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The Bunker – ever intruding.

Rocklands: Grounds for FoI refusal shown to be untrue

Hastings Borough Council’s record in dealing with the Bunker in Rocklands caravan park is not one to be proud of, involving as it does years of evasion and failure to engage with complaints. Now it is claiming the non-existence of documents that tangibly exist, as Chris Hurrell of Save Ecclesbourne Glen makes clear.

Rocklands’ holiday let building (known as the Bunker) has been controversial for years. In 2015 it was ordered to be demolished by a unanimous decision of HBC Planning Committee, and later again was the subject of a decision by the Planning Inspector on what could stay built. 

Rocklands has since proceeded to ignore the Inspectorate’s conditions in many ways, including building a balcony extension facing East Hill. When this was reported to HBC in March 2020, the Council wrote to Rocklands. Eventually the balcony extension was removed and a retrospective planning application made (HS/FA/20/00470) to vary condition 2 of a strongly contested Appeal. The HBC Planning Committee next meets on 18 November but the application is not on the agenda. It then meets on 2 December.

Responses

In response to a recent Freedom of Information (FOI) request about correspondence on the planning application and the enforcement enquiry alongside, HBC wrote on 3 November: 

“Hastings Borough Council holds no correspondence concerning the unauthorised extended balcony and its subsequent removal.”

This is a false claim, as can easily be shown. The enforcement enquiry (ENF/20/00076) generated correspondence, as did the planning application. There are at least six HBC documents that refer to correspondence between HBC and Rocklands in this matter:  emails of 8 April, 16 May (twice), 25 May, and letters of 10 June and 11 June, with variations on the lines of ‘I have already written to the property Owner regarding the balcony inconsistencies’.

This is one such piece of correspondence:    

 

HBC added in its November FOI response:

There is no unauthorised extended balcony, we believe the owners did temporarily extend one of the balconies and then reverted it back to the approved size.”

The balcony has not been measured, so the assertion is dubious. It’s not likely that the owners would extend the balcony ‘temporarily’.  Perhaps contact from HBC enforcement following reports to them by the Save Ecclesbourne Glen group (SEG) had something to do with the ‘reverting’.    

The balcony extension cannot be classed as a ‘temporary’ structure as it was fixed to the property. (What is the point of a ‘temporary’ balcony on a building that is not occupied?) This constitutes a breach in planning control against the formal decision of the Inspector. What is the Council’s response? 

Another administrative hiccup

The Council officer dealing with the enforcement matter left HBC suddenly in the summer. In September the enquiry was ‘suspended’, until a decision is made on the application. The enquiry of course was to ascertain the issues relating to the application, so that the decision on it would be an informed one. An enforcement enquiry is pointless after the decision is made. The situation gives the appearance of facilitating the development at Rocklands, which is a form of predetermination or bias.

A different excuse

A different FOI request for the enforcement enquiry file met with the contradictory response that it was being refused because the documents related to the ‘course of justice’, under Environmental Information Regulation 12(5)(b).  

Even Regulation 12(5)(b) is untenable as the Council has not shown that disclosure of the documents would have a negative effect on ‘…the ability of a public authority to conduct an enquiry of a criminal or disciplinary nature’. ICO guidance is very clear that it is not enough to suppose that release of the information only might have such an effect:

9 . . . the threshold for establishing adverse effect is a high one, since it is necessary to establish that disclosure would have an adverse effect.

‘Not recorded information’

Given the sustained objections about the balcony width and other problems of the site (such as the unauthorised retaining wall and damage to the Scheduled Ancient Monument), a site visit by committee members would seem advisable but none is known to be planned. The balcony has been inspected ‘visually’ by officers and is said to be ‘2 metres’ deep — though it may well be more. (The Inspector stipulated a maximum depth of two metres.) Against good practice, there is no note or photograph of the balcony. Even more bizarrely, the two metres is said by the planning department to be ‘not recorded information’.

The online file has the case papers and a number of objections. Comments on application HS/FA/20/00470 can still be made by email to dccomments@hastings.gov.uk or directly to the file:

In the Through the Looking-Glass world of HBC, evidence from the public is treated as non-evidence — not read and not considered, not believed and not acted on.  Contrariwise (as Tweedledee would say), non-evidence is treated as evidence. When Rocklands were asked to provide proof about works at the Bunker’s retaining wall, they didn’t (or couldn’t) — but made assertions that HBC readily accepted.

In contrast, submitted photographic proof that the assertions are false has been ignored.

The reputation of the Council’s planning department sinks steadily lower.  Accountability is near non-existent, and prospects of reform remote. This makes a mockery of the Council’s proclaimed policy of openness and transparency. How can reasonable standards of planning be restored? Will the Bunker application be properly assessed?

