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That's The Way To Do It

That's The Way to Do ItWe're sometimes accused of being 'harbingers of doom' and reporting only the bad things we see, so when an opportunity arises to redress the balance (and especially at this time of good cheer), we're happy to bring our readers a more positive story.

If you ever wanted to see the best that a Parish Council could be, you should have been at the Extra-Ordinary meeting of the Bryning with Warton Parish Council on 19th November 2015.

It was joy to behold.

The background to what happened at this meeting stretches back to the publication of the first version of Fylde's Preferred Options for its Draft Local Plan in July 2014.

This controversial plan proposed huge growth - around 1,200 homes - for Warton, and it infuriated the local community.

It would have increased the size of the village by around 75%

When Fylde planners held a consultation on their so called 'Preferred Options' in St Annes, only about 30 people turned up throughout the day.

When they held one in Warton, 600 people turned up.

They were queuing to get in when it opened, and they were queuing to get in when it closed.

Subsequently, the long established, very able, and respected 'Concerned Resident's of Warton's Development' group (CROWD) held a public meeting in Warton to identify volunteers to help oppose the plans, and they were overwhelmed with support.

As a result, a new group with younger blood - Warton Residents Against Poor Planning (WRAPP) was formed with some very able folk who were quick to learn what was what. WRAPP quickly became the channel through which the anger of local residents was directed. They built up a formidable organisation and a network that could have a leaflet delivered to every home in Warton within a couple of hours.

Most especially, they established a good working relationship with their Parish Council. Yes, at times there were disagreements and tensions about direction and actions, but more often than not both organisations were looking at the same hymn-sheet.

That was partly because of the willingness of WRAPP to understand the constraints on their Parish Council and partly because their Parish Council sees its role as being the servant of its community rather than being in charge of it, and is thus willing to work alongside parish residents to achieve things they want.

Back on 6th August 2103, just after Fylde's proposal for 1,200 homes became known, we attended a meeting at the BAe Lightning Club where we estimated that 400 people - the biggest public meeting about a local plan matter we have ever seen - attended and gave vent to their anger.

WRAPP had a prominent spot in the entrance to the meeting where those attending could sign up for news.

But this was actually a Parish Meeting (which is not the same as a Parish Council meeting). It had been called and arranged by the Bryning with Warton Parish Council to allow all parish residents to have their say about the proposals. It was, in fact, a reminder of a bygone age when village residents would gather together to take an important decision. This was a meeting of all the parishioners who wanted to attend and determine their own future.

We're great supporters of parish councils, and this meeting was a first class example of how they can be an effective organisation for their residents. No other organisation could have the democratic legitimacy to call a meeting of all parishioners like this.

The meeting ended with a call for a Parish Poll - a vote open to all residents of the parish as a sort of referendum, and although it is not legally binding on anyone, the result of that poll can deliver a clear message.

It did so on this occasion.

It was - entirely predictably - a rejection of the plan for 1,200 new homes in Warton.

Map of propsals

In response to the question "Are you opposed to the amount of land to be allocated for house building in the Borough Council’s present proposals for the future development of Warton?" an overwhelming 98% of people said 'Yes'

There are three important points to take from this:

  • Firstly the local community sent a clear message to FBC that this was something they didn't want.
  • Secondly Fylde's proposal had spawned a vigorous campaign group which grew rapidly in knowledge and stature in their local community
  • And thirdly, their Parish Council was with them every step of the way.

We've spent some time rehearsing the origins of the matter because we think they are crucial to what has subsequently taken place.

Between then and now, all the usual things you would expect to happen, did happen.

Eventually, mounting public pressure (and perhaps the prospect of an impending election) forced FBC to modify its proposed housing numbers in Warton from 1,200 to around 650 dwellings. But by now it was too late

Developers - attracted by the smell of easily-developed countryside earmarked in Fylde's draft local plan - began circling the village like vultures, and then encircling it with applications to develop - even before Fylde's local plan was in place.

Campaigns were mounted to urge refusal of the applications, and both the Parish Council and the people from WRAPP stood shoulder to shoulder with local residents in Public Inquiries.

The local community was unified in its opposition.

But they were also realistic about the planning process, and could see that the Government's Anti Planning Minister (Nick Boles MP at that time) was changing the national planning rules to their disadvantage.

So WRAPP used the provisions made for local people by counterbalance's hero 'St.' Eric Pickles, then (then) Minister in charge of Communities and Local Government when he introduced the Localism Act.

In particular they noticed how he had been speaking very strongly in support of a new planning innovation called 'Neighbourhood Plans' (NP)

These aimed to let local people say what they wanted in planning terms, and St Eric was suggesting they could trump *some* aspects of a Local Plan if they were in place before it. The NP had to be in conformity with Government Policy and with the Local Plan so far as either existed, but where they were silent, it was thought that a neighbourhood plan might be able to 'fill the gap' so to speak.

WRAPP and the Parish Council saw potential to seize some control of their own destiny, so they set out to work together, and late in 2013 the village was defined as a 'Neighbourhood area' as a prelude to the production of a Neighbourhood Plan.

Quite properly, WRAPP worked hand in hand with the Parish Council in a Steering Group to prepare proposals for a neighbourhood plan that everyone could support (well everyone except FBC it seems).

This involved a tremendous amount of work in research and drafting and consulting. Hours and hours of voluntary time were put in by WRAPP members and the Parish Council with regular public open meetings of the Neighbourhood Plan Steering Group; interactive exhibitions in the Village Hall, publicity via Facebook, email, street posters and banners; door to door leaflet drops to all households in Bryning with Warton and formal consultation response sheets.

