27 August 2002

 

Brian the snail

On 18 July this year Welsh Assembly Planning Inspector John Davies BSc MRTPI visited Pembroke Dock to hear an appeal by Hallmark Homes against the County Council's refusal to allow them to build flats/hotel on part of Pembroke Borough Football Club's London Road ground.
The inspector's report has now been published and it gives a fascinating insight into both the County Council's corrupt planning regime (see below) and Cllr Brian Hall's movements, or lack of them, on that summer day.
According to the opening paragraph of the report, a council representative had told Mr Davies that Cllr Hall, "a ward member", wished to speak at the hearing but, because he was tied up in a Council meeting, he would be unable to attend until 1.45 pm.
Mr Davies records that he advised that, provided the hearing was still in progress at that time, there would be no problem.
However it seems that business of the Inquiry took less time than expected and at 12.20 pm the inspector adjourned the hearing so that the parties could continue the discussion on site.
At 12.30 pm, anticipating that matters would be concluded before Cllr Hall's ETA, the inspector asked the planning officer present to telephone the councillor to see if he could make an earlier entrance.
As a result of that telephone conversation, the Inspector records that "Cllr Hall stated that he could be in Pembroke Dock at 1.15 pm.
However, at the appointed hour the Cllr had still not put in an appearance and after a failed attempt to contact him by telephone the Inspector seems to have got fed up with waiting and, at 1.25 pm, he pulled down the shutters.
The reason all this is interesting, apart from the Cllr Hall's demonstration of bad manners, is that his activities, or lack of them, on 18 July, have been the subject of previous comment in this column (see July 22) that being the date of the meeting of full Council at which two planning applications that had been passed by the Planning Committee, despite strong advice from the officers that they were contrary to policy, were up for final determination.
As reported at the time, Cllr Hall had been the principlal cheerleader for these two applications at Planning Committee but had been forced to change his tune at a meeting of the Independent Political (sic) Group held on Wednesday 17 July when the Leader Maurice Hughes warned his troops of the bad publicity that would follow if Cabinet members like Hall and Cllr Peter Stock were seen to be trashing the authority's own planning policy.
As the Leader has the power to detach Cabinet members from their £22,500 stipends, Hall and Stock had no alternative but to toe the party line.
To avoid losing face with the applicants gazing down from the public gallery, Cllr Hall left the meeting never to return, ostentatiously waving an empty water jug to his colleagues as an explanation for his untimely exit.
Interestingly, during the debate on the two applications, Plaid Cymru Leader, Cllr Michael Williams, observed that, given Cllr Hall's vociferous support for both proposals at Planning Committee, it was a pity he was not present to say his piece.
This, seemingly, innocuous bit of knockabout was, I understand, the trigger for Cllr Hall's widely publicised, alleged assault on Cllr Williams prior to a recent Planning Committee.
But I digress.
Cllr Hall left the Council meeting at 11.30 am so there was no reason why he couldn't be in Pembroke Dock, almost two hours later, at 1.15 pm.
Indeed, on past performance (see Time warp October 15 2001), he could have gone via the Severn Bridge, stopped off for lunch, and still been there in plenty of time.
So, if it wasn't pressure of time, what was the real reason for Cllr Hall's no-show before the Inspector?
Well, my guess is that it was not unconnected with his disappearance from the Council meeting.
You see, he was opposed to the Hallmark Homes proposal even though, at the original Planning Committee, the planning officer had advised that it was within policy and recommended approval.
I suspect that word had got back from the Inquiry that the Inspector was taking a rather jaundiced view of the Council's stated reasons for refusal (see below) and somebody in authority decided that it would be unwise to send Hall to Pembroke Dock with his shovel to excavate an even deeper hole.
So, the reason for his failure to put in an appearance was more tactical than practical.

Disgrace to democracy

The law governing the consideration of planning applications is to be found in Section 54A of the Town and Country planning Act 1990 which states that : "Where in making any determination under the planning Acts, regard is to be had to the development plan, the determination shall be made in accordance with the plan unless material considerations indicate otherwise."
What the Inspector found in the case above was that the Council had behaved "wrongly and unreasonably" because the reasons given for refusal were entirely spurious and therefore immaterial (and illegal) though he did find that the proposed siting of the building (not one of the reasons given by the authority) was grounds for refusal.
This was not the fault of the planning officers who had recommended refusal but of the members whose motto seems to be if there are no good reasons for refusal/approval make some up.
This is not an infrequent occurrence at planning committee meetings where plans are approved/refused for base political motives rather than on planning grounds.
The upshot is that, because of the council's unlawful conduct, the applicant's costs have been awarded against the council i.e us taxpayers.
The squandering of public money by politicians is hardly remarkable - it is about the only thing most of them are any good at - but there are far more important issues at stake than a couple of thousand quid in costs.
What is really serious is that the human rights of the individuals concerned have been infringed because their planning application has not been given a fair hearing.
If someone was let off a careless driving charge because the Chairman of the Bench belonged to the same golf club/Masonic lodge or if someone was convicted because the magistrates didn't like the look of him there would be all hell up.
So why are we prepared to put up with routine corruption of the principles of justice from a democratically elected planning committee?
In the past this question might have been raised at the next meeting of the planning committee, though the last time I recall an embarrassing Inspector's report coming before the committee the Chairman, Cllr Lynn Davies, demonstrated the Independent Political (sic) Group's contempt for democracy by abusing the power of the chair to prevent the matter being debated.
At least, he won't have to do that this time around because, it seems, the Director Roger Barrett-Evans has decided that the results of planning inquiries will no longer be reported to the committee (see What about the workers? August 5)
And where are the opposition in all this?
Well, I'm afraid, they are almost as useless as the ruling group themselves.

... and one law for them

While perusing the new rules about councillors' expenses on the Welsh Assembly website, I came across the heading: "Records of allowances".
Underneath I read that: "Every authority shall keep a record of the payments made ..." and that: "Such record shall specify the name of the recipient and the amount and nature of each payment and shall be kept available, at all reasonable times, for inspection (free of charge) by any local government elector ..." .
My reading of this piece of law, which came into effect on August 9, is that any elector can present themselves at Kremlin on Cleddau and demand to see the register.
Last Friday, being a courteous soul, I rang up and gave notice of my intention to go in and inspect the records.
I was told that, unfortunately, this would not be possible because the chap in charge of such matters, was on leave and with the Bank Holiday and all he would not be back until Tuesday.
On Tuesday I contacted the man in question who seemed not to be familiar with the new rules.
He told me that the Director of Finance Mr Mark Lewis was away and, until he had spoken to him, he was unable to say when I could see the register.
I pointed out that the legislation contained no mention of any need for a particular person to be present and that it appeared to me that I had an unqualified right to see this document.
This seemed to make some impression because half an hour later he was back on the phone to tell me that the information was being collected together and they would contact me to tell me when I could go in and see it.
In the meantime my advice to any small businessman confronted by a rule book toting Council jobsworth is to firstly plead ignorance and, if that doesn't work, tell him your compliance officer who deals with the regulations is off on indefinite sick leave.
I doubt it will do much good but it's surely worth a try.
What's sauce for the goose and all that.

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