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Planning in Private

Private PlanningIn 'Housing Numbers' on 6 June last year, we spoke of a 'Local Development Framework Steering Group' (later to become known as the Local Plan Steering Group) (LPSG). It had all the appearance of being a Council Committee.

But Fylde said it wasn't a committee.

We thought (and still do) that Its existence was intended to give a cloak of democratic legitimacy to the developing new Local Plan for Fylde.

We explored these arguments further in 'Local Plan Rift' - where we gave an example of the manipulation employed to change what the Steering Group thought it had agreed.

We took significant issue with the processes of this group - because it was only an 'advisory group' it could not make decisions.  It could not do what its name implied and *steer* the local plan. Its purpose was only to *advise* the Planning Portfolio holder - and he was free to accept, or reject, that advice.

That isn't a steering group as we understand the term, its a consultative group.

A 'Steering Group' has the power to set direction itself, - to steer - not simply to advise what the direction should be.

Our dictionary says it is a group "that decides on the priorities or order of business of an organisation.", and the verb in that sentence is "decides"

Fylde's LPSG comprised: the Cabinet Portfolio Holder for Planning and Development; the Chairman and Vice of the Development Management Committee; and 12 other councillors. Sometimes half a dozen officers were in attendance at its meetings, together with a member of the public who was on the Local Strategic Partnership.

Over 12 months ago, we took issue with the fact that the Agenda and Minutes for this group were published in secret, They were not available to the public, and members of the public were not allowed to attend its meetings.

We said that trying to exempt a complete agenda - and more especially the minutes - of a democratically elected body debating and formulating public policy (in this case planning policy) - in order to avoid embarrassing the participants - was a complete travesty of democracy.

So, as we said in 'Housing Numbers' it was an issue upon which we intended to make a stand. And in January 2012, we began a quest for public access.

It is an issue upon which Fylde has reconsidered its position and has, we are pleased to report, at least partly instituted change.

Having asked for a copy of the minutes and been told they would not be made available, we asked formally under the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act.

That also produced a "No" response, and the reason given was.....

"... the Council has decided to rely on the exemption under section 36 (1) (b) and (c) of the Act, in that disclosure of the agenda and minutes would, or would be likely to, inhibit -

(i) the free and frank provision of advice, or

(ii) the free and frank exchange of views for the purposes of deliberation, or

(iii) would otherwise prejudice, or would be likely otherwise to prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs."

The refusal to disclose continued....

"Under section 36, the qualified person must give their reasonable opinion that the exemption is engaged.

[Name deleted by cb], is the qualified person and has confirmed that in her reasonable opinion the exemption is engaged. In her opinion, [Name deleted] considers that the exemption is engaged because she considers that members of the Group require free space to develop and air their arguments without the constraints that would be imposed upon them if the minutes of the meetings were open to public scrutiny. [Name deleted] further considers that this would be likely to have a prejudicial effect of the quality, robustness and effectiveness of the local development framework."

The refusal also noted there was a "requirement to ensure that members of the Group have the a free space in which to air their views and to develop policy without the fear of adverse public reaction"

In short this says that councillors needed to work in secret because if the public found out what there were saying they would be too embarrassed or ashamed to have said it in the first place.

We say that is a disgrace and, as our regular readers will understand, we fundamentally oppose this view in principle.

The electorate absolutely need access to which councillor holds what view, in order to be able to decide whether to vote them in or out at the next election.

If we do not know their beliefs and values, and the causes they argue for or against, how are we otherwise to make our choices?

We accept there are sometimes legitimate reasons to exclude some information that councillors need to discuss (for example staff disciplinary matters that may eventually exonerate an individual, or the personal circumstances of employees, or sometimes information about prices for contracts to prevent collusion and price fixing) but these can be dealt with by making individual reports or aspects of them exempt, and by redacting specific parts of documents published under the Freedom of Information Act.

So we pursued the matter further, expecting to have to take it to the Information Commissioner eventually.

We said we were not satisfied with the refusal to provide information, and exercised our right to appeal the decision and ask for it to be reviewed.

Previously, when such an appeal was made, Fylde sent the details to a nearby authority (usually Wyre).