This was a proper community based, community driven, neighbourhood plan - driven by residents and supported by their Parish Council.

Eventually, all their hard work paid off and the Neighbourhood Plan was prepared in what many would say was record-breaking time when, in August 2014, a 'pre-submission' version of the plan was opened to local consultation.

The final 'Submission Version' was sent to FBC in September 2014, and a further seven week public consultation period followed. That finished on 28 November 2014.

We pretty much thought that the reason behind the almighty rush was to get the Neighbourhood Plan in place, and get it as far along the line as they could, was because in planning rules, the nearer a plan is to its completion, the more 'weight' it has when comparing conflicting planning needs and policies. So if their plan could be done ahead of Fylde's Local Plan and, most especially if it could be done before the developer's planning applications or appeals were heard, the more influence local people could have on the outcome of such matters.

There were two stages left when the seven week consultation period for the Bryning with Warton Parish Council plan ended - an examination in public, and a subsequent referendum to seek formal community approval for its contents.

And this dear reader, is where it all starts to go wrong. Once the plan was put into Fylde's mincing machine, everything stopped in November 2014.

The less charitable and more cynical amongst our readers might well think that this could have been intentional - because if a Neighbourhood Plan was adopted and accepted before Fylde's own Local Plan, then it would (as we think St Eric had intended) be able to restrict or condition what the Borough's Local Plan would say about areas that already had a Neighbourhood plan in place, and that wouldn't do for those seeking to prepare a Borough-wide Local plan would it?

In the words of Ian Richardson, "We couldn't possibly comment".

But stop it did. In its tracks. Like the Monty Python Parrot, it looked like a deceased Neighbourhood Plan.

It took a while for people to realise that no progress was being made of course, but eventually the dawning of realisation emerged. That tends to make people angry.

In a strong demonstration of the support they were accorded by their community, several of those members of WRAPP who served in the Neighbourhood Plan Steering Group were voted in to become Parish Councillors in their own right in May 2015.

Fylde's misreading of the views of village residents before they proposed the huge expansion for Warton, coupled with what some began to see as intentional delays with Warton's own Neighbourhood Plan, had sown the seeds of a storm that was beginning to brew.

The Council that FBC had been dealing with up to now had changed.

In future, things would be different. A new resolve was in the air.

Readers will be able to see the quality of the arguments and the passion engendered in their delivery by looking again at our article 'Blackfield Green Inquiry'  And in particular at the comments delivered by Tony Guest, Jessica (Now Cllr) Ashworth, and Mike (Now Cllr) Wright.

Unfortunately for these and other residents of Bryning with Warton, FBC's delay in progressing their plan meant that it wasn't as 'weighty' as it should (or at least could) have been when the big planning appeal was heard for Blackfield End Farm and, on appeal, the developer's application was granted by the Government, against the wishes of local residents.

And that made lots of people even angrier.

Their own neighbourhood plan had not been far enough advanced to protect them enough from the development, and Fylde's Local Plan had been the cause of the problem in the first place - after Fylde has signalled its intention to consider development of this scale in Warton.

Again, we suspect the cynics amongst our readers might see a thread running from the idea of proposing housing on this sort of scale, through to delaying a Neighbourhood Plan so it was not as effective in combating the development proposal as it could have been.

As a result of that planning appeal decision, residents of Bryning with Warton were faced with two very unpleasant prospects.

Not only were they going to get a huge development that they didn't want, but they were being told by some people that they would have to change their Neighbourhood Plan to accommodate the development decision it had been intended to help stop, because this appeal decision had set a sort of 'precedent' for the village.

Readers can now probably imagine the seething anger that must have taken hold in the minds of those who had been trying to stop this from happening.

And - understandably - the focus of much of that anger became directed toward FBC and its planning process.

Matters came to a head at a Parish Council meeting around 12th November 2015 (more about this in a minute) after which WRAPP's website said

"Dear all,

Important - Please attend the above meeting if you can - 19th November 2015 7:15 at Bridges

This meeting has been arranged specifically so that the Head of Planning at Fylde Borough Council (FBC), Mark Evans, can present options and risks associated with progressing Warton's Neighbourhood Plan (NP). It is critical that he understands that people in Warton continue to be frustrated and angry over the delays, lack of planned approach and scale of development.

This meeting has come about because the Parish Council (PC) submitted a formal complaint to FBC's Chief Executive about the delay in progressing Warton's NP. At the same time, the PC demanded that FBC work with the PC to appoint an examiner and progress the Plan to referendum ASAP. The PC met with FBC last week to seek answers to the complaints and agree an approach and timetable for the NP, but they were unable to reach agreement, partly due to a 7 week delay in FBC receiving legal advice from their barrister.

FBC claim they were reluctant to progress the NP until the Secretary of State (SoS) had made a decision on Blackfield End Farm (a decision that the SoS had postponed five times) and yet, despite members of the PC meeting with FBC following the SoS's announcement in September (to allow the Blackfield application) and, despite commitments from FBC at that Sept meeting, there has still been no progress.

FBC have had our Neighbourhood Plan for over a year. Their consultation ended in November 2014. They have done nothing with it since, despite pressure from the Parish Council and our Borough Councillors. Meanwhile the planning applications are stacking up. Indeed, it appears that Developers really are in charge of the planning process - and FBC do not disagree!"

