Gagged… planners warned: ‘Don’t discuss Wye Park’

It is OK for their leader to sign an agreement with a potential developer looking forward to delivering their ‘collective goal’ and it’s just fine, apparently, for him to attend secret meetings and lunches with them. But it seems it is not all right for any member of Ashford Borough Council’s planning committee to discuss or express a view on Imperial College’s plan to concrete over several hundred acres of the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty at Wye.

Richard Alderton, the head of planning at Ashford, has warned every member of the committee — and that, presumably, includes a certain ex officio member and council leader, Concordat signatory and Imperial cheerleader, Paul Clokie — that they should not express a view on Imperial’s Wye Park proposals ‘until they have all the relevant information on which to base such a view’. And that, says Mr Alderton, could be some time in the future because, as we all know, this is still only an idea not a plan.

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Mr Alderton’s email to all councillors at Ashford

The warning from Mr Alderton — contained in an email sent to all councillors on May 10 — was prompted because Ben Moorhead, the chairman of the Wye Future Group had contacted every councillor asking for their view on Imperial College’s ‘proposals’ (Mr Alderton’s inverted commas).

Mr Alderton warned: ‘The first and most obvious point to note is, of course, that there are no proposals beyond a very broad concept of the type of facility Imperial envisage. The masterplanners Imperial have taken on have only just started work on collecting basic data –- there are certainly no specific proposals of any sort.’

Regular readers of Christopher Booker’s Sunday Telegraph column will already be familiar with attempts by officers to ‘gag’ councillors over development proposals. The gagging of councillors follows the creation of the Prescott quango, the Standards Board for England and Wales, which has so far spent close to £100 million of public money investigating complaints, many utterly vexatious, against councillors. Across the country, elected representatives have found themselves barred from voting in committee on a raft of planning applications — most notably for wind turbines — because they may have expressed a ‘subjective’ view on them in the past.

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In case you’d forgotten: Cllr Clokie (circled) at the signing of the second concordat

Quite how signing a ‘concordat’ with Imperial and encouraging the college to pursue its proposals falls outside this ban while communicating with Mr Moorhead falls foul of it may baffle some readers. When the newspaper London Student told Mike Taylor, head of the National Association of Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, about Cllr Clokie’s signing of the concordat, he said: ‘That’s very intriguing and odd. That means he can’t be part of the planning decision because he’s taken a public position on it, and that would be illegal. If you’re a member of a local authority and you’re involved in any planning decisions, you’re not legally allowed to have any public position on that development until after the planning decision has been taken, or you have to declare an interest and withdraw from the planning decision.

‘That is quite a standard requirement and several local authority members have been disqualified from standing as councillors as they have infringed that rule. One fellow actually went to prison, so it’s not a light thing. If the leader of Ashford Council has already come out in support of this, he should automatically disqualify himself from having any role in the decision. You could argue that it’s going to be very difficult for any of them to prove they’re impartial. They are meant to go into that decision-making process with no fixed views.’

But Malcolm Johnston, Ashford’s head of corporate policy and planning, said that Cllr Clokie ‘will act according to the law and as advised by officers at the relevant time’.

You can read the full text of Mr Alderton’s email here

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About David Hewson

Professional novelist, published in more than 20 languages. Creator of the Nic Costa series set in modern Rome. Most recent book the novel of the Danish TV series, The Killing.
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13 Responses to Gagged… planners warned: ‘Don’t discuss Wye Park’

  1. David Hewson says:

    This is an interesting, if not bizarre, Catch 22. I wonder where it leaves Wye’s own borough councillor who, to his credit, has talked about his own position here and in several other places. Does this mean he now can’t take part in the process?

  2. G West says:

    I can appreciate members of the planning committee having to be careful about making public comments concerning actual planning applications. However, as Mr Alderton says an application has not been made yet by Imperial for Wye.

    I understand that WFG have sought the views of all councillors on the generality of the principle of building on an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. A perfectly proper question which in a democratic society elected representatives should be free to answer. They should not be silenced by coercion from unelected paid staff who’s agendas might be best served by the unopposed passage of Imperial’s scheme.

