By recusing himself from the chair, Cllr Chris Harper, leader of opposition group Peterborough First, has put himself in pole position to argue against approval being given for a 15-acre industrial park at Horsey Bridge, Stanground.
It may not be ‘ground hog day’ but the ‘Peterborough 11’ – in other words the city council planning and environmental protection committee – may well get at least a sense of déjà vu as they discover the same application they rejected in March, is back in front of them.
In the intervening period, there has been an election which saw Conservatives retain control but only just of the council, and then saw leader Wayne Fitzgerald’s tenuous grip on power implode quite quickly as seven of his councillors opted to leave the ruling group, preferring to take their chances and shape their destinies on the opposition benches.
One reason given for some of those leaving has been the perceived determination of the ruling Conservative group to overturn the refusal of Horsey Bridge, Stanground, and to use a little known but constitutionally legitimate planning review committee to take a second look.
It didn’t smell right to some, didn’t seem right to others, and eventually Cllr Fitzgerald revealed the review committee would not be tasked with taking a second stab at the Horsey pie.
Cllr Fitzgerald confirmed to CambsNews that the ‘call-in’ had been withdrawn, applicant Barnack Estates was free to lodge an appeal to the Planning Inspectorate and the decision “no longer anything to do with us”.
Barnack Estates, he said, “doesn’t want to cause embarrassment to us, the Conservative group, or to the council”. Its chairman Robert Facer is also president of Peterborough Conservative Association.
Cllr Fitzgerald even went so far as to refute “suggestions of bribery are ridiculous and hurtful to those members involved. It is a terrible thing to say”.
No one can be found ever having said that, but no matter.
A contingency plan was already in operation to bring the application back before the planning committee.
And this time officers, who had recommended it for approval on its first outing, were to take no chances.
To support what Cllr Fitzgerald had told CambsNews (that the lead planning officer for the council had watched the planning committee on YouTube, reviewed deliberations, and considered reasons for refusal are weak and probably not defensible) an appeal may no longer be necessary.
For the council instructed external counsel to cast an eye over the reasons for refusal and their conclusions are expected to add leverage to the argument for approval once it returns to committee.
Political proportionality has ruled out any perception of Conservative influence on the committee – which is considered quasi-judicial and non-political anyway – and with only four of the 11 committee members being Conservative councillors the nature of its deliberations are categorically neutral.
What the public won’t see, but committee members have studied, is the finer detail of that legal advice.
“Members are requested to carefully considered counsel’s advice included as exempt information at appendix 2 of this report,” says a footnote to the planning officer’s reports recommending approval.
The pressure on the 11 committee members couldn’t be greater and officers make no bones about their desire to get the application over the line.
“Following notification from the applicant – Barnack Estates UK Ltd – that it intended to appeal against the decision, the city council’s planning officers have sought independent legal advice,” a council spokesperson confirmed today.
“The advice from barristers concludes that the application was in fact in accordance with the Local Plan and that the reasons given to refuse the application were wrong and could not be realistically defended by the council if it did go to appeal.”
It will step up pressure on the committee – if they want to continue to oppose it – to strengthen their objections in a form that can withstand the scrutiny of the council’s legal boffins.
The council has drawn on its £140,000-£160,000 a year executive director for place and economy Adrian Chapman – appointed only last October but a council employee since 2006 – to front its determination to win approval for the scheme.
“Although the council’s planning committee had previously voted to refuse this application, our planning officers have sought independent legal advice which concludes that the application is in accordance with the Local Plan,” he said.
“Therefore, we have taken the unusual decision to return this to the planning committee for a second time.
“The committee will be given the opportunity to consider the planning application again and make a decision on whether to approve or refuse, clearly giving valid reasons for their decision.”
Cllr Harper explained that he had recused himself from chairing the committee “as I have already made my decision and the new evidence and advice does not change my mind nor my commitment to represent you the residents of our ward”.
But he will be there.
“I will be lobbying every member of the committee beforehand (which is allowed) and addressing the committee next Tuesday as ward councillor along with Cllr Brian Rush and with support in our objection from Cllr Ray Bisby,” he said.
“Having read the new report and documents, it’s going to be difficult as the ‘experts’ have got everything tucked up very nicely.
“And with the independent planning legal advice they have sought (which if committee were to refuse to reconvene to hear, have been told will count against them at the appeal stage) looks to have effectively pushed committee into a corner so I fear the worst.”
