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Marton Moss Decision

Morton Moss DecisionAlthough it's in Blackpool and not in Fylde, the plans for Marton Moss development will affect all residents of the fylde plain. They'll also impact in the M55 Hub scheme, so we're keeping an eye on them for our readers.

Today, we're  going to upset Fylde's Commissar (again!) and use our bus pass to go to Blackpool Town Hall to listen to the debate as to whether to allow Kensington to build 584 houses on some of the best (and only) green land Blackpool hasn't already covered with concrete and tarmac.

The site is chiefly the bit to the left of Progress Way (which itself is an extension of Squires Gate Lane) as you head toward the motorway. The Squires Gate / Progress Way junction is the one at the bottom of the picture, and the Midgeland Road crossing at the top.

Locals, supported by their MP Gordon Marsden (which in this case we think is of crucial importance) have fought a very able case to oppose the plan, and in the process, they exposed the brown envelope donations that Kensington made to the Conservative party in South Shore. The investigation into these said they had been lawfully made, but unwise. So that's a bit like the MP's Expenses then. All within the rules, but everyone knows they were wrong.

Now we see that Blackpool is formally changing its rules on how many affordable houses this scheme needs and a couple of other moves that will make it easier to give this permission and, oh yes, sorry, almost forgot to mention, the changes mean that Kensington can give Blackpool a HUGE brown envelope with £9 million in it for Blackpool to spend if they grant  the planning permission Kensington are asking for.

Once again this is all within the rules, but it stinks just as much as the party donations and the expenses scandal does. However lawful it may be, people will always know it's plain wrong to dole out cash in exchange for planning permission.

In fact Blackpool can't actually pass the scheme because Government has already intervened and said they will take the decision our of Blackpool's hands. So Blackpool can only say they are minded to pass the plan.

And it looks as though Blackpool Council is going to say that. They're being recommended to do so by their officers, and their Leader, Peter Callow told the Gazette that if they agree to give planning permission, the Government would have to come up with a really good reason to reverse that decision.

That's fighting talk.

So we're quite looking forward to hearing what goes on this afternoon and will report below for our readers.

And so to Blackpool on the bus we went.

Nice Town Hall. Old fashioned. Lots of ornate plasterwork and oak. Love it.

 Blackpool Council

Less happy with the performance of the Council and officers though.

The meeting opened with the clerk saying it was supposed to be a meeting of the Development Control Committee, but there was no Chairman and no Vice Chairman!, So they had to elect them pro-tem from the floor. Cllr Peter Collins Conservative, Park Ward, took the chair.

He managed to get to the Declarations of Interest before he was interrupted.

The source of the interruption was what looked like an 'old labour' war-horse Cllr Valerie Haynes of Hawes Side. With the manner of a class-war warrior and a voice to match, she demanded to know why this item had needed a special committee when they have a planning committee next Monday that could have dealt with it.

The planning officer explained that it was not urgent, and had been 9 months in consideration so far. But this didn't satisfy Cllr Haynes (She didn't sound to be the sort to trifle with, we thought), and she repeated the question.

The Chairman said that because of the nature of the application and the political implications it had, the committee meeting was populated by Blackpool North (Conservative) members and none from Blackpool South (ie they were avoiding allowing the temporary recipients of the brown envelopes stuffed with cash by Kensington to make the decision). He also said this was the Chief Planning Officer's last meeting (We think that was to do with an impending retirement rather than something more ominous)

The mention of it being a political decision brought a gasp and a sharp intake of breath to the lips of many in the chamber, not least the MP for Blackpool South, Gordon Marsden who has supported those protesting against the scheme, and who was sitting a few feet away from us.

The tirade of procedural questions from the labour group continued to harry the meeting (quite well, it has to be said). One of the Conservatives said he very much regretted the aggressive tone being taken and it was "totally unnecessary".

What you saw here, dear reader, is the old maxim of the greatest noise coming from those with the least control and influence. And by that we're not criticising the Labour group, we're just noting that the Conservatives knew they had a clear majority, and weren't going to break into a sweat to debate it. They were just going to let the thunder roar then vote it through.

Which is just what they did of course.

Then the leader of the protest group Angelia Hinds was allowed to speak for three minutes. Subtle difference here with Fylde. At Fylde, you are invited to speak, and almost any number of people can speak for up to three minutes each so long as they are not repeating what has been said before. And as long as you're reasonable with the timing, you can usually run over a minute or so as well.

 At Blackpool only one person may speak and then it seems to be something that is tolerated rather than regarded as a useful contribution to the debate.

Angelia spoke well and professionally about planning policy. She worried about school provision and healthcare, and noted that this site only scored well in the "Sustainability Appraisal" (Don't even ask), because this site had more details known about it than the others sites did. (This is becoming a common trick for developers to use). Suddenly, mid flow, the Chairman interjected and said Right, you've had your three minutes please sit down.

