Posted by: iangilbert | July 16, 2012

Pesky procedures

Council Procedures are complicated. Damn complicated. That’s not because someone sits down in the council and works out how best to confuse the public, it’s because we deal with a huge mass of overlapping functions detailed in reams of statute law, statutory guidance, regulation and so forth, on which are imprinted our own local conventions and compromises.

It’s worth reiterating that on planning decisions we might well have some of the country’s highest paid lawyers just waiting to take us to court if we get the slightest thing wrong. It’s also worth pointing out that our new scheme for dealing with petitions has been in place less than a year and people are unfamiliar with it’s exact method of operation.

My strong advice is when setting out to lobby the council about an issue is to get clear advice from someone who knows how the council works. I very much doubt that any officer has acted incorrectly in dealing with the cliffs petition (and if they have, it will certainly be cock-up and not dirty tricks as some people have quite unfairly alleged) they will have answered every point in factually accurate way. However a looseness in phasing can well result in council officers answering a different question that the one you thought you were asking in the first place. (For example if you ask an officer how you can stop to development on the cliffs, they would probably direct you to the planning process for this particular application rather than the much lesser-know petition procedure)

In theory a councillor would be a good person to ask for advice on things like this, though unfortunately some of my councillor colleagues also seem to lack basic knowledge of procedures. I admit I’m a bit of an anorak for rules and procedures, which is probably why someone who might not be expected to turn to the Leader of the Labour Group for advice rang me on Sunday morning for info about process at full council…

I think back the successful campaign I ran with local residents to defeat the plans for a fifteen storey tower block in Carnarvon Road. It was rejected by Development Control Committee 15-0 so we must have been doing something right. This is what we did:

1) We looked at the relevant planning policies to see what planning grounds we had for objecting

2) We had meetings with planning officers to make sure we understood what was being proposed

3) We held public meetings to spread the word and organise campaigning against it

4) Members of the public launched a letter writing campaign (letters were kept respectful and to the point, addressed real planning issues, we didn’t go round accusing Conservatives or anyone else of dirty tricks), posters were put up in windows and demonstrations were called, culminating in an absolutely massive turnout at the development control committee.

What we didn’t do

1) Pitch tents, occupy or generally annoy people

2) Attack the Conservatives (tempting as it was) or make allegations of dirty tricks (there were a few cock-ups with site notices things, we could have shouted ‘conspiracy’ had we really wanted to, but we concentrated on the real issues) because that was not going to help get our message across.

So, in the case of the cliff museum, there’s a petition apparently against all development on the cliffs. Contrary to what many people think, we can’t just pass a motion that says ‘no development’ and that would be that. Let’s look at what options are procedurally available to someone wanting to block development on the cliffs.

The council acting as landlord could make a policy decision not to allow building on any of the land that it owns in that vicinity. A very simple policy statement, it would probably have to modified to allow flexibility in minor things like shelters, lighting etc but it should be possible to find a form of words. This is amenable to a petition to council, officers would write a report, every councillor would vote. It’s formally an executive function – ie the cabinet decides – but I can’t see the cabinet ignoring the recommendation of Full Council now that we’re NOC.

The council could strengthen it’s *planning policy* against development in this area. This would have the advantage that it would deter all development regardless of whether the council owned the land. However, changing planning policy is difficult, it has to go through goodness knows how many public consultations and end up with the Secretary of State. It is very unlikely the council would go through all that to make one change. Also planning policy does not come in commandments on tablets of stone – people can still argue for exceptions to even the tightest of policies.

The council could stop *this particular* planning application. This is very different to the other two, because planning applications have to be considered in a quasi-judicial manner. They can’t be debated in full council, only in development control committee according to specific procedures. Members of the public can object, but it’s a legal process and numbers of signatures don’t change it. Think about criminal law – you wouldn’t expect to have someone found guilty or innocent if you collected enough signatures, but you might expect to influence a court case if you found some very strong evidence and placed it before the court. (It’s not quite the same thing, that’s why there’s a ‘quasi’ in quasi-judicial, but it’s a similar principle…)

Having sat down and thought about it for a few moments, it becomes clear what the options are and you can draw up a campaign to actually achieve your ends through the democratic process. Members of the public can’t be expected to know the finer points of this detail, but why on earth could some supportive councillor not have talked this through with them? Unfortunately there is a tendency amongst one or two councillors to think that the rules don’t apply to them, and think that even statute law is a mere inconvenience that can be got round. The result is that they don’t get their way, and end up throwing round baseless allegations.

