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The New Committees: Development Mgt. Policy

The New Committees: Development Management PolicyEncouraging (well at least at the start).

That was our impression of the first couple of meetings under the new committee system which is now in operation at Fylde.

Sadly, it went downhill rapidly, and by the end of the cycle of meetings, we were much less hopeful.

We couldn't get to all the meetings, but we did manage most of the 'new' Committees, and it's those we now report vis:

DEVELOPMENT MANAGEMENT POLICY   17 June 2015
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We couldn't go to the Development Management Policy meeting (the old 'Planning Policy' Committee), but we have watched the webcast.

As an aside at this point, we think it's very unfortunate that the Council is not recording and publishing webcasts of *all* the Committee meetings.

We asked about this, and were told that it won't happen until the new Council Chamber is in operation because it's too 'difficult' to manage them.

That said, Fylde did seem to be able to do it for this DM (Policy) meeting, so we can't exactly see why they can't do it for others, and we did notice the video camera in place for the Finance and Democracy Committee meeting, but as yet there has been no webcast of that meeting published.

We hope Fylde will change their minds about waiting until the Council Chamber is re-vamped. With the Committee system, all members need to be able to see the decisions that committees have made in order to be able to decide if they wish to call them in. That means that to do their job properly, councillors who are not committee members need to turn up at all the committees to see what is said - in case they want to call-in a decision.

If they can view the proceedings on a webcast, it would save time and travel costs, but more importantly it would allow greater participation in the democratic process for both members and for the general public as well.

Back to the plot (in more ways than one) of the DM (Policy) Committee, in the item about representatives on outside bodies, The Chairman (Cllr Fiddler) had to be corrected by an officer when he said it wasn't really in the remit of the Committee to appoint the Leader of the Council to one of the outside bodies because she wasn't a member of the Committee. (He was following the 'Cllr Ben Aitken' line of reasoning).

But the officers said it was possible for the Committee to do that, and Cllr Fiddler then said he was wrong, and took a vote to recommend the Leader.

This was in contradiction of at least the impression Cllr Aitkin had given at the Environment Health and Housing Committee when he appeared to say that Cllr Mrs Oades could no longer be on the Police and Crime Panel because she was not a member of the Committee!

The plot to nominate the Leader for this role was a stitch-up of course. The officer's report had itself proposed "The members nominated should ideally be a member of the programme committee to which the matter relates to. However with respect to the Blackpool, Fylde & Wyre Economic Development Company (EDC), there is an exception. Although this is an economic development matter under the terms of reference of the DM Committee the position is usually occupied by the Leader of the Council (as in the case of all the local authorities involved) who is not on the DM Committee. The DM Committee is asked to consider recommending the Leader continues in this role."

We get really uncomfortable when the lines between officers and members get blurred. It's not an officer's job to suggest who the Committee should consider for any role, and it makes us wonder whether pressure might have been brought to bear.

The underlying logic here is most likely that the Leaders of other Councils attend because the still have the Cabinet systems in place, and all power vests in the Leader alone in the Cabinet system, but the officer's report made no mention of that. In our view it sailed very close to the wind of impropriety by suggesting which councillor ought to represent the Council on this body.

Having found he could do so, Cllr Fiddler then went on to nominate another Cllr who was not on the Committee for another role.

But the really big item on this agenda was the resuscitation of Fylde's (now unified) Local Plan.

For the public, this meeting itself was actually something of a disaster because the technophobe chairman simply doesn't get on with technology in almost any form, and was either unwilling or unable to use the microphone system. The problem with this is that the video is linked into the microphone feed, and it doesn't pick up ambient sound, so there are significant passages in the video with animated discussion taking place amongst members but you can't hear what's being said.

On the substance of what was discussed, our regular readers will know we're fundamentally unhappy with Fylde's local plan proposals (as were half the elected members who were asked to approve various drafts, and even Fylde branch of CPRE who we believe have withdrawn from their place on Fylde's the Local Plan consultative group because they don't want to be associated with Fylde's overly ambitious growth proposals which leads to the development of unwarranted acres of Fylde's greenspace).