Cllr Harper added: “If it goes through, the door has been kicked wide open to more predatory applications which will prove hard to resist as precedent will then have been set because this council administration has failed, it might even be suggested even ‘on purpose’, to see this major problem coming and review the available employment land.”
He promised to “try my hardest between now and next Tuesday” to convince his planning committee colleagues that dismissing local residents concerns and experience is not the right decision.
“And granting permission, albeit I think they will now have no choice, will inevitably lead to future similar predatory applications all because this administration wants growth at any cost to the people of Peterborough”.
Cllr Harper regained his political focus by adding that “whatever the outcome we need this administration gone and the quicker the better”.
Meanwhile planning officers believe they have found incontrovertible reasons why the committee should agree with their recommendation for approval.
“The application is being brought back before the planning and environmental protection committee for two reasons, which comprise new information/evidence/material considerations to inform the decision-making of the committee on this item,” says their reports.
They have offered “additional clarification on the interpretation” of the Local Plan and believe they have found sufficient mitigation of concerns over “archaeological related concerns”.
Even the tree officer “having initially objected on landscape grounds, is now satisfied that concerns can be addressed through robust conditions in respect of a revised masterplan and additional information at reserved matters stage”.
However even since the last committee, they concede further responses have been received from members of the public, objecting on highway grounds (specifically raising concerns over existing and worsened traffic congestion), impact on wildlife, and loss of open land.
“Comments are made in respect of tree screening, cycle links, archaeology, flood risk assessment, junction design, and a perception that corporately the council wishes to see this development proceed,” says their report.
However, they also point out that an update this month to the employment land availability report has been submitted “setting out that the final plot at Gateway Peterborough is now under construction; that a hybrid application at the Greyhound stadium has now been submitted; and that no new vacant land has become available in any of the general employment areas”.
The reminder to councillors to consider carefully if they wish to oppose the application is stark.
“The courts have made clear that the interpretation of planning policy is a matter of law, whereas the application of policy to the facts of any particular proposed development is a matter of judgement for the decision-maker,” says the report.
Armed with counsel’s opinion, the report says the council has been advised that where a need for additional employment land outside of the allocated sites or built-up area is clearly demonstrated, then policy allows them to grant permission “providing that they would not cause significant’ planning harms of the type identified.
“Significant harm plainly connotes more than material harm, and acknowledges that certain types of harm, for instance visual amenity and/or landscape harm, are likely to arise as a consequence of using land outside the urban area,” says the report.
“If those significant harms do not arise, not only is the policy permissive of such development, but it is also positively supportive of it.
“It is therefore the case that an alternative policy interpretation to that set out in the 21st of March committee report should be applied.”
Officers have summarised their recommendation:
1: The submitted employment land reviews clearly demonstrate that there are no suitable or appropriate sites or buildings within allocated sites or within the built-up area of the existing settlement.
2 A development of up to 15,236 sqm covering a site area of 6.3 hectares is commensurate with the scale and character of the Peterborough city urban area.
3: There would be no significant adverse impact on the character and appearance of the area. The distance between the site and neighbouring properties together with proposed landscaping would ensure there would be no significant adverse impact on the amenity of nearby residents.
4: There would be no significant adverse impacts on the local highway network and there have been no objections in this respect.
5: The remaining undeveloped allocated employment sites are at Oxney Road and Red Brick Farm. There have been no objections from the owners of these sites.
6: A proposed footway/cycleway, bus stop and travel plan would ensure the proposals maximise opportunities for modal shift away from the private car.
Their report adds: “Officers continue to consider that the applicant has robustly demonstrated that insufficient employment land remains to last the remainder of the Local Plan period, and that the proposed development would not generate any “significant” adverse impacts
Committee members will be assured that having received counsel’s advice “the proposed development does not constitute a departure from the development plan and in principle is permissible”.
And Peterborough, concludes the report, will benefit from significant economic advantages.
“These include job creation, the provision of additional land for employment development in light of an identified but unexpected shortfall, construction expenditure, a significant forecast quantum of Gross Added Value to the local economy, and additional tax receipts,” councillors have been told.
“Improved footway/cycleway connections are a benefit of more limited weight.
“Officers continue to conclude that the ‘less than substantial’ harm to the setting of the scheduled monument would be outweighed by the identified public benefits of the proposal.”
Next Tuesday’s meeting starts at 10.30am and will be broadcast live on the council’s YouTube link.
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