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Responses

  1. You will also be aware, Ian, that there are some who enter into a debate about planning applications with a pre-disposition to approve or otherwise. I am no expert on planning, and only a novice councillor, but I am sure it comes to down, on many occasions, to whether you look hard enough for a reason to accept or refuse.

    I am not opposed to building on green spaces under any circumstances, only where there is no alternative. I would, for instance, find it hard to reject a planning application for social housing that was made for almost anywhere.

    The proposal for the Cliffs does not solve a housing issue, will not house the elderly or sick, is not a much-needed school for central Southend, nor is it a facility for the vulnerable. It is a business park and museum.

    I quote from our manifesto, a manifesto that both you and I stood on this May:

    We want a greener town and are committed to preserving our green spaces.

    We support the creation of an arts centre and museum fit to hold the town’s Saxon
    treasures.

    These two aspirations are not mutually exclusive and I hope I have made it clear that I want a museum. I also want the cliffs left verdant. Whilst accepting your points about procedure (and when I slate the council I am using shorthand for the Tory administration, not the hard-pressed council employees) you can understand why residents can feel powerless. It looks like to them that the system is designed to trip them up, and that those who they entrusted with their votes have abandoned their interests when a muscle-bound developer hoves into view.

    I have a lot of sympathy for those left to deal with the bewildering array of legislation. The problem with development on green spaces is that they never return to Mother Nature, and so those who are passionate about our planet see themselves faced with a dire dilemma.

    I see myself as a radical. Pitching tents may not be your idea of how to protest, and it would be nice to always play by the rules, but do you imagine that trade unions rights, votes for the working classes, etc. were won without anything resembling civil protest? I marched against the cuts, as I know you did; we all protest in different ways. I am not for camping, but the tents only lasted a day and were meant as a signal for the discontent.

    We both campaign against voter apathy. If we cannot show a bit of backbone sometimes then why should anyone bother at the ballot box?

    • As Ian said he has previously shown.backbone. However the fact is at the end of the day there were only 1058 signatures which were valid. Its all very hypocritical of SKIPP saying they dont want the goal posts moved but they do when it comes to procedures.
      On the question of the museum everyone agrees we need one, is the cliffs the right place? I dont have an opinion on it and prob wont til the DC when i will have looked at the plans in.detail.

    • I dont often say this but ian is spot on in this blog in regards to procedure. The key thing is that there were only 1058 valid signatures handed in on time.
      Thats why.its hypocritical of.Mark from SKIPP to complain of officers being underhand and moving the goalposts whilst at the same.time wanting the goalposts to be moved in terms of procedure.
      Now actually officers have made.sure that the petition will be made known to the DC and a member of the public has a right to soeak against it. also if SKIPP councillor Bryan Ayling wants to speak he too can ask to do so. Again procedurally this is allowed.
      Now on the subject of the museum, everyone agrees one is needed. the question is where? I dont have an opinion yet as to whether the cliffs is right as i havent studied the proposal in depth. I will get a chance to at DC so in no way have these comments been made in support of the suggestion.

      • Del your a bit out of date, they got enough signatures in time. It was rejected based on a legal technicality (hence this discussion).

  2. Just to point out that I am not taking a view for or against the development here (actually I’m becoming increasingly skeptical of the merits of this plan) I am pointing out that those objecting are going about it in a very counter-productive way.

  3. Debate is healthy. I can always accept losing an argument; I find it difficult to deal with not being able to have my say. This is not any run-of-the-mill proposal – this development could more £50 million. I do not agree with some of the intemperate language that has been used, but I do understand the frustrations that lead to this. It is very easy for those of us who have got elected to forget what it was like shouting from the outside.


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