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Wesham: Good Decision

Weaham: Good DecisionA quarter of an hour before the start, the floor of Lowther Pavilion was a quarter full.

By the appointed hour, there were about 150 people creating a buzz of expectation as they waited for Fylde's Development Control Committee to start.

Wesham (or at least some of the non-working folk there) had come to Lytham to tell the DC committee not to approve the Metacre application for 264 new houses on farmland, in the countryside just north of Mowbreck Lane.

The meeting started with the usual housekeeping, Cllr Eastham was unavailable so Queen Elizabeth was substituting for him, and Cllr Chew stood in for Cllr Mulholland.

The Chairman opened the meeting by thanking the officers and the Wesham Acton Group who had provided information.

He then set out the form for the meeting - which was: Each of the twenty one people would be allowed three minutes each to have their say, then Members of the council (who were not on the D C Committee) could have five minutes each, then he would have a five minute recess before the officers would present the policy arguments, and the committee members could ask questions, followed, finally, by the Committee's debate of the matter.

The public speaking part opened.

First off was...

Bill Whitehead
He said he was concerned that the planning appeal budget had been reduced last week, and he thought that would limit the scope and the willingness of the council to refuse the application. He said he had heard that a whip was out to approve the application, and he thought such a process would end in a Judicial Review. Clearly stung by the claims, and unusually in DC, the Chairman (Cllr John Bennett) intervened before the second speaker and said there was no whip in planning, and there would be no restraint because of budget limitations.

John Westmoreland (CPRE)
Said that CPRE had done a landscape character assessment. Also said that Fylde's housing assessment didn't take account of all the houses already in the pipeline, and that in any case Fylde's needs could be met at the M55 Hub. He said present market conditions make assessment of a five year supply futile and he argued approval would set a precedent for other good farmland sites.

Alan Clayton (Wesham TC)
Wesham Town Council object. The Community is against the development. He went on to quote the main policy conflicts. He asserted that the land was Grade 1 and 2 (The highest of the agricultural land classification scheme). He argued approval now would be premature and would set a dangerous precedent.

Andrea Galbraith (Chairs the Wesham Action Group)
She had read the officers report with confusion and demanded to know why the applicant was being "given comfort" when none was accorded to the local community. She said WAG had provided evidence to show this application conflicts with many policies and if granted would mean the decision had overturned 34 national, regional and local planning policies. Citing global food security she demanded to know if the committee was willing to put at risk the Fylde's farmers, green land, important ecology and so on. To thunderous applause from the floor, she urged the committee to reject the application.

Bryce Galbraith
Spoke of transport and roads. He said transport services had been misrepresented by the applicant. Disabled access to the railway was almost non-existent. He was also concerned about the roads because the applicant had used out of date transport information, and he concluded by saying that an access into the site on Fleetwood Road close to the fire station and the ambulance station was a disaster waiting to happen.

Martin Howarth
Spoke of the lack of integral infrastructure in the proposals. He said it fails to meet the needs of Wesham as a community. Two large new estates there have already seen a 35% increase in population and this would make it a 70% increase. They had for example, no affordable leisure facilities in the village, and if this was approved as proposed it would be the death of Wesham as a community.

David Rowe (Rose?)
Said the council should consider the housing numbers differently, they were not related to local need or market conditions.

Terry Blackburn
Said whilst he was an amateur naturalist he had a degree in the subject, and sometimes worked as a consultant on it. He said the survey work and information he had undertaken had been used both by the applicant and WAG. He said the applicant's ecology work falls far short of recommended practice and is unreliable. Some of the conclusions were not supported by facts, and the applicant had failed to do enough study work. He said that, if approved, condition 15 (in the officers report) should be changed to require further and better survey work.

