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Newton Resident's Association: AGM 2014

Newton Resident's Association: AGM 2014This week, we had the absolute pleasure of seeing a community working at its best.

We went to the Newton Resident's Association Annual Meeting, where we saw community heroes working solidly - and very capably - on behalf of local people.

Their campaign is to resist the Thames Street planning application (for a residential caravan site for 4 Gypsy families each with 2 caravans) that Fylde Council's officers and leading Conservatives seemed hell-bent on approving.

We also saw local people expressing quiet, but unshakeable determination to resist the incompetent recommendations and decisions of Fylde's planners in this matter.

Newton folk have been very badly served by the paid employees, and by the Conservatives of Fylde Council.

Yet, paradoxically, they could not have been better served by their Conservative MP Mark Menzies and Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government - Saint Eric Pickles.

Fylde's planning service is running in disaster mode. Apart from the sheer incompetence that is the new draft Local Plan, it seems as though planners have lost touch with reality and sanity.

Cabinet Member and Portfolio Holder for Planning and Development Cllr Trevor Fiddler is presiding over what could easily become the destruction of great swathes of rural Fylde. He is failing to rein-in the runaway planning officers who are careering about like riderless horses, and both are causing whole communities to rise up in anger against their proposals.

Electorally this is catastrophic for Conservatives on FBC but, incredibly, at the same time, it is vastly increasing the electoral prospects of our MP Mark Menzies.

In Warton and in Newton - and to a lesser extent in other areas - we struggle to see how anyone standing now for election to the Borough Council as a Conservative could have a hope in hell of being elected.

Yet at the same time, we are amazed at how - despite his current personal difficulties - our Conservative MP is winning the hearts and minds and the deep gratitude of folk in those very same villages.

And that's not just our opinion. It was plain for all to see at the Newton Resident's Association meeting.

Due to start at 7:30 the small Village Hall meeting room was packed. All seats were taken and it was standing room only. Newton is a small community, but about 120 people packed the little village hall for the start.

The meeting opened with the Chairman making a couple of announcements that were quite significant.

He said "Last December at that fateful [planning] meeting when we were - insulted - basically. Two hundred people there, which was a lot of village people and we were totally ignored. And after that meeting I was asked by a member of the press what we were going to do, and I said well, we're going to carry on, we're going to fight on."

He said they had been advised to write to Eric Pickles' department and so they did. He continued "... And over the last few months, Mark Menzies has rallied around and pushed the situation, and as most of you now know, we got a call-in. Put simply it means that the Department [for Communities and Local Government] were very unhappy about the decision made [by Fylde Planners] in December, and so what they've done is put the planning application on hold, until there is a review, which basically will be a Public Enquiry"

He said Newton Villagers had pushed and pushed and pushed, and they should be proud of themselves for sticking it out so long.

Then he welcomed Independent Councillor Peter Collins to the meeting (He represents the ward on FBC) together with two of the Newton Parish Councillors who were there as well.

Those assembled first heard the AGM business - with the usual committee elections and reports.

We found the Treasurers report of particular interest. They had undertaken a lot of fundraising for their campaign. Two summer draws had raised £8,000, there had been £6,000 in donations. Collections at public meetings raised £4,000 and together with a variety of social activities like BBQs and visits to the races. they had generated an amazing total of £22,000 for their fighting fund.

This is very impressive, and is yet another measure of village unity in this matter.

On the expenses side, the employment of a specialist planning consultant, a highways expert, legal advice and a flood risk assessment totalled £23,000.

But there were undaunted by that prospect - and on that very day, a Newton company called 'Submarine Manufacturing & Products', run by a chap called Phil Connolly, had donated £2,230 so they were back in the black.

This money had come from his keeping on one side the scrap from expensive alloys and weighing it in and donating the proceeds. There was much applause.

The group also has a skip at a local farm where people can take scrap metal to donate to the cause in what they call their 'cash for scrap' appeal. All very impressive.

Michael Gornall explained the outline of what had been going on to resist the application because of its impact on the local environment.

He said "Since our last meeting we have been very busy engaging with DCLG, providing information and our arguments and concerns. We have engaged barristers and planning consultants to feed into DCLG, and obviously that has had the right effect. We also had the support of Mark Menzies. Now, Mark has some personal issues of his own at the moment that you'll all have read about, but Mark remains totally committed to support the village in this matter and he is still actively engaged in support of what we're trying to do. So I think we're all very grateful for the work he's done because I think he's played a key part in getting it called in."

