice to an end.

But bad as it is, we can see grounds to believe this is not an isolated instance of officers subverting the will of the Council - as we will show.

Back to the inquiry proper.

Before it opened there was an expectant buzz around the room as a rumour flew that Fylde had thrown in the towel and would not give any evidence.

Inspector Clive Sproule opened proceedings at 10am.

About 50 of the good people of Wesham had arrived to hear and speak about the appeal.

As usual, the beginning was taken up with procedural matters about which were the latest versions of documents and so on. Speaking for the developer, was ace barrister Roger Lancaster, veteran of many planning battles in Fylde and elsewhere. He said he would call three witnesses.

Appearing (briefly as it later turned out) for the Council was barrister Alan Evans who was instructed by the Borough Solicitor. He said the Council's case had recently changed direction and this would replace anything FBC had previously submitted. He would explain more on this shortly.

Appearing as the 'Rule 6 party' was Wesham Action Group led by Andrea Galbraith who said she would call three people to give evidence.

The Inspector noted that in his view the main issues were: the effect of the development in relation to planning policy; best and most versatile agricultural land; sustainability; highway safety; economic growth, and protected wildlife.

Mr Lancaster opened the batting on the arrangements. He said all his arguments had been prepared on the basis of dealing with the evidence submitted by Mr Ottewell (who was to have been Fylde's expert witness), and he would need some time to review the situation as his "plans had been thrown a bit awry".

There followed a discussion about how long the evidence and cross examinations would take as the Inspector tried to gauge a timetable.

Then Mr Alan Evans - barrister for FBC formally dropped the bombshell that everyone present had been expecting.

He said - People will have gathered already what course the Council will take. He said it was an unusual course of action and one they had undertaken with a "degree of reluctance." He said the Council had a duty not to waste the time of the inquiry, and Fylde were not going to produce any evidence to the inquiry, therefore they would also not be able to cross examine the evidence of others. They would maintain a presence at the inquiry and assist the inquiry as needed - say with factual issues.

He said the reason for Fylde's decision was that their expert (Mr Ottewell) had based his case chiefly around a policy known as L4 in the Regional Strategy (the same one that St Eric is in the process of abolishing and says should carry little weight because of that). It is a policy about using greenfield sites only after redundant already developed (brownfield) land. We understood him to say Mr Ottewell had argued the proportion of greenfield land used in Fylde was maxing out in relation to brownfield.

This is a valid argument, but weaker than dishwater given the weight of arguments the RS itself should carry, and we're exceptionally surprised if this was the best argument the planners and experts working for Fylde could come up with.

But then, when Fylde's planners were the ones who suggested the developer resubmit his application, a cynic might wonder if 'pulled punches' were part of a wider strategy.

Mr Evans for Fylde continued, saying that a rebuttal of Mr Ottewells evidence had been submitted at the last minute, and when that had been considered, Fylde had changed their mind and decided they could not argue the case because Mr De Pol was right.

So the Council did not consider it could "defend the position in Mr Ottewells proof because the evidence is not there"

Mr Evans went on to say "I expect there are other matters we could have debated, but we don't want to waste the inquiry's time"

Mr Lancaster, as Brutus, came in with the knife, saying "That puts the position very clearly. Mr Ottewells proof is an overall proof and must be considered as being withdrawn."

The inspector vacillated for a while as he considered whether this and the other parts of Mr Ottewells proof that had been submitted to, and accepted by, the Inquiry should stay as written evidence and form a basis for Mr Lancaster to argue against, but eventually he decided Mr Ottewells evidence should be withdrawn.

And with that, Fylde Council abandoned the people of Wesham.

They fled the field, leaving the Wesham Action Group to stand alone as the only line of defence against the development.

As one WAG supporter told us. Wesham Town Council will now have to come up with a new logo - it is now The Independent State of Wesham'  having seen its protectorate turn tails and run.

Never in the field of human conflict was so little owed, by so many, to so few.

We were curious about how 'Fylde Council' had arrived at a 'decision' to withdraw from the inquiry. We had seen no minute, not even a Cabinet or Portfolio Holder's decision, so we asked. We were told the decision was made by "the chosen representative of the Development Management Committee" When we pressed further we were told Cllr Linda Nulty made the decision to withdraw.

We were absolutely shocked.

We know Cllr Nulty's sympathy in this matter. She is to Wesham what Queen Elizabeth Oades is to Kirkham. This was completely out of character for her, and we dug deeper to see how and why this might have come about.

We have hinted before about shady shenanigans going on behind the scenes on this matter. We have, for some time, been in possession of copy emails that we might yet be in a position to publish the relevant extracts from. It seems to us there is more going on than can be seen on the surface.