Posted 15:48 Wednesday, Nov 11, 2020 In: Home Ground

6 Comments

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  1. chris hurrell

    A review of this refusal has been requested. HBC have stated the review will be delayed for an unspecified period of time due to pressures from Covid. It is very likely that the application will be decided before any relevant information is released.

    “Given we are now in lockdown again, pressures of dealing with these issues have taken officers away from day to day duties, therefore, please accept my apologies but there will be a delay in responding to your request.”

    Comment by chris hurrell — Saturday, Nov 28, 2020 @ 07:26

  2. Bryan Fisher

    Sadly this is not a precedent but rather just another example of HBC failing to address genuine concerns. It may be a question of a cabal operating for their perceived ‘greater good’ or it just may be that HBC responds to queries, criticism and evidence by adopting a ‘bunker mentality’. Well now they know where to locate their council cabinet meetings!

    Comment by Bryan Fisher — Monday, Nov 23, 2020 @ 18:01

  3. Bernard McGinley

    Good piece — thanks. Council untruths are the counterpart of Rocklands’ persistent contempt for the planning system, and the insolence of adding a balcony that was expressly forbidden by the Inspector.

    Suspension of the enforcement enquiry is peculiar, and its unreasonable suppression. Why?

    The uncertain (‘not recorded’ except ‘visually’) depth of the balcony is also peculiar. The need is clear for:
    a) a site visit by Councillors
    b) an independent remeasurement of the Bunker
    c) a physical and procedural assessment of the site’s redline area — including the retaining wall which has never been approved, and damage to the Scheduled Ancient Monument.

    The planners know that intentional unauthorised development is a ‘material consideration’. Don’t they?

    Comment by Bernard McGinley — Friday, Nov 13, 2020 @ 11:42

  4. Bolshie

    Noting Mr Madden’s remark how HBC is supposed to be a “democratic body,” makes me believe it is actually more like a Politburo. Information is strictly controlled as are the members to what they can or cannot say. Only one councillor -the late John Hodges – raised issues and questions about the Bunker. No councillor that I know of has ever gone public about this fiasco since. Not even the Conservatives. Democracy and transparency are more or less a mythological item within this institution.
    This current issue concerning the balcony and FOI’s is one of a plethora of those that never got correctly answered. Or took months to get half an answer. Or even one where HBC spent thousands of tax payers money before a Tribunal to bury an FOI request related to the Ecclesbourne landslide
    The energy, time and public money HBC has devoted to defending not only the Bunker but the Rocklands Caravan Park too must run into the millions.
    While in contrast a downtown public toilet was too expensive to maintain ( so they claim ) and had to be demolished.

    Comment by Bolshie — Friday, Nov 13, 2020 @ 08:46

  5. eileen swift

    Perhaps the bunker doesn’t exist. If we close our eyes, we won’t be able to see it. And if we never look that way again we can pretend that we are not in a Kafkaesque story, Ecclesbourne has never been closed and we can all live happily ever after. . . Or perhaps the council will finally come to its senses and put this nightmare situation right.

    Comment by eileen swift — Thursday, Nov 12, 2020 @ 09:31

  6. Michael Madden

    Thanks for outlining this example.

    This council is supposed to be a representative, democratic body. After all, it only exists because we, the taxpayers, fund it, in order (supposedly) that it should represent and protect our best interests.

    It even invites its paymasters (us) to “hold (it) to account”, but when we do (as you have so clearly and concisely tried to do in this case), it uses linguistic tricks in order to avoid a very simple action – to remeasure the balcony – as you and others have requested, in order to prove that the owners of Rocklands’ Holiday Park have not broken the ruling of the Planning Inspector.

    The Lewis Carroll analogy is a good one – but also, George Orwell’s ‘doublespeak’ comes to mind – and Franz Kafka would also recognise these tricks. I found this description of Kafka’s The Castle on Wikipeda: “The Castle is often understood to be about alienation, unresponsive bureaucracy, the frustration of trying to conduct business with non-transparent, seemingly arbitrary controlling systems…”

    Does that ring any bells? How can any Hastings’ taxpayer believe that HBC is NOT an “unresponsive bueaucracy” that exists to cover up for (i.e. to obscure the misdeeds of) the private developer at the expense of the taxpayer?

    Surely this council’s attitude to it’s taxpayers is cynical – It thinks we are mugs. I wish more people would stand up (as you have done for so long) and show them that we are not.

    Comment by Michael Madden — Wednesday, Nov 11, 2020 @ 19:01

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