Pat Banks
Said she had lived in Wesham all her life, and scored a direct hit when she said losing this countryside and farmland in Wesham would be like St Annes losing its dunes or Lytham losing its green. "Is this what you want?" she demanded of the committee. She urged them to listen to residents. They didn't need any more houses in Wesham, there was insufficient infrastructure already. Approval would mean there would be no going back and she concluded "You make the decisions but it's the community that has to live with the consequences"

Denise Harrison
From Mowbreck Lane said she was concerned that farming land of this quality could be lost. We need to support good farming practice and local farmers. She was also concerned about access as cars are still thinking motorway speeds as they enter the built up area. She said that was why it was such a good spot for the police radar.

David Pickervance (Farmer of the land)
Said he was a tenant on the land and his family had worked it for three generations. He knew the drainage in detail and said at present, they have to jet the farm drains several times a year because of silting up as some of the drains are low lying, and this takes about a week each time it is done. He claimed the plans to put a sustainable drainage system in place were not though out properly and would not work as shown. He said the drains currently carry 4,000 litres every 48 seconds, and that no one had any idea of the damage this scheme would cause to the drainage of the whole area.

Graham Surtees (Agricultural Consultant)
Has a degree and works mostly in the dairy sector. He warned about food security saying that the increasing global population especially in Asia would vastly increase demand for food and water in future years. He also pointed out that increasing growth of biofuel production would take more land out of food production, and that food security (which is shorthand for being able to get food! cb) was racing up the political agenda, He said we must protect the best agricultural land where possible, and he had formally surveyed the land and graded it mostly grade 2 with pockets of Grade 1. It was farmed in a sound arable and livestock mix in a traditional manner and was of such high quality it should be protected. The next place with land of such quality was in Yorkshire. He concluded with a reference to global warming and said "One thing we can be sure of is that we will die of hunger before we drown"

(cb note: If he is right on the land grading -and we've no reason to doubt him as an independent professional here - this is the only Grade 1 Agricultural land that is known in the whole of Lancashire)

Helen Forrester (National Farmer's Union)
Said this was only the second Development Control Committee she had attended because the NFU normally makes written representations, but this site is so important it is an exception. She went on to explain (in far too short a time allowed) an introduction to the Agricultural Land Classification Scheme and why the land was so important. She said the officers report had failed to say it accepted the Surtees report on grading and that was wrong. The land was a precious asset and should be protected.

Libby Pickervance
Said she had farmed the land for 28 years and it currently supports three families and numerous employees. If granted, the application would mean them losing 10% of their farming land and their farm would truly be decimated (That point struck home). She spoke with passion but factually about problems with access, the difficulty of bringing farm vehicles and livestock through housing areas and said aspects of the officers report were incorrect. She was also concerned for children wandering into farmland and unseen danger. Placing a play area next to farmland was a recipe for disaster.

John Francis Smith
Said he had lived in Wesham for 73 years. Using countryman language and the sort of common sense that made this country what it used to be, he said he wanted the committee to decide this on facts and common sense. He had no doubt the land was subject to flooding in parts, and the rest was good agricultural land and the committee was being asked to remove local milk production. He said Fylde would have a 'carbon footprint' the size of the Charge of the Light Brigade if they weren't careful. He listed many of the Brownfield sites in the area and said they should be developed first. To thunderous applause and feet stamping, he concluded "All I'm asking is that you exercise a ha'porth of common sense and kick this into touch"

Arnold Sumner
Walked up to overhead projector and placed a tray of soil on it so it projected onto the screen. (We thought he missed the opportunity to say he's done that to bring the committee down to earth in its deliberations). He said so much had been said already that he had torn up his notes. He said the application was an absolute nonsense and should be turned down. He was old enough to remember the food shortages of the last war, and how we had to depend of food from local farms. He reminded the younger listeners that a transport strike in 2008 had emptied supermarket shelves in just 4 days, and if that had carried on we would have been back to a WW2 situation and grateful to have local farmers that could feed us.

Elaine Silverwood (Speaking for Kirkham TC)
Said they wanted to retain separate identities for the towns of Kirkham and Wesham, and Wesham was seeing a 41% increase in properties for which there was insufficient infrastructure. She asked where the employment was for a development of this size, adding that the farmer had brought the land up to an excellent standard.