So we went to what promised to be an interesting meeting on 19th November to report for our readers, and what we saw there was: a very well run meeting; a sensitive but determined Parish Council, and a community that was harmoniously in tune with its elected Parish representatives, but angry with FBC.

There were about 30 members of the public and two of Fylde's senior planning officers in addition to the parish councillors.

The Chairman opened the event with a welcome to all those present and a summary of how events had reached the present impass.

We've seen this chap in action before and been very impressed with his meeting management skills. He is also a comparatively new Fylde Borough Councillor, and we see a future Chairman of a Fylde Borough committee in him.

He outlined - as we have done above - the matters that had led up to the Neighbourhood Plan becoming stalled.

He noted there had been some concern about whether an Environmental Impact Assessment was needed to support the plan and that had slowed things a bit, but after the Blackfield inquiry decision to approve the application had been announced, a special meeting of the Neighbourhood Plan Steering Group had been held to consider where they were, and a Parish Council meeting had subsequently followed "after consultation with a barrister."

That, we thought, was a very telling comment for him to make.

So as far as we could tell, based on the WRAPP website and this comment, we seemed to have had both FBC and the Parish Council each consulting separate barristers on the matter of the Warton Neighbourhood Plan. There seemed to be more behind this than was being said.

He went on to say that, during their previous Council Meeting (around 12 November), the Parish Council decided to write to FBC asking them to *immediately* (and he stressed the word 'immediately') appoint an examiner for the Neighbourhood Plan and to take the Neighbourhood Plan forward, adding "Last Thursday, we had a meeting with the Borough Officers and some of the Development Management Committee....... and we decided at that meeting that we would call another special meeting of the Parish Council tonight, to consider further points in the neighbourhood plan......."

That sounded to us as though they didn't think they got a promise to make immediate progress out of the meeting with FBC, and this Extra Ordinary Parish Council meeting on 19th November was going to decide what to do about it - after hearing from Fylde's senior Planning Officer.

Bearing in mind the comments about barristers being involved, we thought this was likely to be a much more highly charged meeting that it appeared.

After formally opening the Parish Council meeting on 19th and dealing with apologies and declarations, the Chairman said "I'll move on to Item 3 to adjourn the meeting for a period of public discussion. Public participation is encouraged at this meeting and you can express your views or ask a question with regard to the item under consideration."

Here was not only a process of lip service being paid to consultation, we could tell from his tone as well as what he said, there was clearly a genuine desire to hear what local people wanted to say. It is fundamentally what Parish Councils should be about, and why they are such an important part of our local Government. Closer to the people; less remote than FBC, and seeing themselves as the servant of the people, they actually welcomed the participation of their residents in Parish decisions.

It doesn't get better than this.

Parish Councillor Julie Brickles suggested they skip to item 4 to let the Planning Officer from FBC speak first, so the assembled public could hear what he had to say before they spoke, but the Chairman said he would prefer to open the meeting for public comment first (presumably so Fylde's officer could address anything he thought relevant from the public), but then, with her consent and support, he would suspend the parish council meeting once again to allow the pubic to come back on what had been said.

We thought this was a simply brilliant stoke.

In one, it gave primacy to the views of the public, and at the same time it was likely to give the Parish Council a strategic advantage in responding to all views they had heard.

First class chairing and meeting management. Very impressive.

And that's what happened.

The first public speaker said he wanted to ensure that the officer's presentation bridged the period between Feb 15 when Fylde's Planning Department were on the point of appointing a barrister to review the Neighbourhood Plan and determine whether a SEA [Strategic Environmental Impact Assessment] was necessary. He wanted to know if that barrister had been appointed, whether any guidance had been obtained from them and if so, whether it had been shared with the Parish Council. He said that at a recent consultation on Fylde's Local Plan he had been told that if it were held to be necessary, the Assessment has to be performed by the Parish Council, and he thought the Parish Councillors ought to know what the barrister FBC had appointed had said.

The second speaker said she wanted to understand why, for the last two and a half years, when the village had made it clear what they did and what they did not want, and they had worked very hard to come up with a scale of development in the Neighbourhood Plan that was a win-win situation adding "And I cannot for the life of me work out when we are a year down the line after all the hard work that we've put in, and it's not moved."

At this point, and with no other speakers at this time, the meeting went back into closed session and began Item 4 - which was "To consider the recommendation to FBC Planning Department in regard to an existing resolution of the [Parish] Council concerning the submitted Neighbourhood Plan."

The Chairman then invited FBC's Mr Evans to speak.

Mr Evans had prepared a paper appraising the various options available to the Parish Council, and had copies available for the Parish Council and the public present.

Basically it boiled down to three options which, he said had been based on "....best practice, a review of other Neighbourhood Development Plan outcomes, and it was supported by the legal opinion obtained by Fylde Borough Council. "

We didn't hear him say anything there about what people in the neighbourhood wanted to happen and, as it's a Neighbourhood Plan, we thought that was something of an omission. But for us, it's absence did highlight the chasm that now exists between the professionally, officer driven operation of FBC, and the community driven Parish Council meeting.

Long may Parish Councils not have to suffer a large coterie of paid officers to separate and isolate them from public opinion.

Mr Evan's first option was to abandon the Neighbourhood Plan altogether. [Not a good start, we thought]. But he did have the grace to say he had not heard anybody suggest this, and it had only been included for the sake of completeness.

