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Newton: Humble Pie Distribution

Committees CampaignIn our Snippets article of 28 June 2012 we had a section headed 'Newton Troubles.'

It was a counterbalance reader's report of a resident's meeting about a Fylde planning application concerning a former builders yard, on land at Thames Street, Newton with Clifton.

The application was for change of use of land to become a residential caravan site for 4 Gypsy families each with 2 caravans, together with the erection of an amenity block, erection of a boundary fence, installation of a package sewage treatment plant & the formation of a landscaped mound. Subsequently alterations to the access were also included. We gave the background to the application as well.

Then in 'Newton Gypsy Site Application' on 18 December 2013, we did a retrospective catch-up, before reporting Fylde's Development Management Committee meeting of that date.

There were probably 300 residents at that planning meeting. Newton was angry.

And there were some exceptionally unusual features to the item.

  • The County Council Highways Department had been doing somersaults on what they had said.
  • At the 11th hour (on 16th December), notification had come from the Government's 'National Planning Casework Unit' to say that any decision to approve this application should be made subject to a Call-In by the Secretary of State for Communities and Government.
  • Our MP Mark Menzies had, *very* unusually, sent a very strongly worded letter to FBC, the essence of which was that he didn't want to be accused of trying to impose his will on councillors, but he wanted Fylde to refuse the application, the most relevant of his quotes being "In my view, having visited the site personally, I feel the area is completely inappropriate for this type of use, and the planning committee should look at refusing the scheme."

We said in all our (considerable) experience of local government workings, that's the first time we've ever seen such a strong public statement on planning from a Fylde MP.

But in spite of all this, Fylde's planning officers said there were no new issues that were not addressed in their report, so they saw no reason to change their recommendation to approve the application.

We said at the time "These people simply can't see the train hurtling down the track at them can they? You have to wonder how fit-for-purpose they are."

Well, things got even worse.

The professional planning consultant engaged by the Newton Resident's Association had just 3 minutes (the same as any member of the public) to put his case on their behalf to the DM Committee. He did a good job but could only skate over the surface in 3 minutes.

Then, seven members of the public from Newton drew attention to what they said were serious concerns and deficiencies in the proposals, and finally Michael Gornall of the Residents Association summed up and called for refusal of the application - to thunderous applause from those present.

When the debate started Councillors on the Development Management Committee had their say.

Cllrs Heather Speak, Liz Oades, Peter Collins and Charlie Duffy, Maxine Chew and Kiran Mulholland all spoke against approval of the application.

Cllr Richard Redcliffe and Cllr Kevin Eastham were somewhat ambiguous in their views, but voted for approval

And Cllr Tim Armit - who sounded as though he was heading for refusal then went into reverse, and said he supported approval, and voted for it.

Finally, Cllr Trevor Fiddler spoke patronisingly members he suggested were not making the decision on planning grounds, but were being swayed by the views of their electorate. He voted for it.

The votes of individual Development Management Committee councillors for and against approval are in our previous counterbalance for all to see.

We concluded that article with a prediction that the residents of Newton would be able to sleep easy in their beds, because we were certain that St Eric Pickles would call-in this application and that he will refuse it.

We said if that happened, Newton will have cause to be very grateful to its MP.

We also said they would expect the Fylde Conservatives (and Cllr Eastham) who voted for approval of the application to eat humble pie.

And we went further.

We said if St Eric's decision *did* to overturn Fylde's preference and refuse planning permission, we thought the Planning Advisory Service should be called in again by Fylde in order to effect (what Fylde itself calls) 'mandatory training' of those councillors who (wrongly) voted in support of the application,

That applies especially Cllr Fiddler, who has been vociferous in calling for such training to be given to those who supported residents and refused planning permissions that were subsequently overturned on appeal.

We wondered how he might like it if the tables were turned.

The next thing of significance to happen was that we sent a counterbalance Newsflash to registered readers saying that the Secretary of State had called in the decision.

This caused a bit of a stir about what actually constituted a 'call-in'.

We took the view it had been called-in because the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has been requested to intervene in this application, and he had told Fylde he required them to send him the application form, the committee report, the minutes from committee and the statutory consultee responses.

He also told them he may require further information and if so, he would call for it.

He also said he might have to issue an Article 25 Notice if the application had already been approved by Fylde's planning committee.

The effect of this would have been to prevent Fylde from issuing a Decision Notice.

To us, that seemed pretty much as though all the papers for the application had been called-in.

HOWEVER

The better, and more accepted definition of a call-in is, it seems, when the SoS, having seen those papers, decides to take the decision out of Fylde's hands altogether, and takes the decision himself.

So purists would say we were wrong to have said it had been called in when we did.

It's a question of whether you consider calling in the papers to be the "call in" or whether that happens when the SoS requires Fylde to surrender the decision to him

We had contact with a few councillors and other folk 'in the know' on such matters after our newsflash, and were asked by some whether, if we were ultimately proved wrong and the decision was not 'called in' in the more widely accepted sense, we would eat 'Humble Pie'.

