The SCDC Planning Committee listened to the case officers report, heard submissions from interested parties including FRAm and then debated the application. The debate was at times quite heated and the senior planning officers were very determined in their support for the application but there was a strong feeling from some committee members that this was very similar to the application they refused in February and the sustainability issues highlighted then had not been addressed.Then a couple of extraordinary things happened. Firstly having closed the debate the acting Chairman chose that moment, just prior to the vote, to read out a statement from the usual Chairperson strongly supporting the application. The timing of this was extraordinary and clearly designed to influence committee members. Surely this should have been read out at the beginning of the debate? Next came the vote. There was complete silence as voting hands were raised and a huge sigh of collective relief as the result; 4 votes for, 6 votes against was announced. Suddenly the District Solicitor was out of his seat, across the podium and whispering into the ear of Philip Ridley, The Head of Planning. Mr Ridley then addresse the committee telling them that this decision needs to be deferred. He went on If councillors are concerned that a vote in favour of the application will jeopardise the appeals then they should be re-assured that Counsel has advised us it will not harm our case! Councillors are silent, bewildered, I couldn’t say this before said Ridley because I couldn’t be seen to influence the vote. The District Solicitor whispered some more. Ridley speaks again; we need you to vote in favour of deferring this decision so we can give you more time to consider your objections before reaching a decision.
But, said a councillor, won’t we then face another possible appeal because we have not come to a decision as we are legally obliged to.
Yes, said Ridley but we can manage that. I have very clear instruction from Counsel that this outcome will not help our case.
Councillors were clearly confused, in all my years on this committee, said Tony Fryatt, never have I been told after a vote that I need to re-consider and defer a decision.
If you could listen to the advice of Counsel says Ridley (as if Counsel was some mysterious figure only the sacred few got to hear), then I am sure your concerns on sustainability will be answered.
The committee are clearly unsure but they are being browbeaten by the Head of Planning. This is now intriguing says Tony Fryatt so as much as it goes against all my principals I will propose that we defer this decision pending further investigation. The vote is carried 8:2.So we thought we had won the day only for it to be snatched away from us minutes later by a Head of Planning who is determined to see this application accepted. Of course the final decision has not been made but it means we will have to go through the whole process again only this time the opposition will be better prepared.And who is that opposition. We used to think SCDC Planning was on our side, they told us they are going to mount a robust defence of the original planning decision against Mount Pleasant and Fairfield Road, but now we question that commitment. We know legal argument can work in mysterious ways but can someone please tell us how a decision in favour of this development will help SCDC in their defence of the original appeal. Of course Philip Ridley didn’t say our defence, he said our case. So what is that case? It doesn’t look like they want to win the appeal, so what is it? One could postulate that if the Mount Pleasant application were to be accepted then as a quid-pro-quo the developer would withdraw from the appeal. Of course that also puts the Fairfield Road appeal in grave danger but the CIL payment of over £1M from Mount Pleasant would help to sweeten that pill from a District perspective.
All in all, a very strange day. One where you come out wondering how your victory was suddenly snatched away by a sleight of hand. Where the arguments used are so counter-intuitive to be beyond baffling. And what now? There will be another planning committee meeting but all the Counsel briefings to Committee Members will no doubt be behind doors so will we ever know what is going on.
The more we think about it the more we come to the conclusion that the committee was never going to be allowed to reject the application. Throughout the hearing Philip Ridley and his colleague Philip Rowson were again and again pushing councillors to support the application. The way the District Solicitor moved so quickly after the vote against the recommendation says to us that they had a plan; if the committee vote goes against recommendation, interrupt proceedings and get a deferment before the second vote to formally reject the application is taken. This is wrong. The public went to that meeting expecting to see democracy at work. Residents have campaigned in the belief that the planning committee’s vote was final. We have put in weeks of hard work studying the application, looking at the planning law, preparing relevant argument because we thought we had a right to a fair hearing. Today we were cheated of that fair hearing. The SCDC Planning Department now have three weeks to share the advice of Legal Counsel from the appeal team with committee members and convince them of the merits of the application. Will we have access to that information so we can put forward a counter argument? We doubt it because if that information was going to be made public then it would have been before the committee meeting. This is all disappearing behind closed doors and that is very wrong.
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