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Council misleads and censors over pending planning decision

Hastings Borough Council (HBC) has refused – for no applicable reason – to publish objection statements on a planning application being decided on 20 July. The Council’s unevenhandedness is striking. Read it here instead:  there have been unauthorised works in the redline area of a current application. What should be material considerations are treated with dogged disregard by the planning authorities, who are rewriting the past. The site is Rocklands. Bernard McGinley reports on unfeasible lines taken.

Objections to a planning application (case HS/FA/22/00339) for a 

Proposed asphalt surface to existing hardcore access ramp 

are being refused publication, either in whole or in part. This in turn denies relevant information to the members of the Planning Committee, removing meaning and significance objections, and damaging confidence in local processes.

Documents and comments are being suppressed (‘redaction’). Planning objections are being treated as complaints about the Council which they are not (making them subject to different rules, supposedly). Suppressing valid details of the site’s history looks authoritarian and unprofessional.

Neither the HBC Constitution nor the planning regulations give a basis for such treatment. Censoring information in the public domain is a particular affront. Responses to Freedom of Information (FOI) requests and the like are officially and legally regarded as in the public domain. But not in Hastings, where disregard of the HBC Constitution and the Nolan Principles is frequent. As the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has observed:

If the information was exempt from disclosure, we would expect this to be done when the request was submitted, rather than retrospectively engaged once the information has been published.

The Council has published its criteria about comments on planning applications, and there is nothing in the objections that warrants the current heavy-handedness. The website gives no grounds for the censorship, a practice previously noted

A request for information on this case was ignored. Similarly, officers have refused to read any statement longer than a page — a made-up standard. Thus Councillors are screened from objections and from the context of objections. 

The hasty redaction response is seen in another objection to these works that raised the implications of overlapping redline areas (with conflicting conditions), and other contradictions.

Oddly, the HBC comment guidelines do not include planning breaches relating to a site, though these are a material planning consideration. By any standards this is an abuse of procedure by the Council, denying elected members information. 

Instead, reference to unauthorised works in the redline area of a current application is judged irrelevant or unacceptable. This in turn affects HBC ‘s reputation, when the Planning Protocol of the HBC Constitution allows for accuracy and update. The commitment to openness and impartiality (in para 50 for instance) goes unpractised.

Rocklands

The site that particularly shows the poor record of HBC planning is Rocklands Caravan Park.  In October 2014 the Council’s ‘Bahcheli Report’ confirmed what they had already been told by the Save Ecclesbourne Glen campaign (SEG): that the notorious holiday home known as the Bunker was wrong. Bluster about ‘within reasonable tolerances’ was undone by an independent remeasurement that showed

the building was not built in accordance with its consent. It has a greater footprint, the balcony projects further, the whole building has been re-oriented and it is just over 0.5m higher. (para 6.3.2)

The Bunker is still there, but the screening required by a Planning Inspector isn’t. Effective tree protection against gratuitous felling remains an issue.  

SAM and SMC

The site is a Scheduled Ancient Monument (SAM), for its Iron Age hill fort, and for the mediæval St George’s Churchyard on the East Hill. The SAM site extends into Rocklands. The present application lacks Scheduled Monument Consent (SMC) though this is a formal, legal requirement from government-sponsored Historic England.  

Historic England commented on the application:

The existing hardcore ramp was constructed without our consultation and without Scheduled Monument Consent (SMC) in place. It is not possible to achieve retrospective SMC, so the ramp remains unauthorised. We note it is unlawful to undertake such works in a scheduled monument without consent. 

Ramped-up self-interest

In July 2021, following Enforcement query ENF/20/00325, the ramp to the Bunker was stated by an HBC planner to be an ‘unmade track’ of ‘soil and grass’:  no mention of a ramp, which does not have planning permission. It does not get it under the four-year-rule, as photographic evidence shows.

Barefacedly the planning officers’ committee report on the case states :

the laying of hardcore on the ground to form the access ramp has been evident since 2014 

and

The existing ramp has been in situ for well over four years and has been deemed previously by Council officers to be lawful in planning terms. 

How hardcore became soil and grass – and back again – is unexplained.

Application HS/FA/14/01036 was in part for an access ramp and was in 2015 refused permission. The long-running SEG campaign (whose tenacious members include Chris Hurrell and Lynne Okines) found several current issues:

        1. The four-year rule does not make the ramp lawful, merely immune from enforcement action. There is no certificate of lawful use. 
        2. The ramp is not substantially complete, so the four-year rule does not apply. 
        3. The 10-year rule should be used as the ramp was built in specific breach of the refused permission, and in breach of conditions imposed by the Planning Inspector’s permission in 2016. 
        4. The works to date were carried out without obtaining SMC.  Breaches of SMC may remove time limits on enforcement action.

See also the planning case file. The evidence indicates that the ramp was possibly built after the Council’s site visit of December 2020. 

The present application is not even ‘part-retrospective’. The application has contradictions about soakaways, which given the history of local landslides should not be ignored. 