It's also tempting to see a conspiracy surrounding this application and appeal, and that's clearly something to guard against unless there is clear evidence.  But we have found so often from experience - and especially at Fylde - when something looks like a rat, smells like a rat, runs like a rat and flies up drainpipes like a rat, it probably is a rat.

What we discovered from our digging is that after the Development Management Committee refused the application in September, officers suggested to the developer that they re-submit the application. There was then a flurry of emails between a variety of people who argued - with eventual success that this re-submission could be refused to be considered by the Development Management Committee - which is what they eventually did.

But those emails - from some of the highest placed officers in the Council - show how many twists and turns officers made to try to avoid this happening. From what we have seen we formed the clear impression that officers were trying to block the opportunity to discount the re-submitted application.

We also heard that the Chairman and Vice Chairman of the Development Control Committee, and the Cabinet Portfolio Holder for Planning (Cllrs Aitken, Eastham and Fiddler respectively) 'decided' that the council's case at the inquiry should be led by Cllr Linda Nulty.

This is at least unusual, and at worst an abdication of the responsibility that rightly belongs to the Chairman of the Committee.

Once a Committee has arrived at a decision, it is normally the Chairman's responsibility to take that decision on board and to argue it as strongly as he can. It is a duty he owes to his committee.

We can see that 'delegating' that responsibility to Cllr Nulty has some logic, she probably knows the local arguments better than anyone.

But equally, it could have been seen as the creation of a patsy - someone set up to take the flack when it all went wrong - if indeed, that was the plan all along.

Matters did not go well with Cllr Nulty leading the preparation of the case.

We understand she argued with the basis that Fylde's officers and experts wanted to use. We're told she felt so strongly about this that she refused to sign off the instructions to the barrister because she believed Fylde to be using the wrong arguments and ones that were too weak. We're told the signing off was done by an officer, not the person who had been 'the chosen representative of the Development Management Committee'

There are a couple of relevant points here. Firstly, there is a question in our mind about the legitimacy of Cllr Nulty's 'nomination' and her position.

So far as we can tell, there was no vote of the DM Committee to appoint her, and no formal Cabinet or Portfolio Holder decision to appoint her. So we're not at all sure she had the authority to take any sort of decision on behalf of 'The Council'.

Secondly, even if we are incorrect about that matter, and she had a properly constituted authority, how can it be that a person supposedly charged with acting for / as the Council can specifically refuse to agree the basis of the case to be argued, only for her authority in that matter to be subverted by an officer?

She continued to support the Wesham Action Group and prepared her own case to present at the Inquiry whilst officers and experts worked up the arguments they would use at the Inquiry. Those were the arguments that were shown to be so incompetent they could not stand up to scrutiny.

This, of course, has proved Cllr Nulty's judgement as being sound.

But faced with the pressure of three professionals telling her - literally the night before the inquiry - that Mr De Pol's rebuttal proof of evidence was so strong that their expert's case had been 'demolished' and Fylde's case had collapsed, she saw little alternative other than to accept the inevitable, and the advice she was given, and to agree to Fylde withdrawing its case at the appeal.

The lateness of the decision was confirmed by Cllr Trevor Fiddler who came into the Inquiry late and was told at the morning break that Fylde had thrown in the towel. His face was incredulous and shocked. We heard him say "No" in disbelief as he was told.

As Fylde's Portfolio Holder for Planning you'd have expected he would have known about it, but it looked very much to us that he didn't.

Readers will have to judge for themselves whether all this process represents an unfortunate series of coincidences, or a pre-determined and clever stitch-up to ensure the development of this site takes place, and Cllr Nulty takes the flak for it.

Back in the real world, Mr Lancaster began his opening statement. He set out the background, described the changes wrought by the National Planning Policy Framework, and how they would affect the appeal. He said Fylde remains unable to demonstrate a five year supply of housing land. He said he would show that the loss of agricultural land was not a sufficient argument, and WAG was not producing evidence on this matter. He made a great deal of the five year supply shortfall. He said the development was in scale with the area and sustainable. There were no highway problems according to the Lancashire County Council Highway Authority or FBC.

WAG then summarised their case saying that the Community had consistently objected to the application on this land. The methodology used for the five year supply of housing land was flawed and Fylde does have a five year supply. She said the NPPF logically allows a reassessment of sustainability with factors more widely drawn than the narrow physical proximity that has been used to date. She said the accident date for the highway statistics was incomplete and has not considered the recently introduced traffic lights at the M55 Junction 3. She urged the Inspector to dismiss the appeal.

At that point we broke for lunch, resuming at 2pm.

