Ombudsman upholds Rocklands complaint
The local government ombudsman has upheld a complaint about Hastings Borough Council’s handling of developments in the Rocklands caravan park, but acknowledges that the council has taken action to improve its procedures. Meanwhile the Save Ecclesbourne Glen group has again resorted to the Information Commissioner to get a proper Rocklands’ site plan from the council. Nick Terdre reports.
The local government ombudsman concluded that the complaint lodged on behalf of a local residents’ association and Save Ecclesbourne Glen (SEG) was upheld “because the council acted with fault in its handling of certain planning and licensing matters” in connection with Rocklands. In view of steps already taken by the council, she did not feel it necessary to offer a further ‘remedy’ or recommendation to HBC.
The matters on which the council was found to be at fault included its handling of the holiday let home known as the Bunker, licensing of the caravan site, developments on the lower slopes of the site where a landslip has now occurred, and tree removals.
The ombudsman said she did not intend to investigate the matter further partly because of evidence that the council wished to learn lessons and avoid a repeat; on the basis of an independent consultant’s assessment of its actions it had drawn up a plan to improve procedures and had it independently monitored. However, it was not part of the ombudsman’s remit to oversee the implementation of the plan, she said.
The finding was welcomed by SEG, which said that this was the first finding of maladministration against HBC since 2001.
Council spokesman Kevin Boorman said, “This case has been ongoing for over two and a half years. The council accepts that it made errors early on in the process, and we have acknowledged that. We were pleased that the Ombudsman found no fault in how we had handled the more recent concerns about Rocklands caravan park.”
Regular contact recommended
While recognising that she was not in a position to tell the council what to do in respect of future communications, the ombudsman recommended that it establish a procedure for keeping in regular contact with the complainants, such as providing monthly updates in writing.
Mr Boorman said, “We are keen to move on, and the council intends to give the Save Ecclesbourne Glen group an annual update on Ecclesbourne Glen issues to ensure that they are kept fully briefed.”
This is not the end of the ombudsman’s involvement in Rocklands. She mentions three issues which she said could not be dealt with as part of the complaint in hand. but could be the subject of separate complaints: the lack of enforcement action by the council to have the lower slopes of the caravan site (on which unauthorised hardstanding and other infrastructure have been installed) returned to their previous state, whether the council has properly corrected its use of minor material amendments, and tree works approved by the council. SEG told HOT that a complaint on the enforcement issue was lodged this week.
Following the recent decision by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) upholding SEG’s complaint about the council’s refusal to supply the site plans for Rocklands and some other local caravan parks, SEG reiterated its request to the council for other documents, notably Coffey’s geo-technical report. It is still awaiting a response.
Back to the ICO
However the group went back to the ICO when the Rocklands site plan supplied by the council following the ICO’s ruling turned out to be, in SEG’s assessment, a wiring diagram dating back to 2007 which was already in the public domain. Prompted by the ICO, the council then supplied a new plan dating from July 2015.
The ICO told SEG that “We have concerns about the council’s failure to identify this information during our investigation and we have advised the council that, in future, it should ensure that proper searches are made for requested information.”
The council is in the throes of negotiating a new site licence for Rocklands, as independent scrutiny has found the current one to be invalid. This is proving a lengthy process: though originally due to be issued in January 2015, the new licence has been delayed due to the complexity of the negotiations, as the council informed the ombudsman.
New planting scheme
Rocklands have now proposed a new planting scheme – planting to screen the Bunker from the sight of visitors to the Country Park was one of the conditions imposed by the planning inspector when allowing their appeal against the planning committee’s refusal of planning permission.
The new scheme, presumably produced at the council’s behest, calls for 12 young oak trees instead of three. SEG, which complained to the council that the original scheme was inadequate, says its criticism applies equally to the new scheme. In particular the oak trees will be located so as to screen the Bunker from the rest of the caravan park but no planting is proposed to screen views of the Bunker from the East Hill or Ecclesbourne Glen.
Under a Freedom of Information request the council has provided SEG with a breakdown of its expenditure on Rocklands to date. Of a total of £91,714, £49,175 has been spent on legal advice, presumably including the bill for legal representation at the appeal, £21,515 on consultancy, £19,973 on reports and studies and £1,050 on repairs. This is not the full cost, SEG says – officer time on the case is not included.
“All this money spent because HBC gave planning permission for the bunker against all local planning policies, failed to monitor developments at Rocklands, ignored public concerns about the developments prior to the landslip and failed to inspect the caravan site for over twenty years,” the group comments.
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