We understand Wyre declined to continue this practice for Fylde, so Fylde established its own internal review process, and we had the honour of being the first such complaint to be considered.

The whole of this secrecy ethic at Fylde derives from the dreadful Cabinet System of governance which excludes rank and file councillors from decision making and holding the executive to proper (and sometimes embarrassing) account.

However the outcome of our appeal was more positive.

In effect what happened is that the review took account the balance of public interest as well.

This involved balancing transparency versus what in technical terms is called the "chilling" effect of publicity, and the reviewing officer considered that that the public interest in disclosure (transparency) in this case outweighed the public interest in maintaining the exemption (avoiding the "chilling" effect).

They said the factors contributing to this decision were that

  • The local plan, when adopted, will be the single most influential document in decision-making on planning applications within the borough,
  • The development of the local plan is of legitimate importance and interest to the local community.
  • This interest must extend to all stages of preparation of the local plan,
  • That interest was irrespective of various formal and informal consultations that will be held before the plan is adopted.

So it was held that the importance of the local plan added substantially to the arguments in favour of disclosure.

And since that date, in September 2012, the agenda and minutes of the Local Plan Steering group have been published on the Council's website, both retrospectively, and as they become available in the future.

Sadly, we all saw how the views of the Steering Group were disregarded by the Planning Portfolio Holder Cllr Fiddler at the special Council meeting last June when he - in effect said - well its up to me to make the decisions on the local plan and I'm deciding not to do as you have recommended.

So we can see that the system of an Advisory Committee for Portfolio Holders, (even if you call it a Steering Committee), that has no teeth, is about as useful as a toothless budgie.

As was ably illustrated by that Council meeting, and the subsequent Minority Report produced by disaffected Steeping Group members and Independent councillors, and the Joint Statement issued by Fylde's Community Groups concerned with planning, we now have a Local plan in the course of preparation that almost half the Council, and all of the local groups concerned with planning, simply do not support.

How could such a plan enjoy wide support when the views of so many were asked for, but were either not sought or were disregarded when given?

In the last week or so there have been further developments.

At the recent Community Focus Scrutiny Committee, a public platform question asked the Committee to consider recommending to the Cabinet that future meetings of the Local Plan Steering group should be open to the public.

The questioner concluded "So, given that the agenda and minutes are now published on Fylde's website, together with the enormous public interest that exists in the local plan, and the need for residents to be better informed on its progress, I ask the committee to consider making a recommendation that the meetings of the Local Plan Steering Group should be open to the public to attend."

The committee did indeed agree consider the question, and it was good to see they did.

The early part of the debate was positive. Cllr John Singleton opened the debate by saying he supported the request because he supported openness and transparency. He proposed they did recommend the meetings be opened to the public.

He was immediately backed up by Warton's Cllr Julie Brickles who said much the same thing.

But the Chairman, Cllr Mulholland took a different view. He said he didn't think figures that were bandied about [at the meetings] should get into the press and he thought there was a need for a confidential forum for the full and frank exchange of views.

Cllr Singleton said "If you've nothing to hide, you shouldn't be frightened of the press attending"

Cllr Armit (who to us seems to be developing the same kind of mental ju-jitsu approach that Cllr Fiddler uses sometimes) began in one direction, then went 180 degrees in the other. He began by saying he had been working in Chiswick where the whole place was full of posters asking "Do you know about your local plan" so we thought he was going to support openness and public information and involvement.

Sadly we were disappointed, because he then said he thought the meetings should be exempt from the public because when he attended them he thought there were some people who had asked questions they would not have felt able to ask in a public meeting for fear of making a themselves appear foolish, and at the other end, it would encourage what he called "showboating" (which we took to mean playing to the gallery).

So he thought it was right that the meetings should be exempt from public access.

When the vote was taken, the Committee voted against the proposition from Cllr Singleton and Cllr Brickles, and the decision taken was *not* to recommend to the Cabinet that the meetings of the Local Plan Steering Group should be open to the public.

There were three votes that we saw for making the meetings open - they were from Cllr Singleton, Cllr Mrs Brickles and Cllr Mrs Henshaw, but they were heavily outvoted by those on the Scrutiny Committee wanting to keep the meetings and debates behind closed doors.