    Certainly the evidence so far shows that officers at ABC and KCC are bending over backwards and even beyond to facilitate the destruction of our countryside by Imperial. The conduct of some senior councillors and officers in the covert way this matter has been manipulated is reprehensible.

    Now Mr Alderton has introduced “gagging” into the list of shameful tactics. Let him be the victim of his own conscience.

  3. J Osborne says:

    Richard Alderton’s HIGH IMPORTANCE memorandum to ABC councillors was not just an attempt to muzzle the planning committee but also an attempt to frighten off ANY councillor from talking about or expressing a view on whether or not any development should occur on AONB land.

    This stinks!

  4. David Hewson says:

    It does stink but I would caution against directing one’s dismay at any particular individual. The head of planning would not issue an email like this without advice. And, to be frank, it may well be the correct advice given the current state of play in local government, in which individual councillors seem to be tied more to some phoney corporate council loyalty than to the interests of their constituents.

    The real question surely is: why doesn’t this appear to apply to those who are in favour of the Wye development, but only to those who have misgivings about it? What exactly is the legal advice being given to Cllr Clokie in this regard? Don’t the ratepayers who are paying for that counsel have the right to know what it is?

    You could always ask your local councillor I suppose, though he or she may feel moved to answer, ‘You might think that but I can’t possibly comment.’

  5. Develop Wye, why not? says:

    G. West – “Now Mr Alderton has introduced “gagging” into the list of shameful tactics. Let him be the victim of his own conscience”

    Let’s not leave it up to his concience alone. His letter must have almost made P Raine gag… These gentlemen of the people are certainly getting themselves twisted up in knots. The contradictions, over contradictions are being auto documented with some great material to chew over with these fellas when it gets to Court. I expect a few years from now many a career will have been killed off by this Imperial College attack on Kent, Kent Councillors and most importantly the Parish of Wye and related Areas of outstanding Natural Beauty.

    It is rather interesting that we have not heard a single word from the man himself on all of this. Sir Richard Sykes could easily take the sting out of this situation by simply coming clean. Perhaps he could come down to Wye and meet the people and share his vision as the previous visionary has been moved and of course D. Brooks Wilson is only the developer, so who is the visionary now, is there now a new vision, an old vision, or no vision?

    Anyway, those chaps that find themselves out in the cold when all is said and done should not expect Imperial College to come to their rescue as the leaders of this destruction of the AONB will have long since gone. For those of them who intend to have long and peaceful careers in Kent, a long hard look at what they are supporting is the order of the day.

  6. Danny M says:

    I wish you two would find out more about how the planning system and local authorities work – you guys seem able to read the most suspicious things into everyday happenings and I get concerned about the worry and anxiety this causes to other people in the community. As well as the hostily it generates towards the planning process and professionals concerned.

    The way I read it is that Richard Alderton was merely reminding the borough councillors of normal procedure. Following the Local Government Act in 2000 Councils have the duty to enhance the quality of life in their area and now have the power to do anything that they consider will help achieve that. Councillors can therefore champion something that they think will contribute to the economic, social and/or environmental quality of life of their area. When such projects or proposals come up for consideration within the relevant Council Committee they have to declare an interest and withdraw from proceedings– all quite normal. Richard A is merely reminding them of this protocol. Those who have already taken a position will have to declare it and withdraw from Planning Committee meetings but this is normal procedure not underhand/suspicious – or an attempt by Richard A to ‘gag’ people. After all if lots of Councillors took a view at this stage about what they thought about ICL’s ideas they would all have to declare an interest and there would be no planning committee to deliberate!!

    We want those councillors and officers to be impartial and to judge ICL’s (proposal when it is made) against national Planning Policy Statements and Guidance – if we want democracy we have to support the requirement for impartiality and put some faith in the planning proceedures which is strong and will put some hefty obstacles in ICL’s way.