We said "Absolutely, we would be happy to apologise if we call a decision wrong, as we did at the Vic inquiry."

But no one had heard the Fat Lady sing on the matter of the traveller site - so breaths remained bated at that time, with the SoS considering the papers.

Then on 14 Feb we published our article 'Just a Minute' - reporting a spat between Cllr Mrs Oades and the DMC Chairman Ben Aitken regarding the minuting of the conditions that had been imposed on the Thames Street applicant - and in particular about who was responsible for meeting those conditions.

The Chairman seemed to be wanting to ease the burden on the applicant and had said "As to the improvement, I have clarified this with Mark Evans. My comments to him are as I said to the person who rang me - I do not expect the applicant to make the highways improvements i.e. street lighting, walkways and road surfacing. The costs to the applicant would be out of the question. These are the responsibility of the Lancashire County Council"

We noted his demeanour toward this application seems to have been consistent with his wanting it to be approved all along the line.

Then, on 29th March, Newton Resident's Association were advised that St Eric Pickles HAD, in fact, issues a direction to Fylde Council and he had called -in the decision in every sense of the word.

He has done so because of the proposed development's relationship with national policies on important matters, and he wanted to consider all the relevant aspects of the proposed development, and so he decided to hold a local inquiry.

FBC and the applicant were required to provide statements containing the full particulars of the case that they propose to put forward at the inquiry.

Furthermore, in what we see as an unusual step, and because of the Newton Residents Association's interest in these proposals, St. Eric has decided to also require NRA to put forward a statement of case as evidence to the inquiry.

NRA was ecstatic, and began planning their response. We report their progress in a separate article.

But we were busy ourselves, scurrying and reaching for some Humble Pies to pass out.

Who's going to get them?

Well first, and each with small slices, will be all the Councillors who got the decision wrong. That's Cllrs Ben Aitken, Kevin Eastham, Trevor Fiddler, Richard Redcliffe, Fabian Craig-Wilson, Barbara Nash, Tim Armit, Vivien Willder, and Christine Ackeroyd.

The we will dish out 'seconds'

The first of those goes to Cllr Tim Armit who is enthusiastic, but still wet behind the ears in planning matters, so his 'second' is just another small slice of Humble Pie for saying "...if they [the DM Committee] rejected the application it would only be to satisfy the people at the meeting, and they would probably lose it on appeal".  That was just before he proposed they accept the officer's recommendation. WRONG

Next is Cllr Eastham who knows why, and was generous enough to approach us at the last Council meeting to say he was choking on eating it already. He gets a small slice too for being WRONG.

A bigger second slice goes to Committee Chairman Ben Aitken who ought to have known better - but plainly didn't. So he gets another medium sized slice for being WRONG

But the biggest slice of all goes to the Cabinet Member and Portfolio Holder for Planning and Development and (for reasons we don't understand) member of the Development Management Committee - Cllr Trevor Fiddler.

He has years of experience as a Vice Chairman of Planning, and years of experience as a Chairman. He speaks with the authority of deep experience and when he did that at the DM Committee meeting, it was almost as though the others in the Conservative group had been told to follow his lead on planning decisions - even if they disagreed with him.

It was evident to us at the meeting that several did disagree with him - because they followed his lead and voted for approval with their hands up but their heads down - and they used very muted voices - as though they were ashamed to be seen or heard voting as they had been told to vote.

Cllr Fiddler also spoke (very patronisingly) about Cllr Heather Speak, saying that had been speaking for her residents, and that was "understandable".

He was trying to suggest she was letting her emotions spoil her planning policy considerations. That was absolutely not the case. We could see from the preparation she had done that her arguments had all been based on proper planning considerations.

We thought he was patronising and mud-slinging with that opening comment.

He pointed out that the Bambers Lane Gypsy application in Westby - on the border of St Annes - had been recommended for refusal by officers but the committee had voted in favour of it, so they must have thought there was a need for more gypsy sites at that time. He said he agreed with Cllr Armit

He concluded his case with the implied threat that the arguments couldn't be supported in an appeal situation and the Committee knew the consequences of that.

This was a veiled threat about the costs that might be awarded against Fylde if they lost an appeal.

We thought that was pretty rich coming from the man who just persuaded the Cabinet to spend another 105,000 on producing the local plan which is now way behind schedule and comfortably heading toward an overall cost of half a million pounds. So we don't think he has much room to talk about how much things cost.

So he was WRONG on Cllr Speak, WRONG as he influenced others to vote for it, WRONG to use mud-slinging and threats. WRONG that the arguments couldn't be supported at an appeal, and WRONG about the threat of appeal costs.

So for getting it wrong five times, we're giving him a WHOLE PIE to eat all of his own. And, for getting it SO wrong, we think he should also be 'mandatorily retrained' by the Planning Advisory Service that he introduced to Fylde - to correct what he saw as incorrect voting behaviour on planning applications.

And its not just us that say he's wrong.

No less a personage than St Eric himself has done so - by saying Fylde cannot be trusted to take this decision itself, and the application must be heard by an inspector before St Eric takes the decision himself.

Dated: 17 April 2014


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