This decision echoed that of the Council's Monitoring Officer who had earlier said, (in relation to the freedom of Information request), that our elected representatives should be "able to discuss matters without fear of adverse public reaction."

We were as shocked by that view then, as we were surprised by the decision of the Scrutiny Committee.

The issues in and around the Local Plan are probably the most important that Fylde will consider for the next decade, if not the next generation.

If a councillor espouses or promotes views that would produce "an adverse public reaction", then not only is it crucially and absolutely in the public interest that their doing so should be known, but it is essential that their doing so is known for reasons of democracy.

How else are electors to form judgements about who they want to vote for in the future if they are prevented from knowing the issues that individual members have supported or opposed, or the views that members have taken on matters of such importance?

What is the point of democracy if it is not accountability?

And we have to ask, what is the point of keeping the meetings behind closed doors, when the Agenda (containing the detailed reports of what is to be discussed) - and the minutes (containing the decisions, and sometimes a description who said what) are published on the website for all to see?

The matter didn't stop there however, because at the Council meeting last Monday night (27th Jan), Cllr Peter Collins proposed a motion that "That the Local Plan Steering Group be discontinued with immediate effect"

We thought this was a bit odd for a proposition when we saw it.

If they wanted not to be involved, councillors who didn't support it could simply resign from it, and the effect would be the same.

As the debate unwrapped, it looked to us for all the world like an ambush and, much like the one which proposed a 'Rubber Stamping Committee' - we thought it looked to have caught the Conservative group off-guard.

Cllr Collins moved his proposition. He referred to Cllr Fiddler's November request for 105,000 extra, on top of the 368,000, to prepare the local plan (as we reported in 'Local Plan Update') and said this was an increase of almost 30% but Cllr Fiddler's report was only telling half a story because - although Cllr Fiddler was citing them as an excuse - when the budget was set, the changes that were to be wrought by the National Planning Policy Framework were known about, and the abolition RSS had been known about for four years. So there had been ample time to adjust the budget.

Cllr Collins said despite that increase, we still don't have the housing supply numbers and we're 30% over budget. He said the Local plan's 'Issues and Options' were mired in controversy. There was much disagreement within the Steering Group, who had issued a Minority Report to outline opposition to the Portfolio Holder's Preferred Options document.

So he had to question the role of the Steering Group

They had no power. They were only advisory to the Portfolio Holder. He had been to almost all the meetings of the LPSG, and had seen too many instances where important matters had not been minuted. He said "I have come to the conclusion that the group is there simply to give the appearance of credibility and democracy to the decisions of the Portfolio Holder", adding that the group has no power, the meeting are in secret, and this could not happen under a Committee system.

He said they were told the Steering Group was formed to give openness and transparency to the Development Plan process - but the Community Focus Scrutiny Committee this week had rejected a request for the Steering Group to be opened to the public. He said of this "I find the arguments against transparency to be weak. - Councillors would be afraid to say in public what they said in private? They should not be Councillors. Have we not learned the lessons of 'Informal' Cabinet meetings, where a debate took place behind closed doors, and then the decision was 'announced' at formal meetings of the Cabinet?"

He concluded "Mr Mayor, I did not stand for election to this council to be party to such secret meetings, or to give credibility to any decisions made in secret. It is the Portfolio Holder that makes the decisions and it is he alone who should take responsibility for those decisions, hence, I move the motion that the Local Plan Steering Group should be discontinued with immediate effect."

Cllr Mrs Oades seconded the proposition.

Cllr Armit said when he first saw the notice of motion he thought - OK, fine, there's no reason for these meetings to take place, let it go. The meetings had been set up to involve people, but if they weren't wanted that was OK.

Cllr Mulholland said he wasn't sure why the issue of public access had been brought in to the debate. He said he personally had good reasons to exclude the public from them, and still had.

He thought Working Groups and Task and Finish groups were not the right place for press and public to be in - there needed to be open and honest discussions on what people had to say without fear of being reported. He thought that formal Council and Committee meetings *should* be open to the press and public, and that was how it should be.