We'll have a look in more detail at the revised plan when we have time, but over the last couple of years, we've become convinced that there is very little hope for Fylde, and we don't think we will see will be any sense in this matter from FBC. The only hope anyone has of making sensible changes to the plan will be at the Planning Inquiry into the local plan which now looks to be another couple of years away.

However, as far as the conduct of the meeting itself was concerned, we thought it was mostly a 'non-meeting'.

The Chairman (Cllr Trevor Fiddler) said in effect.... we've brought the plan to the committee for approval, but I don't want anyone to propose any changes because we can't afford to delay the process at all.

But he had already been contradicted by an officer who had said "It is in draft form. We need to do some more work on it before it goes out to consultation in autumn."

The officer also said the Plan was now in two parts. "The first part is a pro-growth agenda" adding (to the Committee) that "We need your commitment and buy-in" (for example, to agree that officers had identified the right sites for development).

He then went on to say "The second part was about protecting the assets, the things that make Fylde what it is"

Bless.

Nice, enthusiastic chap, but he simply couldn't see the obvious irony of Part One of the plan setting out to damage what they were trying to achieve in Part Two!

Cllr Fiddler referred to the officer's introduction and said the officer had suggested "...halfway through his presentation that tonight was the opportunity for you to make corrections to the local plan' or if there was a difference between what's written and members inclinations. Obviously, we cannot re-write this document. We cannot delay. Because of the importance and significance of this document, this has got to get out to the public as soon as we can. And I think it would be very remiss of us if we allowed it to be delayed. If any member feels passionately involved in any aspect of it, where they would like to make some form of change, some suggestion of amendment, then that has to be done through the Consultation exercise. You're all free to participate in that when it goes out to consultation, you can make your, or if you're representing or helping your parish council, that's the time to indicate whether or not you're in agreement with it or there ought to be changes"

We regard this as an absolutely disgraceful performance by a Chairman. It was little short of Committee bullying by a Chairman who was going to brook no changes to what the officers have proposed, and what many local community groups who are concerned with planning believe is a fundamentally flawed document anyway.

This is just the sort of behaviour that we would have expected to convince the Fylde branch of the widely respected CPRE organisation to withdraw from its involvement with FBC's local plan consultative group.

This was not Fylde's Committee being given the opportunity to consider the matters before it and to take a decision on whether to agree with this draft of the local plan; it was a committee being bullied by a Chairman who is himself apparently being led like a bull by the nose, and who is showering pure bull excrement over his committee.

This is most definitely not the way a Committee should operate.

Then we had another bombshell.

The ever-vigilant (and don't the people of Newton and Clifton have cause to be grateful to him) Cllr Peter Collins, had spotted a new officer proposal at Policy H5, that had been sneaked into the local plan

This was a land allocation on Thames Street, Newton, for what was said to be a 3.5ha (roughly 8 acres) Gypsy and Traveller site. One that is close to, but not the same site that the Secretary of State took out of Fylde's hands to determine himself.

Even the Chairman didn't seem to know anything about it, and asked the officers to help Cllr Collins with an explanation.

In response, the officer told Cllr Collins (together with a wide eyed and obviously incredulous and speechless Cllr Heather Speak who later said she was "Gobsmacked") - "It's one of the 'calls for sites'. Earlier this year there was a call for non-strategic sites [for possible development]. This site's come in. I think the landowner has actually put in a preference for Gypsies and Travellers on that site, so this has gone straight in, just to test the water"

Amazing!

The officers later clarified that the proposal was for mixed development including housing and recreation as well as Gypsy and Traveller accommodation. This was whilst officers appeared to be fighting a rearguard action to try to keep it in this consultation version of the plan. Cllr Collins wanted none of it, and even the Chairman saw how stupid the proposal to put it in had been!

We're utterly amazed that, given the planning history of the called-in Thames Street site (as we have previously reported, was supported by all Fylde's Conservatives and opposed by all the independent members, and which was then stopped in its tracks when St Eric called it in to take the decision himself), that officers felt able to try to slip a nearby and much bigger site under the wire when no-one was looking.