    Also you can’t have it both ways – that councillors are wrong to have expressed a view and wrong not to have expressed a view.

    Come on guys – bone up on planning proceedure and the way councils have to work under the 2000 and the 2004 acts and then be a bit more careful and responsible about deciding whether or not something is suspicious – otherwise you are hardly impartial and hardly helping the community to work out what is normal and what is a real issue. You are also in danger of alienating other individuals and organisations that Wye needs.

    Please continue to report stories and do the good work that you have been doing but make sure that they are real stories, based on real evidence and a real understanding of what is or is not legal and normal proceedure.

  7. David Hewson says:

    Strange the commenter, someone who is closely involved in WFG, wishes to stay anonymous. I know some people in WFG find our presence annoying but they might at least put their names to criticism in public. As the story says clearly the point it is making is that the application of these rules appears to be biased in favour of those who have already stated they are in favour of Imperial’s development plans. Cllr Clokie et al cannot claim to be impartial yet they do not appear to be covered by these rules. Either these strictures apply to everyone or they are meaningless.

    It is also quite appropriate to question the rules themselves, which must seem nonsensical to many. Why on earth should an elected representative of the people not be allowed to say, ‘I do not believe it’s right to build in the AONB’? This is simply standard council policy throughout the country.

    I absolutely agree that Mr Alderton should not get any personal blame for this and have said so above; he is simply doing what he’s been told. All the same the planning process exists for the benefit of the public, not those who work in the system. I find it quite worrying that some people seem to think they are now empowered to ‘negotiate’ on behalf of the village on these matters with these very planners and Imperial, with no mandate or explanation to the community at large. There is a mood about in certain quarters which says, ‘Just shut up, trust us and we will come to some kind of compromise deal.’ One which will then, of course, be placed in our laps as a fait accomplit because Imperial will be able to say it has come out of ‘local consultation’. It is also extraordinarily naive to think every last one of the herd of majority Tory councillors will be walking into a committee to vote on this with open, impartial minds, when their leader, who has probably whipped them into place, has already told them the Concordat is a great idea. Detailed knowledge of the planning process is pretty useless if you don’t understand a single thing about realpolitik.

    This is undemocratic and unacceptable. If we two ‘guys’ have a single purpose for this site it is to try to tell people what is happening and give them the chance to reach their own conclusions about it and express them to others. If this correspondent wishes to judge whether that is what the public want too I suggest an examination of the visits counter on the front of this site with the one on the front of WFG’s here http://www.wyefuture.org/

  8. G West says:

    Bizarre point of view coming expressed by Danny M – seemingly staunch defender of ABC officers.

    Whilst he/she might have a passing knowledge of the Local Authority Laws he/she has absolutely no appreciation of the democratic rights of the electorate of Wye nor grasp of the extent of the feelings running high throughout the village of frustration, anger, intense disappointment at the awful way local politicians and their officers have acted and abandonment.

    What has and is happening is inexcusable and apologists like Danny M only make matters worse.

  9. Justin Williams says:

    I’m sorry, Diana, but it is not David and I that need to ‘bone’ up on planning law it is, rather surprisingly given your self-appointed role acting on behalf of WFG in drawing up the village’s ‘response’, you who needs to get out the planning revision books.

    The gagging of local councillors across the UK is a recent phenomenon and has nothing to do with any of the revisions to the Local Government Act. It has nothing to do with declaring a pecuniary or non-pecuniary interest, something which IS enshrined in law.

    As I said in the original piece, which you seem to have failed to notice, it is all to do with councillors somehow holding what are described as ‘pre-determined’ views on potential applications. This was drawn up in John Prescott’s infamous Code of Conduct for councillors and it has no standing in law. It is enforced by the Standards Board for England and Wales and I am happy to note that many councillors across Britain are openly defying this anti-democratic nonsense.

    I’m happy to point you in the right direction if you are having difficulties with this. Given your role, it is important that you don’t start negotiating with Ashford from a position of weakness.