The second option was moving it forward to public examination as it stands, where it would continue with the housing allocations that had been proposed for the East and West of Warton in particular, but negotiating with the NP Inspector / Examiner to seek removal of the allocations from the East and West of Warton as part of that examination. This would mean the plan moving forward quickly, but risked the Inspector not removing the housing allocation and continuing with the plan as submitted. He worried that might result in a 'No' vote at the ultimate referendum on the Neighbourhood Plan.

He also noted that in his view there should be a specific Habitat Regulations Assessment for the Neighbourhood Plan. Natural England had raised the issue of overwintering birds and he thought the Neighbourhood Plan did not take proper account of this. He worried that the Inspector might conclude that no modification could be made to the plan that would allow it to meet the basic conditions, which would mean that the plan was in breach of EU Regulations, and he might recommend that the plan is not moved forward to a referendum.

The third option was to withdraw the current version and then resubmit it with the housing allocations removed. This would require the Steering group to amend the plan to remove the allocations to the East and West of Warton, and change the settlement boundary to acknowledge the planning permissions that had been granted, including Blackfield End Farm and other allowed sites. This would create a new settlement boundary and it would amend the housing requirement for Warton to 780 houses.

He then said that the regulations for the making of Neighbourhood Plans didn't actually allow for plans to be altered and to go back to the community for further consultation, but he thought it could be argued that the principles of the legislation should infer some power to modify plans to take account of changes in national policy or local circumstances. He added removing land which land might formerly have been identified for development might cause some landowners to think they had 'lost out' (and they might thus bring a legal challenge), so he thought if they did alter the plan, they should take it back to the 'pre-submission' stage and pick up from there. Sadly, he said, that would require a timetable meaning that the referendum could not be held concurrently with, and share the costs of, the Police and Crime Commissioner's voting in May 2016.

He concluded by saying " .... the recommendation is that, based on the lowest risk, the most speedy manner in which the neighbourhood plan could be adopted would be to withdraw the submission plan, to update it and consult on a revised pre-submission version, to carry out a Habitat Regulations Assessment screening, and that could be undertaken in parallel with pre-submission consultations to save some time there. That would give us a plan which would have reduced criticisms of lack of consultation with stakeholders, it would address the lack of HRA screening, and the removal of housing allocations is likely to remove the need for full Habitat Regulations Screening, so the need to carry out a full assessment would be screened out if that is the approach taken."

He did add that the Borough Council was committed to going down whatever route the Parish Council wanted to follow.

Listening to him, we did get the impression that everything he said lead - via different routes - along the same path, which would involve slowing down the process to complete the Neighbourhood Plan, and co-incidentally, letting Fylde get its own plan much nearer to completion first.

Cllr Brickles was the first to speak, she said "I can't help but notice that in the space of a week - we were assured last week at the Town Hall - that there would be a referendum in May should we take the third option. And I can't help but notice that in the space of a week that's dropped back three months already, because it's now in July that an Examiner's report would be ready, not a referendum, so it's actually dropped back significantly from last Thursday."

Mr Evans responded to say "The difference between last week and now is that, having taken the advice of the barrister, is that the discussions we had last week were based around not going back to that pre-submission consultation... His strong advice is that we do that."

The Chairman - Cllr Richard Taylor - asked "And can we see that advice Mark?"

The response was "It's legally privileged information I'm afraid, so....." his voice trailed off.

What was going on here was an attempt to prevent the Parish Council from knowing what the Borough Council's barrister had said to them about the matter.

Given that both organisations ought to be working for the public good, we regard this response as entirely inappropriate.

What it did show to us is that, very clearly, there was no shared objective between the two organisations, and Fylde wanted to keep its cards close to its chest.

Not content with the answer, the Chairman - who is also a Borough Councillor asked if he and Cllr Brickles could see it, and the officer, reluctantly, had to agree to forward a copy. The Chairman then asked in what sense it was legally privileged which drew the following response from the officer who was clearly struggling to mount a defence.

Hesitating for words at times, he said "Advice obtained from a barrister, ahead of any, action, is legally privileged, in order to avoid that information.... as soon as that information is in the public realm then it effectively is...., ceases to have any .... regard to that and obviously there is information in there that could harm the approach taken if you're giving third parties say, you're giving away your arguments as it were before.... ahead of the.... "

We got the gist. But it wasn't clear.

The Chairman intervened and said in a tone that implied a question at the end of the sentence "You've asked for advice on our plan, so we're not a third party, you're acting as our agent in that respect?"

We smiled - as no doubt our readers will also smile - at what we expect the officer might have found to be an unusual prospect - that he might actually be expected to work in the best interests of the people and Parish Council of Warton.

He said "The Borough Council has asked for that information"

"Yes on our behalf" the Chairman interjected

"Well it's the way to move forward" the officer, replied, somewhat enigmatically.

What we thought you could take form this exchange is that the Borough Council saw itself as being on a different side to the Parish Council.

Hence, as we spotted earlier, the perceived need for competing barrister's opinions by both sides.

At this point Cllr Ashworth (this is the very bright and able lady who did so much work to produce the Neighbourhood Plan) asked "Can I just confirm, is the barrister being appointed from the February meeting? Because back in February we met and you said in two weeks we'll have appointed a retained barrister to give guidance and a health check on our Neighbourhood Plan. Has that happened?"

Mr Evans replied hesitatingly "The barrister, like I said, aimed to do that within three weeks, but yes that is the barrister's been retained, yes."

Cllr Ashworth "So has that information just happened or did that happen back in February?"

Mr Evans (apparently looking for ambiguities to exploit in order to avoid declaring for one other of the options with which he was presented) said "I've had a meeting back... a couple of months ago with the barrister to discuss a number of matters, and the advice, the written advice, was obtained from him I actually received yesterday."