So much for democratic participation.

The Cllr Jean Kendrick, Conservative from Stanley Ward, and a ward councillor for the area covered by the application was allowed to speak in objection on behalf of residents. She was tied into the brown envelope fiasco last year so they weren't letting her anywhere near a vote. But she spoke well and advanced good arguments against the scheme. She said Marton Moss was as iconic to Blackpool as the Tower or the Piers. She said the plan conflicted with policies that sought to limit housing sue on the moss to agriculture or horticulture. She said the scheme was premature in relation to the core strategy and because that had not yet been to public consultation, it was undemocratic to consider it now. She also claimed that some people's human rights would be violated because the new buildings would be very close to some existing homes.

Whilst she spoke well, and advanced all the right arguments, it looked to us as though her party colleagues on the benches opposite were marking time and letting her have a say that would help her get elected in the ward, in the full knowledge that she didn't even  have a vote in the matter and whatever she said could be disregarded.

Cllr Fred Jackson spoke next and said he was not convinced that anything had changed since they refused a similar application last June. Several statutory agencies had said they opposed this plan, and the meeting was assuming this area would be supported for housing in the Core Strategy, but that was wrong because the Core Strategy hadn't been to public consultation yet, and the public have not been properly consulted (Lots of applause and "hear hear's"  from the public gallery). He said he called on the Committee to refuse it and said he would propose it's refusal - which he did.

The war-horse took to the stand again and said there were (and she listed them) all sorts of reasons not to approve it, quoting sites that were industrial wasteland that could be used for housing in preference (lots of cheers and "hear hear's" ).

She concluded with "I will gladly second the refusal"

Then Cllr Roy Haskett, Conservative, Layton spoke. He agreed with Cllr Haynes about the housing numbers, but he said they are often absentee landlords and its difficult to get anything done to release them to the market for people to use and so on. He said he had been on the site visit and he thought the majority of the area was fallow grassland and it was getting worse as he spoke (We thought we might have to be there for some time if he was going to speak for THAT long). He said people in the area didn't want the dead and diseased trees that he had seen, and properly managed houses would be a much better use.

We can testify that view was not universally popular with the public gallery.

It was a miserable apology of a reason for supporting the scheme. Nothing more than a few invented reasons to justify what he did next - which was to propose the Officers recommendation to approve the scheme, subject to reference to the Secretary of State, in its entirety.

Now if Cllr Collins had been a better Chairman (or even a fair handed one) he would have refused to accept that proposition because he already had a properly constituted motion to refuse that had been proposed and seconded. So he should have said he would not accept that as it was not an amendment to the motion, it was in direct conflict (technically a counter-motion) and in any case, they could obtain the same effect by voting against the motion to refuse the application.

However, he didn't do that, he simply carried on as though nothing had happened.

We thought he seems to be looking to Cllr Haskett as though for approval during the meeting, and another member of the public commented to us after the meeting what long arms he thought Cllr Haskett had to be able to stretch them all the way round the Council Chamber and up the back of Cllr Collins to be able to "work him" So we were not the only one who wondered if that was what was happening.

Cllr Gary Coleman, Labour, Brunswick, said he thought the officer's advice for this site and Runnell Farm was in conflict. They were arguing opposite sides of the same coin. He was also concerned that the Commuted sum was so reduced. In effect they were losing something like £12 million on what their policies said they should be getting.

We winced. £11m is about the whole of Fylde Council's spending for a year.

The planning officer spoke to answer some of the questions that had been asked. He said the earlier scheme for 640 units had been excessive and withdrawn to go for this which was smaller. He made the expected points that all planning officers are making at the moment that the Core Strategy is not ready yet, and they are working on the old Local Plan which was prepared at a time when they needed to provide 215 houses a year. The new Regional Policy says they have to provide 444 houses a year, and this is the most up to date figure - implying that this stupid artificial transient number of top down imposed houses is the one that has to be followed.

He said he was happy to fully support the application (Not his job to support or otherwise we thought. As a hired hand his job is to put a balanced argument before the politicians who will use the facts he gives them to argue their corner). He said it supports good housing (We think that's more open to conjecture given that the Park Lea development in Blackpool was built by the same individuals then demolished in part when great holes appeared in the gardens and roads because the same 'Downholland' series soil runs under this land as was under parts of Park Lea. We wouldn't rate an estate you have to partly demolish as being 'good housing' even if the houses themselves were sound).

He said it was quite OK to change from needing 30% affordable houses down to 12.5% (and saving Kensington £12m in the process), because other councils had done this sort of thing. To gasps from the public gallery he said "We've had months of negotiation with Kensington on this to get a deal which is reasonable for Blackpool and gets the most available from this development". He said they had had specialist consultant valuers and legal experts to help draw up the agreement to provide Blackpool with the £9m for 12.5% affordable housing (rather than the £20-odd million it would have been for the 30% affordable that is set out in their policy).