He went on to say "The Cabinet System I've never liked, but you have to work with what you've got, I think it's unfortunate that there's a cost involved now because of the petition, but of course, had something been done..... it was discussed - I think it was kicked into the long grass..... had more discussion taken place we might well not have had that cost and we'd not have had the petition or the referendum vote.

So in terms of what this is about - which is the Steering Group, and lets not cloud it with the other thing, Councillor Fiddler, apparently, needn't have had the Steering Group, he could have made all the decisions on his own behind closed doors.

That is the way the Cabinet works with the Portfolio Holder. It's wrong - abs - I detest it, totally undemocratic, totally wrong, but, he didn't do that.

Now whatever your reason is, and if Cllr Fiddler (??? words unclear) I'm sure he has, he's not a stupid bloke, I'm sure Cllr Fiddler thought - I'm not going to make decisions on my own and then have to fight everybody every step of the way.  I would get people in, people in with (??? words unclear, but possibly 'other') views, I'd get them involved. Seems to make sense. In fact, it's really what we're arguing for in term of a more democratic committee system, So I'm not quite sure why he wants to vote against it."

Cllr Singleton said more or less what he'd said at the Scrutiny Committee - that questions from the public and the press are a normal part of a transparent council's working and those with nothing to hide should not be afraid of the press being involved.

There were other speakers too, so if you'd like to see all the debate, please have a look at the meeting webcast on You Tube.

Then Cllr Duffy spoke, and appeared to speak against Cllr Collins' proposition. He said the Local Plan Steering Group was the only way they could find out about what was going on, and he wouldn't want to hear what had been decided after the decision had been made, and he thought the public would have that view as well, and he would like to have some input into the decision even if he can't be part of the decision himself, but, he said "the one thing that is clear is that it isn't open and transparent. I would have loved to have heard the debate at the Community Focus Scrutiny Committee meeting last week - it wasn't on the agenda, so I wasn't aware that was going to happen, but I did check the minutes of the meeting so I could see what views had been expressed there. Basically, the minutes, apart from repeating the question that was asked by a member of the public basically said that ' the questions were addressed during the course of the presentation. That's it, that was all that was in the minutes, so I had no idea what was said"

He then said "One of the arguments against the Local Plan Steering Group being open to the public, is that it would prevent or limit free and frank provision of advice and the free and frank exchange of views. I don't see why. I don't follow that argument at all. We're here tonight at full council, and I'm sure everyone is happy to give their own views. I don't see why it's any different at any meeting, and in any case that would be outweighed by the fact that the Local Plan is something that's very very important to lots of members of the public. We all know the level of interest that's been shown in it. Even if we did lose the ability for some councillors to speak openly and frankly would that not be outweighed by the benefit of the public being involved and hearing the discussions going on, rather than jus hearing a decision come out?"

Slowly, slowly, we saw him changing the approach away from disbanding the group to making it more open, then he said he's like to propose an amendment to Cllr Collins proposition.

Those of us present who have experience of such matters quickly spotted that this looked to have been set up as an ambush. The majority party would likely have planned its response to Cllr Collins motion in its group meeting before Council, but here was a twist they had had probably not seen, and might not have prepared for.

The amendment was, of course, that "This Council recommends the Portfolio Holder for Planning and Development that, in the interests of openness and transparency, meetings of the Local Plan Steering Group broadly follow the same access rules as all meetings of the Council and its committees..." He then added some technical comments to the effect that that it should be done so as to avoid unnecessary delay or cost.

The trap had been sprung.

Either way, you could see where it would lead.

Either the public would be admitted, and could hear what their elected representatives were really saying about the local plan, or the Portfolio Holder and the majority group were going to be held up as being secretive - preventing the public from knowing what was going on until it was probably too late to change it.

Cllr Alan Clayton said whilst he understood Cllr Collins' frustration, he did want to keep the Steering Group, and he thought it should be more transparent, so he was happy to second Cllr Duffy's amendment.

There then followed a long debate (along the lines of what had been said at the Scrutiny Committee) which is better seen on the webcast, so we'd recommend that readers do that for a full exposition of what was said.

Cllr Armit was the first to speak against it and he worried it would encourage 'showboating' for the press by some councillors if the public were admitted, and people would become more parochial if the public were there.