Cllr Ashworth expressed her disappointment that the gist of the information had not been shared with the Parish Council from two months ago.

But in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.

Cllr Brickles managed to tease out of him that historically they had agreed that the Habitat Regulations Assessment which the Borough Council would have to undertake for its own Local Plan could be relied on by the Parish for it Neighbourhood Plan, but the Borough Council's Local Plan had been much delayed and had not reached that stage yet, so there was no HRA in place - which is why he thought the Parish needed to do their own assessment.

In yet another example of the disaster that Fylde's Local Plan has become, it is clear that even the process to produce it (let alone what it might say) is failing the needs of, and damaging the position of, communities such as Warton.

There was then quite bit of to-ing and fro-ing about why information which FBC knew had not been provided in what some Parish Councillors thought should have been a more timely manner.

After this, the Chairman once again suspended the formal Parish Council meeting to let those present at the meeting speak.

The first speaker was the chap who spoke first last time. He said his question had not been answered and he asked it again saying "It was urgent in February to appoint a barrister to screen the Neighbourhood Plan to give guidance. Was that barrister appointed in February or not? And if not, when was the barrister appointed? And has anything been shared with the Parish Council."

Mr Evans responded "Yes, in terms of that, the barrister was not finally appointed until ..... [he hesitated consulting some papers]..... 7th September"

The public speaker said "Is that acceptable, seven months"

Mr Evans replied "That's what it ended up being"

The speaker then said "That's despite Cllr Fiddler saying that barrister was the most important person and you should appoint him with no further delay. I'm sorry, you're delinquent"

Another speaker asked for confirmation that Mr Evan's main reason for proposing the third option to - in effect - to remake the Neighbourhood Plan was in the hope that it would be able to influence the Inspector at the planning appeal inquiry into a site to the East of Warton which was due to be held next summer. Mr Evans replied that, subject to the position with the five year supply of land, that was the case.

The speaker then went on to say "the point I'm making is that you come here effectively with a proposal to change the Neighbourhood Plan with a view to possibly have an impact on this appeal, over a period of months, from ... where are we now... we're in November, to... May.

And yet in February, you know, we were in a position where, if the Neighbourhood Plan had been proceeded with; if a barrister had been appointed perhaps in February instead of September, we might have been in a position where the Inspector for this last [expletive deleted] appeal would have taken more serious account of the Neighbourhood Plan. So my question is - in essence - why would we trust any recommendation you make now on the way forward, when we clearly couldn't trust you following that meeting in February?

I'm sorry to make this and issue of trust, but frankly, it is an issue of trust."

Mr Evans responded to explain why he thought he was correct to offer the advice that he had given on both occasions. It centred around the need for the Environmental Assessment and the importance attached to this matter which had varied over time and whether it was better to wait until the need for Government to issue what was expected to be further advice about planning which did not happen until September.

One chap spoke about broader issues and said he thought it was more about the present Government's rush to build more and more houses. He said "It all goes back to Cameron, politics, and building houses no matter what. You've only got to look on the television a few nights ago to see these developers riding roughshod over the local community building houses..." And he called on FBC to police the process of development of Blackfield once it got under way.

Another lady said that permission for the Blackfield development had destroyed everything the village had tried to achieve and she wanted to know what Mr Evans was going to do to protect them.

Mr Evans responded to say "In terms of the protection of the local community, the issue is that the approach of the current Government is one of seeking to deliver housebuilding. As a result of that, previous planning policies, previous policies that were the... had the support of previous Conservative Governments as well, but it's not necessarily a party political thing because I think it's also fair to say that all the main political parties were promoting house building ahead of last election.

There were policies put in place which would mean that development that prejudiced development plans coming forward could have been refused on those grounds, and that advice has been rescinded and changed over the years. So we now have a situation whereby the UK planning system, which is supposed to be a plan led system, where you draw plans up and institute development to comply with those plans is, at the present time, not being operated in that way. It's very much led by individual applications submitted by developers therefore that is the answer to your question"

He went on to say that in reality they could only seek to influence the shape of development rather than to stop it or control it.

That's strong as we've ever heard it put.

It is an admission from very senior planning officer that there is no planning in the sense that most people understand it. The very idea of planned development has been abandoned in favour of allowing developers the freedom to plan the shape of our living for the future.

You could see this in his earlier recommended option to the Parish Council. He had suggested that the granting of a planning application on appeal by the Government made it necessary to change the settlement boundary of Warton in their local plan. If that had been agreed, it would mean that the developer had, de-facto, been given the responsibility of choosing where the boundary of housing in Warton should be.

We find that horrifying, and the expanding influence and control exerted by unelected commercial companies with no democratic mandate over the shape of our society is a broader theme to which we expect to return in the near future.

But back to Warton, the next chap spoke about the Queensway development in St Annes which had, as part if its mitigation measures for overwintering wild birds, a 60 ha Farmland Conservation Area which would specifically cater for the bird species Mr Evans had spoken of, and he wondered whether that would be of interest regarding the Habitat Assessment. Secondly he mentioned that he had experience of several barrister's opinions, and they almost always set out both sides of case and gave options, rather than promoted only one course of action. He thought it would be interesting to know whether FBC's barrister had advised on the environmental matters and whether he had rehearsed alternative views about them - and if so, it seemed to him, that this was something the Parish Council ought to know about.

