One of Cranbrook’s big developers:
From the blog of John Loudon, East Devon Alliance councillor for Sidmouth Rural.
“The Sidford Business Park, Chief Executive, Council Leader & Private Eye
The planning applications to build the Business Park in Sidford have received a great deal of local attention and significant opposition, and I was pleased to be able to recently give evidence at the Inquiry in opposition to the proposed development. I believe that it is the wrong thing in the wrong place. Unfortunately, the Planning Inspector who adjudicated at the Inquiry disagreed and has now given the go ahead for the Business Park.
We are where we are because there have been two planning applications submitted by Tim and Mike Ford, in the name of OG Holdings Retirement Benefits Scheme, to build this Business Park. The first of these applications was submitted in 2016 and rejected by East Devon District Council. The second was then submitted in 2018 and was again rejected by the District Council.
In listening to the evidence at the Inquiry I, and many others, were taken aback to learn a claim arising from the evidence given by a key witness for the Fords, their agent Joseph Marchant, which was repeated by their QC and which wasn’t challenged by the Council.
The claim was set out at paragraph 6.0.1 in Mr Marchant’s written evidence “Subsequent to the refusal of the 2016 application, an approach was made to Members (Councillors) including Councillor Hughes and the CEO (Chief Executive) of EDDC, Mark Williams”.
This is continued in paragraph 6.0.2 of Mr Marchant’s written evidence “We were advised by Mark Williams…. that in his opinion, the applicant (the Fords) may make more advance in progress towards delivery through appealing (the Council’s decision to refuse the 2016 planning application) rather than resubmission”.
This claim was also clearly set out in paragraphs 13 and 14 of the Fords’ QC’s final closing arguments at the Inquiry “After the 2016 application was refused, there was a meeting with Councillor Hughes and the CEO of the Council”. “The CEO advised that the way to progress was to appeal. That is an extraordinary state of affairs”.
In my opinion all of this raised serious questions, not for the first time, about the links between the District Council and developers. It could be construed that the Chief Executive’s actions and advice undermined the authority and responsibilities of not only the Council’s planning officers, but also that of the elected Members, particularly those with responsibility for oversight and decision making on planning applications.
I therefore took this matter up with the Leader of the Council and in doing so I asked him a number of questions about how this meeting, involving the District Council’s Chief Executive and the developers, came about, what was discussed at it and who was present. After a bit of toing and froing I received answers to some of my questions, and as a result I believe that this is what happened –
After the 2016 planning application to build the Business Park was turned down by the District Council Tim Ford contacted the Chief Executive’s PA on Thursday 3 November 2016 seeking a meeting with the Chief Executive. This request appears to have been acted up very quickly as the meeting took place on Tuesday 8 November at 8.30 am in the Chief Executive’s office.
Present at the meeting were the Chief Executive, Mark Williams, Paul Diviani, the then Conservative Leader of the District Council, Councillor Stuart Hughes plus the developers Tim and Mike Ford and their agent Joseph Marchant, the one and the same person who’s witness statement led to this meeting being made public. The reason for the meeting is recorded as “To discuss the Sidford Business Park”.
The District Council is unable to confirm how long this meeting took. In addition, the District Council appears to have no formal, or informal, record of what was discussed or any decisions that were reached.
I find this situation concerning. It is amazing that within 4 working days of requesting a meeting that a developer can hold a meeting involving the Chief Executive and Leader of the Council, the two most senior people within the Council, to discuss a planning application that their Council had refused. I wonder how many members of the public can get that sort of high-level access so quickly?
I am concerned that at this meeting there was no planning officer, legal adviser nor the Council’s Monitoring Officer present. Surely, any discussion about a matter relating to a planning application should have the input of a planning officer. Wouldn’t the Council be best protected by having a legal adviser present? Surely, the Monitoring Officer, who is responsible for the probity of the Council, ought to be in attendance?
There was no record of the meeting’s discussions made on behalf of the Council. I cannot understand why this was so. Surely, it’s important that a record of such a meeting is made and then shared with the planning officers? Surely, a record of the meeting should have been placed with all the other related documents in the planning application file? It’s almost as if no one wanted the meeting to have been known about by anyone else, or otherwise why not keep a record of its discussions?
My role as a campaigner against the Business Park and as a District Councillor pursing this matter has been challenged by the District Council. The Business Park is within my Ward. Local residents within my Ward and within a neighbouring Ward at Sidford have expressed concern at the proposed Business Park and the involvement of the Chief Executive in this matter. It is therefore only right and proper that I have pursued this on their behalf.
Afterall, the Local Government Association’s Guidance for new Councillors 2019/20, which the District Council provided to me upon taking office in May, states at page 7, in the section headed “The Councillor’s role” that –
“A councillor’s primary role is to represent their ward or division and the people who live in it. Councillors provide a bridge between the community and the council. As well as being an advocate for your local residents and signposting them to the right people at the council, you will need to keep them informed about the issues that affect them”.
It goes on to explain that –
“As a local councillor, your residents will expect you to: … know your patch and be aware of any problems … represent their views at council meetings … lead local campaigns on their behalf”.
This guidance was reinforced to Councillors through the training that it provided in May 2019.
I don’t feel comfortable with some aspects of how the District Council has handled this planning application. I don’t feel comfortable about –
how quickly a developer was able to gain swift access to the most senior people in the Council.
that other key Officers weren’t present at the meeting.
that no record of the meeting was made by the Council.
I know for sure that many local residents remain uncomfortable too. As does Private Eye which has picked up on this story on 20 September.”