Mr Lancaster called his first witness Mr De Pol who was an expert town planner. For the next two and a half hours, we were treated (if that's the right word), to a minute examination of what we regard as entirely theoretical numbers - more linked to alchemy and witchcraft than logic - of what may and may not be considered suitable to be counted in Fylde's five year housing supply. Needless to say at the end of it, he had 'proved' that Fylde was desperately in need of more houses, and this appeal must be allowed.

We thought: there are lies, damn lies, statistics and five year housing supply numbers.

Then we had the start of the public speaking. There was time for six people. First off was:

Mr Fletcher
Moved here 6 yrs ago to enjoy a semi rural location. He has seen several developments in this time. He said the proposal would impinge on the recreation site. It will damage views of the Trough of Bowland and cause traffic problems. The application was for commercial purposes over community values. It would damage the use of outdoor space, and he urged the Inspector to reject the appeal.

Cllr Mrs Oades
Said she was the County Cllr for Wesham and a Fylde Borough Councillor. She shared the concerns of councillors all round the country on the government's planning proposals. She had called on Government to give more weight to localism. She said a delegation from FBC went to Westminster recently.

She also noted that former Planning Minister Greg Clark had said councils without local plans would not be disadvantaged - but that no longer seems to apply.

She noted that if developers said they can't develop planning permissions and can only build a small percentage of their permissions, we will never reach the 5 year supply. She argued that all planning approvals should count toward the 5 year supply. Also she said it needed more clarity on emerging local plans. She said it can't be right that speculative developers were looking at the countryside as a cash cow. She said when FBC went to Westminster, the Minister had advised a change in numbers,  and had arranged a meeting with the Planning Inspectorate and that was taking place this week.

Cllr Mrs Speak
Said she represented the neighbouring ward and had been a  DMC member since 1999. She said she had never seen a developer more persistent than Metacre. They were constantly putting pressure on the planning department, and wearing everybody down, especially the Pickervance family who were good farmers and needed to continue to farm. She said there was a need to use common sense and respect for the community.

Fred Moor
Spoke about the housing numbers saying that he regarded the principles underpinning the five year supply as pure fiction to be adjusted by whoever was in power at the time, and he could attribute no weight to the constantly changing factors that led to some sites being counted and others not.

But his main argument was about the overall need in Fylde. He said three factors contributed to need. 1). Demographics: which showed more people dying than being born so we should demolish something like 180 to 270 houses a year to keep pace with demographics.  2). Family Fragmentation - mostly from divorce which produced a need for 140 dwellings a year and this was still below the reductions for demographic purposes and, 3). Net inward migration which produced the bulk of the need for additional properties. He said it was perfectly right that local people and local councillors should weigh the protection of farmland against the benefits of inward migration and support the retention of farmland.

Mr Howard
Spoke on behalf of Wesham Town Council. He said the TC had continued to make its objection clear. It was not the first time he had been to an event like this. He described the relentless attack on the countryside in Wesham.

He eloquently said that developers had grabbed the planning uncertainty and were throwing a brick at the window of opportunity for hard cash, and to hell with the needs of the local community. He said Wesham TC was not opposed to development per se. They had recently supported two large developments and welcomed them. He argued that the Settlement Boundary protected not only the land, but a way of living. The agricultural land would be detrimentally affected by this development, adding this was clearly phase 1 of the previous planned development - as evidenced by the spine road that stops ready to connect to another site.

A Final Speaker
Said when landscape was threatened it was right to speak out and he was grateful for the opportunity to do so. He argued this was to him, the equivalent of an area of outstanding natural beauty, but people like him who were trying to defend their countryside were lost in a mass of planning rules they could not fathom. He questioned whether the 5 year housing supply should be more important than a 5 year food supply, noting that agricultural land was being damaged or reduced by drought, floods, renewable energy or growing bio-fuels. He concluded by saying that metacre's interest was financial gain, and that was not wrong, but the countryside should not be the price that had to be paid.

And with that the first day ended. Day two will begin at 10am on Wednesday. We're not clear whether it will run to Thursday now that FBC have turned tail and run.

We can't attend on Wed, but if we get a credible report of proceedings we'll add it here.

Win or lose (and winning is going to be hard) The folks from Wesham Action Group deserve a medal for their effort, and another for their bravery in standing alone when Fylde had fled. Personally we'd be thinking of giving Andrea Galbraith the freedom of the Borough were it not for the fact that those who might decide to award it to her are not fit to shine her shoes.

It's difficult, but not impossible, to win. The folk at The Vic Pub in St Annes swayed the Inspector with their support, and she refused the conversion to flats.  We hope the good people of Wesham can do the same here once more.

Dated:  19 February 2013


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