  10. Diana Pound says:

    Hi ‘guys’,

    I was writing anonymously for the following reasons:

    If I put my name I thought you would just think I was smarmying up to ABC/KCC and therefore not listen to what I said.

    I am doing things that need the trust and respect of those with generous pockets or useful information – so if you turned on me, and misunderstood my comments and motivation (as you did) it would have one of two effects – risk compromising the trust people have in me and then I would have to spend time I don’t have trying to rescue my good name ( as happened before when I spoke up about how to engage with the planning system ie assertively not aggressively) – or it would cause people to lose respect for you because they do respect me and what I am doing – which I don’t want to happen either.

    Though I fear the latter is beginning to happen anyway and I am genuinely concerned that your stance of being suspicious of everyone/everything is beginning to undermine what we want to achieve.

    Your stance is losing or has lost influence with some of the great and good who are now tending to dismiss your site and what you say as inaccurate and misinformed (though they still check it out). It is undermining the value of working with the planning/environmental decision making system to protect the village (if ICL do proceed it is via this system that the argument will be won) – and to win this way we need people to believe the system can work in our interests and it is worth putting resources towards that. And your site is causing others in the community to feel defeated and disempowered before we have even really got into the fight and they are giving up – and there is lots that can and must be done.

    I thought you would want to know this. It is my experience that being negative leads to despondency and being positive leads to action – and it is concerted action we need. So I would really like your site to start taking a more affirmative, encouraging and supportive stance towards the action that is being taken, the systems and people that we have to work with, and to help build the community up and make them feel invigorated and empowered (like a coach before a marathon – or perhaps the English team before the World Cup).

    I strongly advocate community /stakeholder involvement in decisions (it is what I do for a living) but to get people involved they have to believe they can make a difference – please help achieve that.

    I hope this might influence you – but will you put some dodgy motivation on my comments or not I wonder??

    PS one thing I am doing is running a contract with a top planner to put together the planning framework for any development here – when the report is finished I can send you a copy – I think you will be encouraged – and I hope you will then run a good news story about just what ICL are up against in terms of planning – and perhaps acknowledge that the planning system does have some strengths!!.

  11. Justin Williams says:

    Diana,
    I’m afraid to say that you are as misinformed about the ‘great and the good’ as you are about planning procedure. Where do you think we get this stuff from? Thin air? Who do you think talks to us? If the ‘great and the good’ are losing interest then I find it strange indeed that we regularly get calls from people at the heart of this process responding to stories we have written and giving us information and new ideas. Who have I been talking to all this time, I ask myself? Martians?
    Your work on this subject has so far given most people the strong impression that you are keen on reaching an accommodation with Imperial College instead of fighting what would set a dangerous national precedent. Perhaps it really is time for a non-bureaucratic, highly-motivated group to take on Imperial College because, quite frankly, WFG seems to have utterly run out of ideas.
    I do not doubt your motivation but it is the actions of people like you – those who seem intent on turning Wye’s opposition to this peversion of democracy into a bureaucratic and costly amble into a quagmire of forms and surveys – which is demoralising many, including many of your colleagues on WFG who talk to us and are extremely concerned about the way this is going.

  12. G West says:

    I know that Justin Williams comments and views above are shared by many in the village including some in the WFG.

    However well intentioned this strident and somewhat hectoring manner repels anything other than a one-dimensional approach to beating off Imperial’s attempts to devour our countryside. It also makes WFG appear not to have a mind or voice other than one person’s.

    The suggestion of lack of balance is perhaps more appropriately leveled at WFG.

  13. Justin Williams says:

    I think that it is time to close this thread. We’ve had a disagreement and we’ve made our views clear. The trouble with seeing such tiffs in print is that it always looks as if there is some personal animosity involved and I can only assure everyone that that is not the case here.

    Whatever anybody thinks about somebody’s style, there can be no doubt that all of us are acting in good faith, doing what we think is best for Wye, the area and local democracy. Nobody can legitimately accuse Diana of doing otherwise.

    Justin

Comments are closed.