Harry Smith
Said he was interested in ecology and had read the ecology report, but the content was not up to the mark. They had looked at only five out of eighteen ponds and he knew there were more great crested newts. He listed many forms of wildlife he had seen including kingfishers and buzzards. He thought the area should be protected, not built on. He concluded by saying it looked like this is being pushed through because of a dire need for housing that no-one believes.

Lorna Fleetwood
Said she objected to the 264 houses and the loss of the agricultural land and many other factors. She also said the entrance to Wesham would be damaged by the development.

Fred Moor
Said he was concerned that the Council had not followed the Government guidance in PPS7 and obtained their own competent advice about the grade of the agricultural land. He said the officer's failure - admitted in the report - to undertake proper analysis of the land meant that the Council could not know its agricultural value and it was a disgrace they were being asked to value its agricultural importance against the need for housing when they had no evidence of their own to make a proper judgement and comparison. He also said separate and different criteria applied to the soil resource but that had not even been taken into account. He said the Committee should not consider approving the application until they had proper and competent information of their own upon which to evaluate both the agricultural land use and the soil.

That concluded the marathon of public speakers.

The Chairman then called Cllr Simon Renwick to speak as a Fylde councillor who was not a member of the committee.

Cllr Renwick began by saying the report had given 101 reasons to refuse the application but then it concluded the application should be approved. He went on to list many reasons for refusal. He believed Wesham was full and has had all the development it could take. He then began a desperately foolish party political diatribe against the Government saying the problem was that Government had stitched up shire districts like Fylde with these regional housing targets, and that the planning system was broken and what the Conservatives would do to put it right.

Ignoring cries from the floor of "We don't need a political speech Simon - just get on with it" he storm-troopered his invective and bile out at the Labour Government to the extent that the Chairman had to call for calm amongst the public whose patience had worn so thin they were almost openly booing.

Still he continued, saying that this was John Prescott telling this Committee what to do. He was in mid-flow when the first person got up and walked out, She was followed by another, and another, and more, which then became a stream.

We were concerned about the impact of this on the future debate until we remembered that the Chairman had indicated a recess after Cllr Renwick's five minutes, and we recognised that people may not be going home.

Eventually the Chairman had to stop him for running over his time allowed, and the first session came to an end.

Cllr Renwick had (and continues to have) the wild eyed zeal of a Conservative fundamentalist which, sadly, we believe will be his undoing in the circles in which he has to move.

At Government level, (and to us it seems that's where he desperately wants to be) he would fit in well with modern ethos and the pure party politics that rule there.

But for our money, and as with some of his Conservative colleagues in FBC, he simply does not recognise that the role of a politician and that of a councillor are, and indeed ought to be, very different.

In the recess we suggested to him that when they find themselves at the bottom of a deep hole, most other people would recognise the need to stop digging. His swift response was "But I was right"

We absolutely don't dispute that, but as someone once said to us - there's not much point being right and being killed on a zebra crossing simply to prove you were in the right, and the driver wasn't looking, is there?

He has much enthusiasm and drive, and although we don't agree with him on many issues, we do regard it as a personal tragedy for him,  in the truest sense of that word, that his actions are undoubtedly going to bring about the self-imposed denial of the one thing that he values and prizes above all others.

After the break, the officer's made their presentation. They noted the scheme would demolish two existing bungalows on Fleetwood Road to provide the access there, and that both the LCC Highways department and the Environment Agency had removed the objections they had formerly made.

Then it was the time for questions of the officers.

Cllr Linda Nulty from Wesham had five. She wanted to know.....

1. Whether there had been any further information sent to the council or LCC Highways and the Environment Agency, to cause them to withdraw the objections they had maintained to the development until Monday last? (Ans: No further information has been submitted)

We found it absolutely amazing that a statutory body could have withdrawn its longstanding objection without apparently have seen evidence to change its mind.