“A no-deal Brexit could be very bad news for rural businesses, with fears that one in four could go bust”
Who is the best person to “reassure” us about this? Neil Parish MP – farmer and Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee … hello Mr Parish, HELLO …
“Our environment correspondent Fiona Harvey explains:
Farmers are particularly vulnerable to a no-deal Brexit because tariffs would be levied on exports, imports of cheap food could flood the market, and because decisions must be made now which will have an impact for the next year. Arable farmers are putting crops in the ground now for spring, and livestock farmers are preparing to breed sheep and other livestock for next year.
Tim Breitmeyer, president of the Country Land and Business Association, said farms and the rural businesses that rely on them were not in a position to absorb the shock of Brexit, and estimates suggested a large number would be in danger.”
PLEASE check and if you are not registered, you can do it in less than 5 minutes here:
“More than 9 million people who are eligible to vote in the UK are not correctly registered and are at risk of not being able to have their say in a potential snap election, according to research.
The finding sparked renewed calls for Britain to follow Canada and Finland, among other countries, who automatically register voters. One potential model would enable people to opt in when they engage with government bodies such as the DVLA, NHS and welfare agencies.
Research by the Electoral Reform Society (ERS) analysed electoral registers and found that 17% of eligible voters in Great Britain, as many as 9.4 million people, were either missing from the electoral register or not registered at their current address, with major errors affecting up to 5.6 million people.
It highlighted stark differences in registration levels between younger people, renters, low-income and black and ethnic minority people, compared with older white people who own their homes.
The study also showed that the number of people not correctly registered had risen from 16% of eligible voters in 2015, representing as many as 8.3 million people. …”
Given that our Acting Returning Officer (CEO Matk Williams) is STILL making multiple mistakes after many years in the job (including being summinsed by a Parliamentary Committee to explain some of his more controversial actions)
he might appreciate this refresher and he can”t then plead ignorance:
“Ben Standing sets out some of the steps Acting Returning Officers should be taking now, with another general election seemingly around the corner.
If the news is anything to go by, we are likely to have our third UK Parliamentary Election in five years soon. This is despite the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 which was intended to take the politics out of calling elections.
If an election is called, it will be against a backdrop of a charged political climate and the recent creation of a new and potentially major political party (the Brexit Party).
From the perspective of an Acting Returning Officer the combination of inexperienced candidates and a charged political climate heightens the risk of something unexpected happening and of challenges being made against the way the vote has been managed.
Although mistakes do happen and can usually be rectified, the reputational damage that can flow from even simple errors can be significant. A mistake with the allocation of block votes led to 41,939 votes being counted in a small constituency in England that only had 7,000 registered voters and where only 2,477 ballot papers had been issued. The mistake led to the formation of a residents’ campaign group, a court supervised recount and costly High Court proceedings.
Now is an opportune moment for Acting Returning Officers to review their election plans, to ensure that they meet the relevant legal requirements and that contingency arrangements are in place to respond to a snap election.
The role of an Acting Returning Officer is to ensure that the election is administered effectively. It should be remembered that Acting Returning Officers can appoint one or more persons to discharge any of their functions; however they cannot delegate responsibility for delivering the election.
So what should Acting Returning Officers be doing? In theory, as electoral law hasn’t changed, Acting Returning Officers should be doing exactly the same as they have in relation to previous elections. However in practice there are a number of steps which may assist Acting Returning Officers. These include:
considering the candidate registration process. There may be an increase in inexperienced candidates (both due to candidates being fielded by the Brexit Party and the high profile loss of the Conservative whip for over 20 current MPs). Have candidates followed the correct procedure? Additional resources may be required to assist candidates with the registration process.
considering how the current procedure would cope with a significant increase in turnout. For example is there sufficient capacity in the polling stations, have sufficient staff been trained in order to ensure that votes are verified and counted in a reasonable timeframe (with the verification having taken place before 2 am). Considering this at an early stage is essential, as adjusting plans later is often more difficult.
reviewing the voter registration process. If an election is called, it is likely to be seen, at least in part, as a vote on how (and if) we should leave the European Union. It is possible that there could be a surge in the registration of new voters. Sufficient staff need to be trained and available to processes applications. In my experience, just because the public has been reminded to register to vote a number of months doesn’t mean that a significant proportion won’t try to do so within a few days of the deadline. Councils must be able to deal with any last minute registrations.
training polling station staff to manage difficult situations. Whether or not we leave the European Union is an emotive issue and polling station staff will need to know what to do in the case incidents in and outside the polling station. This could include being aware of how the police should be alerted if necessary (often local police forces will provide a dedicated number that polling station staff can use).
reminding staff how to deal with media. There is undoubtedly going to be significant media interest and staff will need to be reminded of what they can and cannot say.
staff and the public should also be reminded of the significant number of electoral offences. The integrity of the count is paramount.
a person may act as a proxy for any number of close relatives, but a person may not have more than one proxy at a time. The proxy must be registered in accordance with the relevant deadlines, but contingency plans should be put in place ahead of time to deal with any emergency proxies required.
ballot papers must by law be printed in accordance with the directions for printing in the appendix to the relevant election rules. It is strongly advisable that as a minimum, enough ballot papers to meet a 100% turnout should be printed (I have encountered a situation where a higher than average turnout almost left the local authority with insufficient ballot papers – a situation that no Acting Returning Officer wants to find themselves in!).
although polling stations close at 10pm, any voter in a queue at their polling station at 10pm may still apply for a ballot paper. Efficient planning should ensure that queues should not cause significant delays, however if it is anticipated that queue management may be an issue prior arrangements should be agreed with the local police.
Ultimately Acting Returning Officers need to ensure that they fully understand the legislative framework concerning the conduct of the election, and have an effective management procedure in place, so that they are able to respond to any unforeseen or unusual situations.
Acting Returning Officers who, without reasonable cause, are guilty of any act or omission in breach of their official duties are liable on summary conviction to an unlimited fine. Accordingly it is important that acting returning officers have the correct insurance cover.“