Cllr Haynes (War horse) leapt down his throat saying the mind boggles if we are paying partners to negotiate for us in this matter. (The answer came later that this was not the case, because the bill for the consultants used by Blackpool had been met by Kensington).

We thought that was a bit like letting the people you're going to buy your house from pay your surveyor and solicitor - even though they would be working for you.

To be honest, the whole meeting had the feel of a put up job. It seemed to us very much like a report designed to meet a political objective to give a planning permission to Kensington.

To us that's yet another reason for Fylde not to get into bed with Blackpool.

Back to the fray, and Cllr Tony Brown Conservative, Warbreck, rose to second approval of the scheme as proposed by Cllr Haskett earlier.

This brought Cllr Haynes to her feet. She said, "No! we moved refusal and the reasons are" and she gave them as being contrary to the local plan and in advance of the Core Strategy.

We've maybe painted her a bit harshly with our description, and we ought to point out that she was very much on the ball with the planning policies and the relevant arguments, regularly reminding officers when they gave selective or 'half quotes' that favoured their recommendation. She cut a formidable figure in the debate.

She also asked that her and Cllr Jackson's names be minuted as having proposed and seconded refusal.

When the vote for refusal of the application was called it was a tied 4 -4 vote with one abstention (A youthful - and brave - Conservative Tim Cox of Inglethorpe ward.)

The Chairman then surprised us by saying "I'll vote for refusal."

At first we thought he was voting for refusal of the application, but it subsequently transpired he meant he would vote to refuse the motion to refuse the application - which meant in effect, he was voting for approval.

What a shambles of a vote.

Then it got worse, because when Cllr Haskett's (improper) motion to approve as per the recommendation was called to the vote, Cllr Cox had his hand up to speak to it and was ignored by the Chairman.

All hell broke loose. Tempers flared and voices were raised as the labour Group tried to make the Chairman see that Cllr Cox was about to propose an amendment to his own 'side's' motion. (In Fylde that would be a hanging offence as far as the Commissar is concerned, but Blackpool obviously has braver young Conservative councillors).

Cllr Haynes shouted to make herself heard above the melee, "These are new councillors Chairman, and they really should be given some leniency" but at first the Chairman was having none of it and called for the vote. It was only when Cllr Collins said "But I was going to propose an amendment to the motion" that sense prevailed and the Chairman relented, his obstinacy having been confronted by the absolute law of debate that allows any committee member to propose an amendment to a motion that has been moved and seconded.

Cllr Collins concern was with the commuted sum being paid by Kensington. He said he could support the housing scheme, but he thought (illustrated by some clever and astute figures that are too complicated to go into here), that Kensington should have  a cap of 45% applied, which he thought would take them nearer to what they would have had to pay for 30% affordable housing. (The maths was mind-boggling, just take it on face value please Dear Reader.)

This amendment caused consternation on both sides. The Conservatives appeared to have been told to vote for the officers recommendation, so they were having none of it, and the Labour Group, whilst probably wanting to salvage something would probably have liked to vote for it, but couldn't do so because to support it would mean they had to vote in favour of the scheme - which they were not prepared to do.

So for a moment or two an uneasy peace descended on the Chamber as the voting parties tried to make up their minds which way they should vote.

Then the Chairman remembered or was prompted by the Chief Executive's representative, we couldn't see which, that the amendment needed to be seconded, so he asked if anyone would second Cllr Cox's amendment.

No-one did, so that fell.    Brave try Cllr Cox, we salute your integrity.

Then approval of the application was proposed and seconded properly by the Conservative Group and voted quickly through at 5 votes to 4.

At this point they should have moved to the second item on the agenda which was an application to put houses on  Runnell Farm. The officers recommendation for that had been refusal. A general melee had broken out and people were packing up their papers when someone shouted "Move the recommendation" and whilst it was difficult to tell whether a vote was really taken or not, the Chairman seemed satisfied.

We wouldn't have been, had we been in his place.

Not least because there was a member of the public registered to speak on that application that was denied his democratic right to do so.

Shambles was the right word.

So what does it all mean?

Well, it looked very much to us as though two things had happened. The ruling Conservative group in Blackpool appear to have decided that they were going to approve the application whatever. And they did. They were not moved by policy arguments. It seemed to us as though a party line had been drawn and that would dictate the decision. That might also be why Peter Callow was so confident when he said to the Gazette (yesterday) that the Government would have to come up with a really good reason to reverse their decision.

The second and obvious point was that in order to distance themselves from allegations of corruption in their decision-making process, the Conservatives had populated the Committee with members from the north of Blackpool irrespective (it seemed) of their planning experience and ability.

As someone said mournfully as we were leaving the chamber - "Politics before people, again"

Dated:  25 March 2010


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