2. Whether the Police, Fire and Ambulance services had been consulted with regard to the highway alterations? (Ans: Fire and Ambulance stations had been notified as neighbours, but not the police as they weren't a neighbour. No response had been received)

3. Had the location of the pedestrian crossing been finalised? (Ans: Yes, it would be within a meter or two of its plan location)

4. Was the 'sustainability appraisal' a box ticking exercise or did it take the service level and quality into account? (Ans: Yes and no)

Then came Queen Elizabeth Oades of Kirkham who asked if Kirkham and Wesham were to be treated as a joint town as the officers report seemed to suggest, why had Kirkham Town Council not been formally consulted on the proposals (Ans: KTC was not a statutory consultee)

Cllr Heather Speak hit the nail on the button when she noted the Late Observations sheet (Chiefly comprising last minute claims by the developer) said the developer said the land was Agricultural Grade 3 but the protestors independent survey said it was Grade 2 or grade 1. She asked which was right? (Ans: As officers we accept it is 'Best and Most Versatile land'

She followed this up with "Would you then say the Surtees report is right?" (alluding to the survey undertaken by consultant Graham Surtees) (Ans: "That's what I just said"

Cllr Paul Rigby asked what precedent an approval would set (Ans: No precedent)

Cllr Fiddler said they had been frequently let down by statutory consultees and he thought Cllr Nulty's first question to be a very important one. He said if there had been a change in the circumstances for highways and environment the Committee must see that evidence. Does such evidence exist (Ans: No)

That concluded the evidence assembly part of the meeting and we moved into debating it.

At this point, seasoned civic hands such as counterbalance like to test their judgement at reading the decision that will be made. Amongst some officers in local authorities the guessing turns into a game rather like bookmaking, where they try to second guess the result on the basis of previous form for the Councillors concerned, and what has been said in the information part of the meeting.

We made a preliminary mental assessment that it would probably be a vote for approval on the Chairman's casting vote.

It turned out whilst we had correctly spotted that six of the thirteen would vote for refusal, we had thought the six Conservatives and sympathisers would vote together for approval. That turned out to be wrong.

First off to speak was Wesham's Linda Nulty. She said they didn't need party politics to argue this application. She thanked all the people there for their contributions. She had read the officer's report over and over again and could not understand why they were being recommended to approve. The objections from highways and environment might have been withdrawn, but nothing had changed and they had not been overcome. She outlined her reasons to refuse the application then formally moved that Committee refuse it.

Next was Richard Fulford Brown.

Now, we'd be hypocritical if we said this is someone we always agreed with, and admired his performance in the chamber, so we won't. What we will say is that his contribution turned this decision.

He said he fully supported Cllr Nulty. He had seen the site and the land for the first time on the site visit they had had that morning and he had been convinced it was the wrong site. He said "This development would be an act of utter vandalism" and he would be voting for refusal.

Cllr Fulford Brown is a Conservative. So if there had been a whip on, as had been implied by one speaker (and as we had previously heard quite separately ourselves) then this would have broken it.

As it was, he effectively made the decision that it would be refused because even if all the other Conservatives voted for approval, it would have been 7 against and 6 for.

Next to speak was Queen Elizabeth. She said "Today you've seen community in action, they have presented a good case in a very professional manner" She went on to say there were many reasons to refuse. Government policy was a top down approach and the result is a shambles and a sham of democracy. She cited several policy areas for refusal and before seconding Cllr Nulty's proposition to refuse.

Cllr Paul Rigby said he understood the need for housing and gave some examples of need (we thought here goes, he's abut to say the housing is so important that it has to be approved. But he didn't). He said "The loss of the farmland an open space is a step too far and I will be going with refusal"

That sealed the fate of the decision. It was now a question of whether the rest of the Conservatives and others who might have harboured a preference for refusal would accept the inevitable and go with what was clearly going to be the majority, or whether they would stick out and risk the wrath of the people in the public gallery.

Cllr Heather Speak was short and sweet. She said "The land is important for agricultural use. I will be voting for refusal"

Saint Barbara Pagett echoed the view and said she could not accept that the proposals were acceptable based on agricultural use and ecology.

Cllr Peter Hardy said it flew in the face of a number of planning policies. It was high grade 1 and 2 land and that was rare. He said the scale was inappropriate and the highway junctions were bad. He would be voting for refusal.