He went on to say "Mr Evans has said that the barrister's opinion is legally privileged, and I understand that, but it is only legally privileged because Fylde Borough Council decides to make it so. And if his concern is that that information might get into the public domain if it becomes a public document, that could relatively easily be avoided it seems to me, by your going into closed session, excluding the press and public when you are debating it. So I see no reason why you could not be given that information."

Mr Evans agreed the Farmland Conservation Area was mitigation for the Queensway development and it was intended to meet the needs of the same species. He also said the barrister's opinion gave both sides of an issue.

The Chairman picked this up and noted that this was his experience as well, but he noted that Mr Evans had used it to give them a very clear steer as to which they should follow.

Another, we thought very astute public speaker said the whole of the matter they were about to decide, and all of the three options Mr Evans had presented to them all turned on what an examiner of their Neighbourhood Plan might or might not do, and he thought they needed to get better advice about what options might be available to the Examiner. he suggested the Parish get their own barrister's opinion on this matter and looked so see whether there was a corporate body for examiners who may be able to offer advice as well. He did not think it sensible to rely on the advice that came from Fylde to deliver the best outcome for Warton residents.

In response, the Chairman said "Just to be clear, we have sought barristers advice already, hence the original special meeting, and why we went forward with our letter."

The public session closed with the chairman saying "Thank you for your contribution, it is invaluable to us as Parish Councillors that we get that. Thank you"

Once again we were left with the impression that this was not just a polite or perfunctory remark, there seemed to us to be genuine thanks for the effort people had made to turn out to go the meeting and offer their perspectives.

This was democracy as good as it gets.

The Parish Councillors then debated what they had heard.

An elder statesman - Cllr Michael Gilbert - said that at their last meeting they had said they wanted that plan to go as it stood to public examination as soon as possible. He then said that, because that had been the Council's decision and had been taken within the last 6 months, it could not be changed unless there was a special resolution on the order paper which there was not. The Clerk advised that Standing Orders could be waived for an item if those present voted to do so, and at least three councillors would have to assent to the change. But there was no proposal to change standing orders before them.

The Chairman explained to the public that the Parish Council had written to Fylde Borough Council and told them to send the plan in its current form immediately, and over and above that the had given a timescale and they had said they "had a mind to take action if they [FBC] don't meet that timescale, so we can't be any firmer in terms of Parish Councils"

This is a very revealing statement and one to which we will return shortly.

Cllr Gilbert said he thought they should just leave the decision as it was. The Chairman asked him if he would agree to refrain from proposing a motion at that time because he would like all the Councillors to make a comment first.

Cllr Ashworth said "I still feel that we are being failed by the relationship between us and the Borough Council. We've contacted the Department of Communities and Local Government, and in their responses they've said you should be pro-active, the local planning authority should be pro-active and you should work in collaboration, and we've had *so many* empty promises and failed actions that....., it's just..., you could write an essay....." [In her exasperation, she was clearly lost for words, but concluded] "It's just not good enough."

Cllr Wright asked a very technical question about the timing of the legislation and regulations (which had changed). Mr Evans replied to say that if the original decision of the Parish Council to move the Neighbourhood Plan forward in its present state was to continue, then in his view it could continue under the original legislation/regulations appertaining to the time it was submitted. Cllr Wright then wanted to know what confidence they could have in any of the dates given by Mr Evans if they were to follow his recommended option. Mr Evans responded to say at the present time the Borough Council was seeking to resist the appeal on the land East of Warton, and that this would assist the Councils case in doing so.

We thought that was not a very strong level of confidence.

Neither, it seemed, did Cllr Wright who said "But you can't provide that level of reassurance can you?"

Mr Evans said that whilst he could give all sorts of..... - and here he hesitated, during which we heard a wag behind us in the public gallery say wryly "Empty promises" - ..... Mr Evans continued..... all sorts of promises could be made, the bottom line was that it was do-able, but it depended on a number of different things.

Cllr Brickles noted that she had been at a FBC meeting the other night where Mr Evans had been required to give Borough Councillors an assurance that his top priority was the FBC Local Plan.

In response to a question about how long it would take if they decided to continue with the plan as they had decided at the previous Council meeting, another of Fylde's Planning officers said "There is no formal body that examines Neighbourhood Plans, but a group of different experts have come together, and we have already spoken to them to understand the process of doing that. It may be that the Council Fylde, and the Parish decide to go down that route of using 'MPEER?' I don't know what that acronym stands for, but there are other consultants out there who are suitably qualified"

She said the group she mentioned had a form you fill in and they will provide you with a list of suitable examiners and detail timescales, (which explained why she was unable to give a timescale). She said these people don't do this for a living so they may not be available instantly, and it would depend whether the Examination was conducted by written submissions or by a Local Hearing in public which included 28 days notice to local people, and the choice here was down to the Examiner once they had seen an outline of the plan.

After the meeting, counterbalance consulted the (Government funded) Planning and Advisory Service. They said that the appointment of the independent examiner must be agreed by the parish council (or the designated neighbourhood forum) submitting the neighbourhood plan proposal. They also said "Guidance is currently limited but a panel of potential examiners to assist this process is being set up by:

Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors
Royal Town Planning Institute
Planning Officers Society
Department for Communities and Local Government"

And that the Local Planning Authority need to appoint an examiner who is independent of the Parish Council or Neighbourhood Forum, has no interest in any land that may be affected by the draft plan, and has appropriate qualifications and experience.

It also said "Is the responsibility of the Local Planning Authority to decide whether an individual meets the above criteria while the parish council or designated neighbourhood forum must ‘consent' to the appointment.