Then came the turn of Annette Vernon.

This lady is already recognised for her ability, because she has been awarded a CBE (we think for her services to Justice) but had that not been the case, you could instantly tell from her approach and her tone that she was a local hero.

She began "Hello everybody - bear with me, because this is going to be a long hard slog."

We were reminded - in a different scale - of the famous "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat" quotation.

She continued "Can you all hear me?  Right. When I start speaking too fast, or I'm not speaking loud enough, please shout up, but bear with me until the end because it's going to be a long haul this"

You can tell just from this common-sense, no-nonsense approach that here was a lady comfortable in her own skin, at one with her fellow residents, not patronising, (if anything self deprecating), clear speaking and clear thinking.  In short exactly the sort of person needed in this situation.

We know from personal experience the hours of work and unseen preparation that is necessary to take part in a Planning Inquiry, and Newton is indeed fortunate to have local heroes like her  and Michael who are willing to shoulder the burden on behalf of the community.

She began with the letter from Mark Menzies and said "Mark's letter, right at the beginning - and he has helped enormously with this - says 'The decision means that a full, Minister-led review of the application will take place, and we can be sure that every avenue will be examined over this plan - that will affect the whole of this village"

She went on to say (and we agree) that it was very rare for applications like this to be called in, not because they didn't have a good case, but because call-ins were generally for schemes the size of Heathrow or HS2, but they had bucked the trend and it had been called in and Mark Menzies had helped enormously with that.

She said the one thing they could be sure of this time, was that all the policies and proper planning matters will be correctly applied to the consideration - implying that she did not think that had happened during FBC's tenure and consideration of the application.

We think our readers might be inclined to agree with her.

She outlined the reasons for the call in (which we have covered elsewhere) and said they had been frustrated at the DMC meeting last December where they could not argue their case when things were said that were wrong. She noted at least at the Inquiry they would have the right to argue and make comment on matters of importance.

She said "We, the NRA, also got a call-in letter and it was slightly different than the one that was sent to Fylde Borough Council, and in that they put a reason about why they'd called it in and the last bit here says 'The Secretary of State is of the opinion that the application raises issues of more than local importance, which he ought to decide himself."

Saint Eric rides again!

counterbalance's own take on this, is that a change in planning guidance was issued by the SoS in January. The Daily Mail reported it as "Communities Secretary Eric Pickles wants to end special planning treatment for those who claim they are travellers because they are racially Roma – when in fact they stay in one place."

What St Eric did with his new guidance had the effect of overturning Two Jags Prescott’s planning circular which St Eric believes undermined community cohesion by creating a perception that there are ‘different’ planning rules for the travelling community and for the settled community.

We don't think FBC took proper account of this (or of several other aspects of the application) when they considered it.

St Eric has also taken exceptional powers which, for a period of six months AFTER a planning decision approval has been made involving traveller sites in the Green Belt, means that he will consider 'recovery appeals.' That's a previously unheard of process to retrospectively reconsider planning applications that have been decided. Thames street is not Green Belt, so this aspect does not apply here, but it does illustrate a policy direction to which Fylde's planners seem blind.

As usual we've digressed. - Back to the Newton site.....

Annette went on to explain how the Public Inquiry would work and that that Newton Residents' Association and the Parish Council had each been separately given what is called "Rule 6 Status."

This gives these parties duties and responsibilities on a par with the barristers that Fylde and the Applicant will engage. They will appear at the Inquiry to present their case, argue and rebut on - more or less - equal terms before the Inspector.

She explained that the final decision will be made by the Secretary of State himself, after he has received the recommendation of the Inspector who conducts the inquiry, and there is no appeal for the applicant beyond that decision, except for an application made to the High Court.

She went on to say the enquiry would have a bespoke timetable and explained in some detail how the Inquiry would work, so all the residents understood the process that would be used, and they knew what to expect. She thought the Inquiry itself would probably be in August or, more likely, September.

Skilfully, as well as explaining, she was keeping people involved and on-side.

She explained that costs were generally borne by the Inquiry participants for their own cases, but could be awarded against anyone whose behaviour during the inquiry "directly caused another party to incur expenses that would otherwise not have been necessary"

She then said there was good news and bad news.