They clearly hadn't even spoken to the Committee Chairman about it. The arrogance of this (if it was intentional), or the incompetence (if they simply failed to discuss it informally with the Chairman and Ward members before deciding to include it) we find simply breathtaking.

Even Cllr Fiddler was unhappy.

He said "I did try and say in my original comments that this evening isn't the opportunity to make wholesale changes to this document, but obviously, Newton will have a special, (he struggled for the right word), .....place with its history with Thames Street - when it comes to the consultation responses there, we will expect a very vigorous response indeed...."

Readers will now see what we mean about there being no hope for Fylde regarding its local plan.

When the Chairman doesn't even know what's going into his own plan, and that it was going to explode in his face once it's published and news of it hits the fan; when officers are so desperate to find such sites that they're resorting to what appears to be subterfuge to get them through, and the Chairman wants it left in any case, even when he finds out what nonsense it is, we can all prepare to 'Abandon All Hope.'

This Chairman wasn't for hesitating or making any changes.

With councillors hands shooting up from the public gallery as well as from the committee He said "I don't intend to get bogged down this evening on Gypsies. I think we've had clear answers to some of the points raised. Peter's (Cllr Collins') asked for another go at this, but please, this isn't the forum where we can make major changes. You all appreciate the exercise before us."

We fundamentally disagree. This was exactly the forum and the place to make changes. It's what the officers had put the item on the agenda for!

Cllr Collins said he wanted confirmation that the wording would be changed and he wanted his raising of the matter minuting as well.

Then the officer (probably to the great chagrin of the Chairman) said " Can I just clarify what Cllr Collins just raised there. We are looking for comments through the Chair and Vice Chair for you all for this document. And to take them forward to actually update, amend and edit and improve the document prior to it going out to consultation in ...Oct... the autumn. That's the whole purpose of this, to show you now where we are up to, how far we've actually got, what needs to be done, what needs to be changed, enhanced, merged, thrown out, added to. Please tell us through the Chair and the Vice Chair. We can take those on board. We see it as a living document. It's not finite by any stretch of the imagination. We want to hear what you have to say, and put mechanisms in place to get member feedback to actually update this document to make it robust and defenceable."

Bravo!

Someone telling the truth, and expecting Councillors to work together to produce a good plan.

It wasn't going to last for long though.

The Chairman said "Can I just intervene there. I don't think that would be a satisfactory way of progressing this in the sense that I don't think the Chairman and Vice Chairman is the vehicle to keep the rest of the Committee updated. You should have witnessed some of our debates over the last 18 months and realised possibly that it's a non-starter."

That's probably not what the officer meant. We're pretty sure he would have used those words as a figure of speech to (properly) defer to the authority of the Chairman and Vice Chairman in the meeting. We're also pretty sure Cllr Fiddler knew that as well, but chose to ignore that meaning to suit his purpose.

That said, Cllr Fiddler did (more or less have to) conclude by saying that they would revisit the Gypsy issue at another Policy meeting before it went out to Public Consultation.

We regard the Chairman's behaviour in this meeting as a disgraceful abuse of the Committee.

He was, in effect, holding them in contempt, and we were amazed they did not rise up to say so.

The Officer had, quite properly, said that the purpose of the item on the agenda that evening was for members to suggest changes if they felt them necessary.

But the Chairman was saying - as he has done so many times before behind the closed doors of the former Local Plan Steering group meetings - that he was having none of it, (except a woolly promise to look at the Gypsy issue again at a future Policy meeting, and we think that was only because he knew they were going to do that anyway, as they don't have what they regard as enough sites allocated for Gypsy and Traveller sites, so he wasn't responding to the concerns of his committee members; he was only stating the inevitably obvious).

We regard his chairing of this meeting as not being fit for purpose. (And from the things he said - as we have reported above - it would appear that even his knowledge of his own plan is sadly lacking as well).

So as far as we are concerned, his so-called (but actually in our view non) committee meeting gets a score of just 1 out of 10 from us.

It was awful.

We urge our readers to view it online to watch the video and see what we mean.

We plan to keep track of the way the committees and the arrangements evolve, and we expect to bring readers further news from time to time.

Dated:   20 July 2015


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