“Nobody can buy planning permission from this council: everyone is treated fairly,” declared Peterborough City Council leader Wayne Fitzgerald.
He was speaking after he confirmed tonight that three Conservative councillors who ‘called in’ a decision to refuse planning permission for a 15-acre industrial park at Horsey Bridge, Stanground, had rescinded their motion.
Not because they did anything improper, he insisted, but “to protect the reputation of Conservative members involved as the planning team have serious concerns over the soundness of the decision of the planning committee”.
And doubts as to whether the planning committee was foolish in rejecting the application are raised in a letter from the council’s most senior planning officer to Cllr Fitzgerald and revealed, exclusively, by CambsNews.
However the ramifications of the fall-out from the rejected application, makes it look increasingly likely that if Barnack Estates wants to progress the controversial application, they must lodge an appeal to the Government’s Planning Inspectorate, which could delay a final decision by up to two years.
Cllr Fitzgerald confirmed to CambsNews that the ‘call-in’ had been withdrawn, Barnack is free to appeal, and the decision “no longer anything to do with us”.
Barnack Estates, he says, “doesn’t want to cause embarrassment to us, the Conservative group, or to the council”.
Cllr Fitzgerald said that “suggestions of bribery are ridiculous and hurtful to those members involved. “It is a terrible thing to say”.
He said 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”
Cllr Fitzgerald acknowledged that Robert Facer, chairman of Barnack Estates, is a member of the Conservative Party in Peterborough.
He said Mr Facer also had an honorary position as president (not a formal role) and was equally supportive of North West Peterborough Conservative Association and a donor to Conservative party in both associations.
But Cllr Fitzgerald was emphatic that “nobody can buy planning permission from this council; everyone is treated fairly”.
He said: “Planning is impartial, quasi-judicial, and inevitably people form opinions.”
Cllr Fitzgerald there was nothing wrong with Conservatives supporting the party’s policies.
“I and the council are pro-growth, pro job creation, pro housing,” he said.
The call in by three Conservatives was simply because all three felt the applicant, Barnack Estates, did not get a fair hearing.
He added that it was ridiculous to suggest the three Conservative councillors who originally called in the decision had dropped their action for fear of a legal challenge.
“We simply decided to protect the reputation of Conservative members involved as the planning team have serious concerns over the soundness of the decision of the planning committee,” he said.
“So, it will now run it’s natural course of an appeal to the planning inspectorate. Particularly in light of this.”
Which is a letter sent to him by Jim Newton, service director for infrastructure and environment (interim) Place & Economy, at Peterborough City Council.
I have just listened to an interview with @CllrChrisHarper on @BBCCambs re the council and the Conservatives. Everything he just stated is simply not true – feel free to call me for any interviews and the truth!
— Wayne Fitzgerald (@Cllrfitzgerald) May 23, 2023
Here is the letter sent to Cllr Fitzgerald by Mr Newton:
“Dear Cllr Fitzgerald, I am writing, following our phone call earlier, to confirm the planning position for the application at a site known as Horsey Bridge.
“The application was presented to the planning committee by the Head of Planning, who is an experienced and capable senior professional.
“The officer report to the committee thoroughly assessed the issues and made a clear recommendation to grant planning permission.
“The committee was not obliged to follow the recommendation and resolved that planning permission should be refused for two reasons, that the proposal would be a departure from the local plan, and that it would result in landscape harm.
“I have watched the committee’s deliberations of this on the council’s YouTube channel.
“I have, as chief planner, also asked for a barrister’s opinion about the strength of those reasons for refusal, for two reasons.
“The first is that, in the event of an appeal by the applicant, against a decision to refuse planning permission, it is good practice to seek an independent expert opinion.
“The second reason is that I have my own concerns about the prospect of successfully defending an appeal using the reasons given.
“Due to the call-in to the appeals committee, the decision has not formally been made, which offers us three realistic options: Once we have received independent advice concerning the refusal reasons, the application could revert back to the planning committee for its further consideration.
“We could issue the decision notice, using the two refusal reasons given; or we could do nothing
“The second and third options are likely to result in an appeal.
“The first would offer the committee the opportunity to make the same decision again, to grant permission, or to defer to seek further information.
“For the avoidance of doubt, my professional recommendation at this point is to seek external expert advice and take stock once we have received that advice.”
Earlier tonight, in an unexpectedly brief (40 minutes) annual meeting of the council, Cllr Fitzgerald had no challengers to him remaining as leader.
1/2 Just how was this not announced officially by the legal officer and why? I’ll tell you why, because it would have been unlawful to allow it under the constitution. Thankfully we prevented the Conservative Group taking control of the planning committee this week. https://t.co/Wow1wfwgqu
— Cllr Chris Harper (@CllrChrisHarper) May 22, 2023
“My own group unanimously asked me again just before the meeting and everyone raised their hand to support me as leader,” he said.
“My mandate is clear; to remain as Conservative group leader. I remain leader of the council.”
He had little to say about four Conservative councillors resigning over the weekend, noting that “I don’t agree with them”, it was “not for me to comment” but adding that he would like to “wish them well”.
Of a fifth councillor, Mohammed Farooq, who has been suspended from the Conservative group, he said it was a disciplinary matter, nothing to do with the leadership, and was a confidential process being dealt with by party whips.
Tuesday, however, will bring a new challenge for Cllr Fitzgerald, deciding which Conservatives sit on which committee.
With the proportionality process now altered, Tories have less councillors on committees than was expected after the elections just two weeks ago.
“Members of any committee are allocated on a proportional and fair basis,” he added.
“Determining who goes where will be down to proportionality.”
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