The good news was that last time, she had over estimated the costs quite significantly. She had thought it would cost between £3,000 and £5,000 to get them to the call in, but, she said "It was £1,320 which was significantly less than I predicted, and I think, actually, Mark helped us enormously in getting that call-in."

But the next stage will be much more costly. There were big variables like how long the inquiry would last, and how many witnesses would be called. All of this would impact on how much it would cost, but after all the work and meetings and documentation would have a cost. But her ballpark estimate was £23,000 to£28,500 depending on length.

For a village the size of Newton that is another enormous sum to raise, and many would be put off by the scale.

But not so for our local heroes on the NRA.

Concluding her 'Blood sweat and tears' presentation Annette said there was one further area they were pursuing "avidly" and that was Freedom of Information requests from Fylde BC.

Initially they had made three requests - one about the 'need' for the development, another was about a 'Certificate of Lawfulness' - in which FBC says the site can be used for the storage of building materials. The NRA do not believe that certificate should be in place and are questioning its validity. Thirdly, there were concerns about the conduct of the DMC meeting and the conditions imposed by the Committee.

She said they had been "unhappy with the [FoI] responses" from FBC who had refused to answer several around the Certificate of Lawfulness, and had relied on the arguments of "Legal Privilege" to justify refusing to give the information to the NRA.

We find that disgraceful.

Fylde had refused its own residents the information they need to challenge what they, at least, regard as an invalid decision made by the Council.

If it is not an invalid decision, FBC has nothing to fear. If it is invalid, they ought to correct it, and be glad that someone has helped them get it right.

However, undeterred with FBC's refusal, the NRA had appealed to the Information Commissioner who had agreed with them and ordered Fylde to release the information that had been requested.

But that wasn't the end, because when they got the information, they realised some was still being withheld, so they requested that.

It looks as though Fylde had finally capitulated because they gave the NRA the further information in huge volumes, but even now Annette said there were still gaps in the documentation that they were going back again for.

She seemed to think the problem wasn't so much the people who dealt with the FoI's at Fylde, but those in the Planning department who were providing the information to the FoI department at Fylde.

The NRA was currently sending FoI requests to Lancashire County Council about the highways issues, and replies on that were awaited.

The applause for her presentation was deafening and sustained.

Next up was Howard who was in charge of fundraising for the campaign.

We thought he was a bit droll - something like a cross between the humour of Mike Harding and the plain common sense of Fred Dibnah. He had that easy manner that is no-nonsense but effective. A solid four-square chap that you knew instinctively was a safe pair of hands who could make things happen. Another local hero.

He outlined their plans to raise the £28,000 or so and, we have to say, that we're sure they will achieve it. Maybe not by September, but it will come.

He outlined lots of activities that would involve all the village, but the key was a plan for a monthly prize draw that people could sign up to with standing orders at a fiver a month, and with the prospect of winning £150, £100 or £50 every month if 200 tickets were sold (or pro rata to ticket sales).

We wish him - and them - well.

After a short Q and A session for those attending, the meeting closed.

As we said at the beginning of this article, this meeting was a pleasure to attend. We saw villagers and their Association and their Parish Council all working together, united against what they saw as the intransigence and prejudice of Fylde's (mostly Conservative) councillors and planning officers who seemed hell-bent on pushing the application through against the wishes of local people and preventing then from having the information they needed to argue their case.

Fylde is getting better at shooting itself in the foot. Fomenting distrust and resentment is becoming it's speciality.

We think this is yet another symptom of the problems caused because power has been concentrated into so few hands at Fylde when it adopted the Leader and Cabinet model of operation. There is insufficient challenge and  there is isolation from common sense.

With what resembled an unjustifiable 'Follow my leader' decision at the Development Management Committee last December, is there any wonder that Fylde's ruling Conservative group are now perceived as 'the enemy' by residents of Newton (and Warton, and elsewhere)

Contrast that perception with the warm support, strongly - and repeatedly - expressed at the meeting for the help that residents had been given by Mark Menzies MP, and for our own St Eric Pickles, and you have one of the conundrums of the present time.

How can Fylde's Conservative councillors be so unpopular, when Fylde's Conservative MP's enjoys such strong and warm support.

We think it's because Mark Menzies is trying to help them and, in its present format, FBC is seen as trying to help itself.

We look forward to the inquiry in the autumn.

Dated: 18 April 2014


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