24 April 2013…..Proposals for the redevelopment of Anston House came to the Planning Committee today; but the Committee Chair’s insertion into proceedings of a heated diatribe against the longstanding tradition of emailing and/or lobbying Committee Members ahead of meetings ramped up the drama considerably.
During councillors’ questions on Anston House, Green Cllr Christopher Hawtree, the Planning Committee Chair, stopped Cllrs’ progress in order to complain at length about both developers and members of the public lobbying committee members ahead of Planning Committee meetings and providing Cllrs with material which had not been seen by planning officers and which might contain new information. Cllr Bowden complained of having had a huge number of emails come in to him on the application and Cllr Jones and Cllr Norman pointed out that they, as substitutes, had not received anything at all. Well, to that I’d say it is the official Planning Committee Member’s job to keep their substitutes in the loop.
Cllr Hawtree’s complaint is fair enough as a point for councillors to discuss amongst themselves and have a grumble about, but not as a full-on authoritarian rant in the middle of a meeting which publicly insults the ability of committee members to take a judgment for themselves that deals with lobbying as they see fit so they are acting within protocols and rules. After all they do get training in order to sit on Planning….!
Instead, Cllr Hawtree halted the meeting entirely, taking lobbying material from Urban Splash and the Brighton Society into a recess period in order for planning officers to have a look at it to see if new material had been surreptitiously introduced. You’d think lobbying was akin to ‘moral terpitude’, that sheepish councillors had all been caught with crib notes at an exam, the way he bigged it all up so publicly, with such authoritarian anger.
This has clearly been brewing in his head for awhile. For example: just ahead of the recent meeting that decided the fate of the Wilford Cole Verner memorial cross-in-the-wall behind Medina/Victoria Terraces, committee members were emailed with concerns, questions and arguments and Cllr Hawtree felt he had to respond to the email from saveHOVE by reminding Members that Friday lunchtime was the cut-off point for representations ahead of Planning Committee meetings, blahblah – like they didn’t know???? And saveHOVE was copied into his email to them. Was he giving a kind of dressing down to them about this? How humiliating!
Cllr Hawtree is himself only a first term, inexperienced councillor of two years standing who owes his current position as Chair to the illness of a fellow Green councillor last year which meant the then Chair, Cllr Phelim MacCafferty, was going to be needed in another Administration role. It was quite galling to listen to Cllr Hawtree lecture three former Planning Chairs (Labour Cllr Les Hamilton, Conservative Cllr Lynda Hyde and Green Cllr Phelim MacCafferty) along with other councillors of many, many years’ standing and experience on how to behave at Planning. He felt it necessary to instruct them to take the Urban Splash and Brighton Society material off the table, and to put it on the floor behind their chairs so as not to be influenced.
If developers, residents and amenity groups feel the need to lobby cllrs directly, over and above sending in consultation responses for or against applications, it is surely because what goes to councillors in Agenda Reports is found wanting or needs cheerleading or whatever. And questions councillors might like to consider asking at committee meetings are often very usefully suggested. This is not untoward influencing.
Anston House came back today, still recommended ‘Minded to Grant’, but hard work by the Brighton Society and Brighton Deserves Better rightly lobbied for and got this application removed from the March 13th Planning Agenda at the last minute. Brighton Society members demonstrated that overshadowing information concerning Preston Park was not correct, that the park’s Rotunda and rose garden would be in shadow for many months.
In general, arguments and evidence from objectors and supporters are extracted and reduced to a short list of points or dealt with briefly in the Late List of responses which come in after the Agenda has been printed. And that is all that councillors generally know about responses. The Agenda Report is not the whole story, and councillors do not sit in City Direct pouring over case files looking at objections and letters of support or the to and fro of questions and etc. between the planning case officer and applicants. That is where the action is, of course. And the Reports to the Committee are sometimes accused (today) of satisfying wider agendas and planning strategy needs (amounts of housing per annum) as much as being judged on simple merit.
And to borrow Selma Montford’s lament of “consult and ignore” there really is a constant and worrying battle to be heard and listened to which amenity societies try to push past as best they can. Now we see a level of intimidation emerging concerning last-minute direct approaches to councillors. The tradition of emailing and lobbying councillors just ahead of planning committee meetings is to be stamped on….hard…., judging from today’s indications from the Chair and some councillors.
Following Cllr Hawtree’s exertions (which including a lot of interrupting and critiquing of councillors as they tried to have their say and ask questions), five councillors voted to refuse this application today. Four voted to grant it and three abstained. Another recess sorted the 3 reasons for going against recommendation to refuse the Urban Splash planning application proposals for replacing Anston House. They are:
1. height, density, bulk and form creating a precedent in this location, as well as negatively affecting rear neighbouring properties and Preston Park.
2. The need of the developer to substantially reduce the affordable housing element is not demonstrated.
3. The plans result in a shortfall of commercial space provision contrary to Local Plan EM2 and emerging City Plan DA4.
This application was webcast and once archived can be viewed here.