The committee report does not even mention the site being adjacent to a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). This omission has a bearing on the potential hazards to the habitats. 

Previous form

Space does not permit mention of the many lessons clearly never learnt. Consider planning evasion and breach in cases such as HS/FA/20/00470, and HS/FA/19/00172, and EN/15/00028, or HS/TP/18/00769 where information in the public domain was vetored by HBC. There were also decisions of the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), and many HOT articles.  

Sometimes what the Council say is simply unreliable, such as when, according to HBC, protected trees at Shearbarn were felled in 2021 by authority of the Environment Agency — who turned out to know nothing about it.

This follows constitutional ‘adjustment’ some years ago to increased decision-making by officers behind closed doors, under ‘delegated powers’, leaving openness and transparency as a good idea.  

Local democracy

The redactions are increasingly hazardous and dubious. The ‘public interest’ has become HBC convenience. In refusing even to read objections, there’s a faint sign of predetermination, as well as mistreating those objecting.

Room in the window for more democratic results

The present censorship has no valid reasons. Treating planning objections as complaints to the Council is (at best) disingenuous. They should not be arbitrarily limited in length, or refused acceptance, or redacted regarding valid details of the site’s history. Members of the Planning Committee should see such comments, which are not libellous but relevant. 

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Posted 18:09 Sunday, Jul 17, 2022 In: Home Ground

5 Comments

Please read our comment guidelines before posting on HOT

  1. Bryan Fisher

    I was hoping a ‘new broom’ at the top of the cabinet would put to an end these (at best) dubious practices. Perhaps I want too much too soon, but I would want our new leader to express his concern too and commitment to improving matters. Voters have already expressed their continued concern at the lack of transparency and accountability, through switching to other political parties. Come on HBC – start treating us better!

    Comment by Bryan Fisher — Tuesday, Jul 26, 2022 @ 06:58

  2. ken davis

    The farce continues, when will somebody (leader of the Council) do something to put in place proper checks and balances, accountability, and transparency in the HBC planning system?

    Comment by ken davis — Thursday, Jul 21, 2022 @ 08:01

  3. Bernard McGinley

    The Council also deleted the words ‘intentional unauthorised development’ from my objection comment to them. The final paragraph should read:
    14. The application cannot be passed its present form as it lacks collation of relevant information. Please refuse it instead — for reasons including intentional unauthorised development and lack of a retrospective submission.

    Comment by Bernard McGinley — Wednesday, Jul 20, 2022 @ 12:32

  4. chris hurrell

    Mrs Evans (HBC Planning Manager) refused to publish an objection claiming that it conflicts with the HBC complaints policy which limits correspondence to 2 pages. Planning are misusing the complaints policy to prevent objections from being made. They deliberately confuse the complaints policy with the policy governing objections to planning applications.

    When challenged that the complaints policy does not apply to objections Mrs Evans responded that the 2 page limit applies to ALL correspondence sent to HBC.

    The complaints policy does not mention a maximum length of 2 pages. It is ridiculous to claim that ALL correspondence to HBC must be restricted to 2 pages. Mrs Evans is making up policy on the fly with the sole objective of hindering the public’s ability to comment on the application. The planning committee have been informed of this latest act of censorship by unelected officers.

    Planning have also arbitarily declared that a Planning Enforcement Query (by which the public report planning enforcement issues to Planning) can only be a maximum of 2 pages long. There is no constitutional or procedural guidelines in place that restrict objections/queries to 2 pages. Planning Enforcement have refused to read enforcement queries on this basis including a detailled query on the unauthorised ramp where Planning took no action claiming incorrectly that the ramp had been in place for more than 4 years. Planning refuse to read evidence submitted by the public whilst simultaneously accepting the word of the developer without any supporting evidence.

    Comment by chris hurrell — Tuesday, Jul 19, 2022 @ 11:45

  5. Bernard McGinley

    Objection comments made to HBC on Thursday were published on the casefile on Monday.  Redacted paragraphs were: 

    2.  Rocklands’ contempt for the planning process and its neighbours is a notorious part of local history.

    3.  The HBC planning department’s steady indulgence of Rocklands has done it reputational damage, and disregards the ‘Bahcheli Report’ of 2014.  

    4.  In the present case there is censorship of objections for no valid reason.  Treating planning objections as complaints to the Council is (at best) disingenuous.  They are not complaints, subject to different rules.  They should not be arbitrarily limited in length, or refused acceptance, or redacted regarding valid details of the site’s history.  Members of the Planning Committee should see such comments, which are not libellous but relevant. 

    5.  The Council should stand up to repeated procedural abuse by Rocklands and take some enforcement action where appropriate.  The prospect of an appeal need not prevent this.

    There’s no obligation on the Council to agree with any of it, but suppressing these views looks shabby and authoritarian.  

    Comment by Bernard McGinley — Monday, Jul 18, 2022 @ 15:50

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