Cllr Fiddler said he had been very impressed with the quality of the speakers. He said Fylde's housing policy had been prepared to protect green land, then along came regional planning who told Fylde they had to deliver so many houses.

He said he was in schizophrenic mode. Part of him said common sense should prevail and he wanted to refuse it, but in some ways he could see they ought to approve it. However, if he did so, it would be a fundamental betrayal of all his beliefs and what  that he had had to say. So he would support refusal.

Cllr Maxine Chew said she had sympathy with the officers because government was telling them to approve houses, but she went on to say "But this is the planning authority and I don't see why we should be bullied or threatened into agreement."  She said this would turn Wesham into a dormitory town like Fleetwood has become and that creates awful traffic problems. She concluded "Refusal is the only option we should take as a responsible planning authority"

At this point readers might like to know the atmosphere of the meeting had moved to rapturous applause after each Councillor said "refuse"

The Vice Chairman Cllr Ben Aitken said he wanted to thank all the people who had sent him letters and emails and who had contributed to the debate that afternoon. He said he was concerned about the hydrology and the biodiversity. He said we need to have sustainable agriculture and we need to keep good quality farmland. Sounding a note of caution he said we had won and lost appeals locally, but the lost ones have been housing, and if we refuse this we will have to consider how an inspector will view it at appeal. He also mentioned Queensway and the impact that might have.

That concluded the debate part of the meeting, and we moved to the vote

The Chairman said he would declare a ten minute break for the officers to consult with the mover and seconder to get the right form of words for the resolution so it would encompass the points that had been raised by the committee.

When the meeting resumed, the officers read out the wording of the resolution proposed by Cllr Mrs Nulty and seconded by Cllr Mrs Oades. We heard a four-part resolution, but didn't get the details.

They centred on the loss of Best and Most Versatile agricultural land and a failure to demonstrate the sequential approach to the development of farmland required by policy EP22, The scale of the development being excessive, the design of the highways junctions, and insufficient evidence provided so show that ecology and hydrology would not be damaged.

The Chairman said he would put that proposition to the vote, but it didn't need a recorded vote because it was going to be overwhelming.

At this point Cllr Fiddler stepped in and said it should be a recorded vote in order to show the strength of feeling of the Committee. There was a lot of nodding and support for his view from other councillors, so a recorded vote was taken.

Every councillor voted to refuse the application.

It was refused.

The overall experience of the day was like being in the days before the stupid cabinet system and the Commissar's overt party politics ruled the roost.

What you saw was a decision made of the people, by the people. Exactly what democracy should be. We salute this DC meeting.

Before someone tells us we're only happy because the decision went the way we thought it should go, we'll disagree. We're happy, because the decision was based on common sense, not overt party politics and 'power' demonstrations. Ot was a  proper decision.

In conclusion it would be remiss of us not to mention the able chairing of Cllr John Bennett.

Readers will remember we used to have a lot of time for him before he seemed to cosy-up to the Conservative group since when we've seen him vote in ways that have surprised us. But since he became chair of his first committee he has shown himself to be a very good chairman. Yes he might on occasions try to steer things to a particular direction, but he always errs on the side of generosity when people want to have their say, and he chairs meetings with a light but firm hand. We think he did a good job.

All except the people from DePoll (architects of the scheme) and possibly one chap who might have been associated with them went away happy until they reached their cars and found penalty parking notices for overstaying the parking times at Lowther Gardens. This was quickly resolved by advising anyone so affected to ring the number this morning and an instruction would have been given that the notice would have been cancelled.

We left, still smiling at 73 year old John Smith's comment "All I'm asking is that you exercise a ha'porth of common sense and kick this into touch"

They did both.

More please!

For the Wesham campaigners this next week or two is probably only a breathing space before the developer with deep pockets presses the 'appeal' button, and they need to make sure when he does, that the Council and its officers are arguing for a public inquiry, not just a hearing or written representations.

Dated:  18 March 2010


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