Cllr Mulholland also opposed it, but seemed even more worried about other aspects. He said that the question at Scrutiny had been asked by someone who wrote a local blog, adding "If I can be honest at this meeting - which is a public meeting attended by the press - that is particularly a part that concerns me, because he is now a part of the press.

Somebody has decided that somebody who writes blogs is now the press. But truthfully this, in my view, this isn't a sort of unbiased reporting. This is a person's view. It's not an attractive website, I'm just saying it's one person's view. It's not always right. I think sometimes it's dangerous. We've got Queen Elizabeth who might not think so but Judas Eaves might agree with me. Saint Louis might think one thing but this is what it is, its a person's view.

Now, if I thought, and I've been - not slated - but I've been commented on in my committees and I actually took the author to task to explain that he'd slightly got it wrong. It was only a slight mis-interpretation but it put a whole different cast on it. Now, I know my version is right, but it was never corrected, its not a big issue but it was never corrected.

Now, as I said before, Task and Finish Groups, working groups, when you're doing work in business, I don't think that's the place for the press or the public, and I have to say, I don't think it's the place for this particular type of members of the press (unclear words - possibly 'I'm sorry') but I don't.

If we had a discussion about the parking problems in Lytham, I might want to say, look, why don't we look at the stretch between the Rat and Parrot or the Queens and up to the
(unclear words) on the Green and let's cover it in Grasscrete and get parking there. It might get a debate going. I might half mean it, I might be being a Devil's advocate. The point is, I can well imagine what's going to be on the internet. And I'm sorry, I don't think that's conducive to open debate and discussion.

If that went through the Steering Group, I'm sure that at some stage it would be discussed at a public meeting, at a meeting which is open to the public. I have no desire to prevent the public from attending meetings - committee meetings or the Council, why would I? I'm not after doing things in secret. I think working meetings like that - personally, I think it's desirable and essential, and I think because of the type of press we're talking about it's even more so. Thank you Mr Mayor."

Cllr Aitken thanked Cllr Mulholland, agreed entirely with him, and said he disagreed with the amendment

Cllr Mrs Oades said that in the good old days they had a planning committee that met every fortnight to discuss and decide policy, and every other fortnight to decide planning applications, but under the Cabinet system only the Portfolio holder could decide on the local plan. She also complained about poor minutes and not recording of issues discussed. She would support the amendment and wanted more transparency to stop local communities rising up against the local plan, she said she'd there was so much opposition and she'd never seen anything like it before.

Cllr Collins spoke in support of the amendment to his motion saying if the meetings were more open and transparent and had proper minutes it might improve things.

Cllr Fiddler was allowed to have the final word by the Mayor. He said he was concerned that under the Cabinet System, the Local Plan should not be just the decision of one Cabinet Member. He thought it important that a wider range of people had ownership of the policies and understood how policies evolved, and that was his intention in setting up the Steering Group.

He spoke of the groundswell of opinion against the local plan, but he said the vast majority of those on the Steering Group supported the greater part of the Plan.

He referred to the Minority Report prepared by disaffected Steering Group members and supported by most of the Independent councillors. He said "This minority report was the reason why, in my opinion, the Council has been polarised, because this Minority Report is politically (overt?), it is planning inept, and many of the suggestions raised in the Minority Report were dealt with by the Inspector at the Mowbreck Lane Public Inquiry and dismissed." He said he would be voting against the amendment.

Cllr Duffy said he thought it was quite important that the public knew who voted for and against the amendment and he asked for a recorded vote. Five hands went up to support the call, so the vote was taken with each councillor saying for, against, or abstain.

The amendment was lost with 25 against and 18 for it, with one abstention.

Cllr Mrs Oades moved a further amendment that the operation of the Local Plan Steering Group be reviewed by the Portfolio Holder.

This was about as innocuous a proposal as we could imagine, and several of the councillors said - what on earth was the point of it.

We suppose she was giving Cllr Fiddler a chance to 'redeem' himself, but we're not holding our breath on that.

Curiously, there were speakers for and against it from both parties and it looked to us that when it came to the vote, there were several on the Conservative side who appeared confused and didn't know how to vote.

This vote was taken by a plain show of hands (not a recorded vote this time), and was won, so the Steering Group will continue and without public access to its meetings, but Cllr Fiddler will "review its operation".