The examiner can be the employee of another local authority or the Secretary of State, and undertake the examination for payment. If a local government employee, there is provision to allow the Local Planning Authority to discuss payment for their time with the other authority."

So whilst FBC must determine the suitability of the credentials of the examiner, it is for the Parish Council to consent or otherwise to that individual.

The Chairman cut short the Officer's story by saying what they wanted to know was - if they were to decide that night to go ahead, how long would it take Fylde to fill the form in and send it off?

The officer said a meeting of the Steering Group and FBC could do it.

The Chairman asked so when could that meeting be held?

Readers will see the distrust that Fylde has brought upon themselves in this matter. This Chairman is an astute and able chap. He's able to weigh importance and take balanced judgements, yet even he felt it necessary to try to pin Fylde's officers down to a date. He wanted to know if it could be the following week.

The officer envisaged no problem with that.

Cllr Ashworth then said "We did have advice from Counsel..." [Note that is counsel, as in barrister, not Council as in local government] "..... that when our plan gets to the examination stage to have public hearings, to request a public hearing...."

Again we could see that the Parish Council had engaged its own barrister to advise on how they should proceed.

Cllr Brickles started the closing of the item when she said "Can I say two things, Firstly, moving forward, I personally have no intention of changing my last vote. I think we should all go round the table and ask that question.

But the second thing, I really do think that the officers at the Council need to re-read the letter that we sent, because we set the timescale. We set the timescale. And we told you that of you didn't fit within that timescale, we would take action and we were very, very clear about that. So the timescale is now down, I think, to ten weeks. Because it was set at 14 weeks at the point when you got the letter. But we set it, not the Council."

Another piece of the jigsaw fits into place - we'll build the final picture in a moment.

The Chairman then addressed Cllr Ashworth (who Chairs the Neighbourhood Plan Steering Group) saying he understood there was a meeting the NPSG the previous night and he asked whether they had made a recommendation to the Parish Council.

Cllr Ashworth said "The recommendation was the proceeding of the plan, as is, and to uphold the original resolution [of the previous Parish Council meeting].

In a serious and sombre tone, the Cllr Taylor as Chairman then went round all the members of the Parish Council and asked for their opinion.

Cllr Ashworth said she wholly supported the previous resolution. Cllr Brickles said she had already said that was her choice. Cllr Gilbert said they should press on. Assenting choices were indicated by the other parish Councillors, giving a unanimous decision to refrain from changing the previous decision of the Council.

The Chairman then declared the previous decision of the Council stood, and he thanked the Parish Council and the public for their support and their advice, and addressing the public he said "Hopefully it's clear to you that the previous decision stands as per the letter last week," and he asked the officers to send the form to the Parish Clerk the following day.

And there it was, the Neighbourhood plan was, once again, moving forward.

But for us, the interesting part was what we could deduce from reading between the lines of what had been said, and, using our experience of how councils work, we can probably fill in some of the gaps with speculation and assumption.

We have asked the Parish Clerk for publicly available documents on the matter, but as yet none has arrived. We will update this article if they show anything of significance when they do arrive.

But until then we reprise the picture. Historically, we have.....

  • A Government that decided to make huge cuts in the rate supporting grant it gives to Council for delivering local services.
  • At more or less the same time, the Government promoted a scheme called the 'New Homes Bonus' to encourage councils to build houses.
  • This scheme pays a large bonus over several years for each new home that is built.
  • The sums available can become big enough to offset the losses from the cuts in grant support.
  • The New Homes Bonus is not ringfenced funding, and Fylde Council now use it to support their ongoing day to day spending.
  • This year Fylde received £385,000 in New Homes Bonus. In future years they expected to receive around £300,000 a year.
  • By 2020 it is officially expected to represent about 20% of Fylde Council's income.
  • In June 2013, FBC published it's first "Preferred Options" consultation version of its Local Plan.
  • It included a possible development scenario for Warton that would increase the size of the village by 75%.
  • Huge numbers of Warton's residents rose up in anger.
  • A Parish Poll declared 98% against the proposals.
  • A new and able protest group called Warton Residents Against Poor Planning (WRAPP) quickly established itself to fight the plans.
  • A very successful campaign on their behalf caused Fylde to reduce the number, but the damage had already been done.
  • Developers encircled the village with planning applications.
  • Local anger intensified.
  • Local people decided to produce a Neighbourhood Plan to better protect their village in the future.
  • Because their application for Blackfield End Farm was not decided by FBC within the permitted timescale, Hallam Land Management Ltd launched an appeal.
  • The Neighbourhood Plan Steering Group pulled out all the stops to get the Plan in place before the appeal was held, so it would carry weight with the Inspector.
  • In November 2014 the Neighbourhood Plan was sent to Fylde Council to progress the next stage.
  • In February FBC consulted a barrister for an opinion about the plan but has refused to let the Parish Council see that advice.
  • From February until September, FBC (it turns out) sat on their hands and did very little if anything to progress it, supposedly because they expected a change in the legislation.
  • Public anger intensified further.
  • In May, the Planning Inspector's hands were tied when the Secretary of State decided to 'recover' the decision and take it himself.
  • Also in May, the Parish Elections saw several members of WRAPP elected to the parish Council. Fylde was about to reap what it had sown.
  • The Planning Inquiry took place in October.
  • The Planning Inspector recommended that the appeal be allowed and planning permission granted.
  • The Secretary of State confirmed this as his decision.
  • Other developments - most notably on a large area to the East of Warton, are now also the subject of another Planning Appeal.
  • Fylde have still not progressed the Warton Neighbourhood Plan.
  • After almost three years, there is still great public anger in Warton about what has been done to their village.

Those are all facts.

Now we move into piecing things together, and looking at what they might mean.

After the Blackfield End permission was granted, and with no progress being made on their Neighbourhood Plan, the Parish Council consulted a barrister. We assume this was about their prospects, their situation and their options. We actually think this was a very wise move.

With the benefit of that advice, on about the 12th November at a scheduled Full Council Meeting the Parish Council considered what they should do. They agreed to write to FBC asking them to *immediately* appoint an examiner for the Neighbourhood Plan to take the Neighbourhood Plan forward.

We imagine the letter they sent was

  • a formal complaint about what had happened and one which sought to agree an approach and timetable for the Neighbourhood Plan. But it also sounded to be...,
  • a threatening letter - like the ultimatum Mr Chamberlain gave to Hitler.

From what we heard at the Parish Council meeting on 19th November, we can deduce that tiny Bryning with Warton have refused to be bullied.

We think it sounds like they stood up and were counted when they said they would allow Fylde 14 weeks to reach some specified point with their Neighbourhood Plan, failing which they would take further action.

It seems that threat brought an urgent meeting with FBC, but they were still unable to reach agreement. The Parish Councillors were either not satisfied or were uncertain about the outcome of that meeting, so the Extra-Ordinary Council Meeting (which we report above) was called on 19th November to hear from Fylde's officers one final time before the Parish Council decided what to do.

In the event, they have decided to rely on their Council's previous decision to maintain the pressure to require Fylde to make immediate progress, and the letter (and its threat) agreed at their previous Council Meeting stayed in place.

The next question must become what action were the Parish Council proposing to take that has moved FBC to act so quickly?

To our mind there can be only one action that would carry this threat, and that would be for the Parish Council to seek permission to undertake a Judicial Review of decisions and actions of the Borough Council.

We imagine that such a review might include not only the failure to progress the Warton Neighbourhood Plan in a timely manner, but also that Fylde's decisions and progress on its own Local Plan, had produced the consequential damage that Warton residents had suffered as a result of those decisions.

A decision in their favour could give rise to significant costs being awarded to Bryning With Warton Parish Council for the damage and losses they had suffered if they prosecuted a Judicial Review that was successful in the High Court.

At this point, Fylde (who had received their own barrister's advice back in February but which they were not prepared to share with the Parish Council) would have had to ask themselves how credible the threat of a Judicial Review was.   They are very expensive things to undertake, and typically cost in the region of £30,000 to £50,000 just to hire a barrister to prosecute. Fylde will have wondered whether the parish Council had the will and the stomach to fund such an initiative.

The answer, is almost certainly not.

We couldn't imagine such a sensible and responsible Parish Council saddling its residents to stand a precept demand of that order.

But what we could imagine, is a scenario where some high flying barrister or practice was eager to make a name for themselves would be keen to take the job on an a no-win-no-fee basis.

If someone like that thought the Parish Council had a half-decent case, they could generate a reputation for themselves in this developing area of law - and that could mean oodles of well paid jobs as more and more Neighbourhood Plans develop in the future.

Fylde Council's own Local Plan has been (and continues to be) a disaster. Ten years from the start it's nowhere near ready. Over £1m spent in preparation. Two separate Minority Reports have been published by dissenting councillors outside the majority party which had forced decisions through the Council. It's closer to a party political manifesto than a shared vision for the future, The whole of its first Public Consultation was declared unsound by an unprecedented alliance of local community groups. That version of the plan was based on out of date information, and has since been abandoned in favour of a new draft plan (which in terms of employment land and housing numbers is just as bad if not worse than the first version) and for which a second Public Consultation period has just ended.

With meat like that to go at, which reputation-hungry barrister wouldn't want a free meal?

And isn't Bryning with Warton Parish Council both clever and brave to take the stand it appears to have done.

We can just imagine the sort of apoplectic rage with which some of the leading lights at FBC would have glowed when they realised that there was a serious prospect of having their competence and incompetence examined by a Judicial Review in the High Court.

But on 19th November 2015, the minnow-sized Bryning with Warton Parish Council stood fast against the comparative might of the Borough Council and said they would not be bullied and pushed around any longer.

To our mind it puts Warton in much the same category as tiny Little Eccleston With Larbreck Parish Council who, when FBC closed its swimming pool for lack of cash to run it, offered to make Fylde a loan to help tide them over.

A wonderful demonstration of the independence of both Parishes.

When push comes to shove, we don't think it will actually come to a Judicial Review by Warton, and we don't think much more of this story will emerge to confirm or deny our speculation about what happened in the gaps between the facts we are able to report.

We suspect Bryning with Warton's Neighbourhood Plan will, as Mr Evans suggested at the meeting, now be progressed by Fylde as the Parish Council want, (and as it should have been last February, before the Blackfield End Farm appeal was heard). So on the surface, all will remain sweetness and light.

But the strong and able Parish Council that Warton's residents elected last May - which is quite clearly in place as a direct result of the anger that FBC created with its foolish proposal to consider building 1,200 new homes there in the first place - are the ones who have brought about the change.

They have listened to the people. They have involved the people. Whether they win or lose the battle for Warton's future - they have demonstrated real democracy in action, and we are proud to salute their efforts in doing so in this article.

Dated:  18 December 2015


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