Again, we're not holding our breath.

So where does that leave us?

Well, it leaves us arguing as we began, in January 2012, that these meetings ought to be open to the public.

We have a principled objection to such meetings being held out of the public gaze.

At one point Cllr Armit said if Fylde emulated business more, there would be even *less* public scrutiny of its activities.

Whilst that is true, it fails as an argument on two counts. First, business is there by merit and achievement, (no-one is *elected* to their job). Businesses are accountable to owners and shareholders, not to the public that elected them.

Secondly, the 'business' side of the Council is made up of the officers - the staff that run 'the business of the council' - and no one would expect their meetings to be held in public. So we simply can't agree that elected councillors should expect to have whole meetings that are intentionally held out of the public gaze.

The Cabinet System operating at Fylde had fostered a culture of secrecy. It seeks to make real decisions out of the public eye. It has held secret 'informal' Cabinet meetings to arrive at decisions in advance of the formal Cabinet meeting - where the decision was simply 'announced.'

It has closed off debate and discussion to the extent that it is deemed right that we should no longer be permitted to know the views and beliefs expressed by the very councillors to whom we have accorded the honour of representing us.

To say our elected councillors should be able to have 'open and honest discussions without fear of being reported', is, we believe, quite disgraceful.

Fylde's decision to keep the public excluded is not about seeking to contain information which the law allows to be exempted from publication.

That legislation already exists, and applies to all committees and all council meetings already - through the 'exempt item' system. (But to be exempt, information has to meet tests set out in that legislation, and must fall within an approved category of exemption).

And it's not about confidential information which the law *requires* to be taken in secret. (Some classes of information e.g. information regarding national security, or information specified as secret by a Government minister MUST be exempt from publication - and rightly so).

But this is nothing to do with proper exemptions set out in the law.

This is not about staying within the well-honed legal boundaries that exist to properly limit the powers of would-be tyrants.

This is plain and simply about avoiding personal embarrassment.

It is about being able to be two faced - to be able to say one thing in a secret meeting and something else in public where you hope to be elected.

Furthermore, the implication that the press and public should only be admitted to what some councillors have started calling *formal* meetings adds insult to injury - because it so clearly illustrates the stage management of debate and discussion that has overtaken Fylde since the dreadful leader and Cabinet system was introduced.

This perverted logic says we are now only supposed to see the ceremonial and the pageant - when what we need are the nuts and bolts of debate - so we can see which councillors deserve our trust, our respect, and more importantly our vote.

We thought readers might like to know the names of the Councillors who voted for and against the proposal to open the Local Plan Steering Group meetings to the public.

25 votes for keeping the meetings closed and excluding the public were Councillors: Ben Aitken(C), Christine Akeroyd (C), Frank Andrews (C), Tim Armit (C), Susan Ashton (C), Tim Ashton (C), Karen Buckley (C), Fabian Craig-Wilson (C), Susan Cunningham (C), Len Davies (C), David Donaldson (C), Kevin Eastham (R), David Eaves (C), Susanne Fazackerley (C), Dr Trevor Fiddler (C), Nigel Goodrich (C), Paul Hodgson (I), Angela Jacques (C), Kiran Mulholland (NA), Barbara Nash (C), Edward Nash (C), Albert Pounder (C), Richard Redcliffe (C), Thomas Threlfall (C) and Viv Willder (C).

18 votes for opening the meetings to the public and greater transparency were Councillors: Keith Beckett (I), Julie Brickles (I), David Chedd (I), Maxine Chew (I), Alan Clayton (I), Peter Collins (I), John Davies (R), Charlie Duffy (I), Tony Ford (LD), Peter Hardy (I), Howard Henshaw (LD), Karen Henshaw (LD), Ken Hopwood (I), Liz Oades (I), Louis Rigby (I) Heather Speak (I), Elaine Silverwood (I) and Linda Nulty (I).

1 Abstained: Cllr John Singleton (C)

6 Not Present: Cllr Brenda Ackers (C), Simon Cox (C), Gail Goodman (C), Paul Hayhurst (NA). Cheryl Little (C), Dawn Prestwich (C).

Dated:  4 February 2014


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